A jolly man in a Santa hat and pajama pants festooned with Christmas trees anchored the bar at Carver Brewing Co. one recent night. He wasnt St. Nick himself no beard but he was a mesmerizing stand-in for the good cheer he brought to the mellow scene of mostly men drinking beer in the back.
He was, rather, Dave Cuntz, the chef at the popular local hangout, restaurant and bar. Leave it to a man with the palate of Thomas Keller to guide you through Carvers menu of holiday drinks and beers.
Beyond the religious, the commercial and the familial aspects of the holiday season is the sheerly celebrational. Hanukkah and Christmas are over, the shopping is done and only a few family and guests linger. Its time to get out and have fun. Durangos bars and restaurants, from the finest to the diviest, are ready to help you revel.
For himself, Cuntz recommends the Whiskey Wonderland, one of his own creations made of maple syrup, vanilla, whiskey and milk shaken over ice and finished with nutmeg. Its smooth, tasty and not nearly as sweet as it sounds.
The warm Whiskey Cider is a concoction tailor-made for the casual, laid-back vibe at Carvers, so simple you can actually try it at home. Fill a mug with organic apple cider, warm it in the microwave, add a jigger of bourbon, a splash of peach schnapps and a cinnamon stick, and voila, instant seasonal drink. And a fairly harmless one at that, compared with many of the holidays high-octane potions.
Carvers co-owner Mike Hurst veers to the beer side of the business and is particularly proud of their high-alcohol Brandywine Ale, which he describes as tangy, hoppy, citrusy and permeated with notes of currant and cherry flavors (not to fear, it still tastes like beer). He likes to pair it with bread pudding or crème brulee for a holiday dessert.
Beer and bread pudding who knew?
Over at Lady Falconburghs Barley Exchange, the dessert comes in a glass. The Raspberry Mudslide has everything a sweet hound could want, with Chambord, Kahlua and Baileys mingling with half-and-half and bolstered by Grey Goose vodka, a celebration drink indeed. Have a driver handy.
For those not quite so bold, the bar offers a variety of warm holiday drinks, including the Snuggler, a cozier version of the traditional hot chocolate, fortified with a shot of peppermint schnapps.
Steamworks Brewing Co., steady as always during a weekday happy hour, honors the season with their Spruce Goose beer, an amber-colored drink with a piney taste on the tongue and a 9.1 percent alcoholic kick. Vikings supposedly used spruce to preserve their preferred drink.
Current Vikings are fond of another libation, the Powder Daze porter, heavy, dark and smoky in flavor, but lighter in the power punch at a mere 6.5 percent alcohol. Whoever said beer is food all that healthy hops and barley had this beer in mind.
But for a true flavor of the holiday season, server Aaron Albosta likes a cocktail called the Christmas Tree, made up of Baileys and Fireball whiskey with cinnamon.
You give that to people and they say, Holy crap, that tastes like Christmas, he said.
But Christmas has passed, and were looking forward to New Years. And we know what it tastes like.
Bubbles is the way to go, said Alan Cuenca, owner of the downtown wine shop, Put a Cork in It. Champagne is always the best way to start a party.
Hard to argue with that and the great thing about the holidays, you can find it everywhere from office parties to affordable restaurants. Cuenca carries a sparkling rosé from the Loire Valley by Bouvet, at $18, dry enough to serve with chocolate but substantial enough to stand on its own as a cocktail. And for more of a splurge, he offers the toasty, yeasty and elegant Aubrey Premier Cru, a true Champagne, for $48.
But New Years holds other flavors, too.
At Sutcliffe Vineyards, based out of Cortez and sporting a tiny tasting room in downtown Durango, the winemaker just released its first-ever port, the Doce Pecado, for $25. The garnet-hued elixir is sweetness itself, with the depth and richness only an after-dinner drink made from 100 percent cabernet grapes, aged 10 years and finished in French oak barrels can impart. Of course if youre just looking for a killer red wine to go with your holiday meal, they sell the smooth, dark and tannin-heavy 2008 Petit Verdot for $28.
But if youre looking for novelty, The Office Spiritorium in the Strater Hotel has just installed an intriguing-looking absinthe bar called the Perfect Pour. The machine goes through an elaborate process of dripping water over a sugar cube before its filled with the anise-flavored liqueur, clouding the beverage just as water added to ouzo does.
Beverage supervisor Andrew Ryznak recommends the absinthe drink called the OMG, made with crème de cacao, the vanilla-infused liqueur Tuaca, a splash of half-and-half and mint-muddled sugar, shaken and strained.
We made that up. No one is doing that around here, he said.
For the less adventuresome, The Office also offers the America Honey hot toddy, with Honeyville honey, Wild Turkey honey whiskey blend, hot water and a squeeze of lemon. If that doesnt warm you up on a harsh Durango winter night, nothing will.
For the daytime hours, you can head to Eno Wine Bar, a wine, coffee and tapas bar that offers good cheer from night to day and serves creative cocktails the duration. The Dolce Chocolina, a version of a chocolate martini, includes vanilla vodka, plain vodka and crème de cacao, topped with heavy cream and a chocolate-dipped strawberry. For something other than the tried-and-true hot toddy, Eno sells the Toddy Picante, with black cherry cardamom bourbon, Canton ginger liqueur, honey, a dash of clove, lemon, hot water and cayenne pepper.
So why do bars and restaurants go to all this trouble for the sake of a holiday drink, a nostalgic flavor? Do people really drink differently at the holidays than they do the rest of the year?
They do, say the owners of Durangos drinking and dining establishments.
People want to feel the holiday spirit, said Alison Dance, owner of Eno and Cyprus Cafe. They come here to visit and to play and celebrate and we should help them.
Amen to that.