A Boulevardier is a simple cocktail. One-and-a-half ounces of bourbon, an ounce of Campari, and an ounce of sweet vermouth. Stirred, served up. It's a sexy, man-about-town playboy, birthed by the Manhattan and Negroni family. And without this cocktail, Kevin Burke and Brian Smith wouldn't be running the two-man circus show behind the stick at Colt & Gray. Like two sides of the same coin, this duo brings cocktail magic to Denver.
Kevin Burke is young gun in Denver's cocktail scene. While still in his late 20s, Burke's soul matches his palate: old, geeky, and a tad dark. Wyoming-born, New York City-trained Burke is a walking dichotomy. A principal ballet dancer by day and a bartender by night, he lives in the world of artistic interpretation and passion. Burke is the cornerstone to Colt & Gray's bar, the artistic director of the bar program, if you wish. "It's culinary-driven," explains Burke, "I greatly enjoy putting the parts together to bring the guest pleasure, whether it's a gin cocktail or opening a can of Olympia." Like any bartender worth his salt, Burke constantly tinkers. Whether he's researching new trends, partnering on new projects, brewing beers with local purveyors, Burke strives to have his patron walk away learning or tasting something new.
Enter Brian Smith. New to Denver, Smith hails from Seattle's hot restaurant scene where he worked his way from the Hunt Club in the Sorrento Hotel to Matt Janke's Lec?sho, gathering a deep love for Italian wines and spirits along the way. Like Burke, Smith's second calling is through acting and the artistic expression is visible in both of his crafts. Smith is also a bona fide hospitalitarian. "Hospitality is all about finding the best possible time," he says. "It's individualized to your own intuition as to what is going to make the guest the most happy and comfortable," Smith adds. He constantly ponders ways to improve the guest's experience. On his first night at Colt & Gray, a regular ordered Colt & Gray's famed you-call-it Bartender's Choice cocktail: brown, bitter, and stirred. With a wink, Smith began to effortlessly jigger out the Boulevardier. Burke stood in the back, slack-jawed, as he saw his favorite cocktail measured out. It was the moment that sealed the Hall & Oates-like chemistry between these two.
Once Burke and Smith step behind the bar together, the Statler-and-Waldorf comedy act begins. Smith disarms with both his genuine laugh and earnest desire to transform the guest's experience. Burke, on the other hand, draws back the curtain of the cocktail world and makes it easy and approachable. One fundamental goal binds them: making sure the diners' experience is magical. Regulars giddily saddle up to the bar, privy to the secret that they're about to try or learn something new and first-timers seem to sense that something special is about to happen. Burke and Smith glide behind the bar like a well-choreographed show that transports guests back to piano bar times. With jovial snippets of quotes and quips, all while cranking out craft cocktails, the two entice patrons to play and explore the depth or breadth of drinking culture. Those who experience this always return.
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span class="credit">Colt & Gray Bartenders Brian Smith and Kevin Burke [Photography by Jennifer Olson]