They came, they mixed, you voted.

Last night seven of Denver’s finest bartenders threw down at the Elevated rooftop of the Halcyon Hotel to be crowned champion of 303 Magazine‘s very first Denver Bartender Challange. The invite-only event welcomed the city to nominate their favorite bartender to compete — only the finalists and those who nominated a bartender got access to the special evening.

Beloved mixologists from some of the city’s finest bars like Nocturne, Death & Co and Adrift, to name a few, were tasked with using Jack Daniel’s Gentlemen Jack Whiskey to create the winning concoction — and here’s what happened:

The bartenders arrived around 5 p.m., locked and loaded with everything from tinctures, syrups, garnishes, shakers and even a few homemade snacks to accompany their drinks. Before the guests began to shuffle in, we spoke with some of the bartenders to get the low-down on what they’d be mixing for the competition.

“Gentlemen Jack has sweetness and a little bit of oakiness and I felt like vinegar and a little bit of spice from Kansas City barbecue would work well with it,” explained Tyler Kinnaird, bartender at The Block Distilling Co. “We’re putting barbeque sauce straight into the drink, then the whole mix gets smoked in a smoker, served with a dry rub rim and garnished with a little beef jerky and a pickle.”

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From smokey and savory to sweet and salty, the drinks were as diverse as the bartenders themselves. Apart from Kinnaird with his barbeque infusion, we had Keeley Sutherland from Death & Co serving her riff on a classic cobbler using white port, TJ Vong from Mizu Izakaya serving The Page Master — a purple and green concoction inspired by a chartreuse swizzle, Jenn Freeman from Nocturne serving a maple syrup infused, summertime sipper served in a crystal gravy boat, Cory Leicester from Retrograde serving a Palisade peach inspired tiki drink, Giovanni Fiorama from Adrift and Pony Up serving a Gentlemen Jack infused, deconstructed banana meringue pie and Chris Camp from Corinne serving his twist on a Smokey Robinson using whiskey, thyme and egg white.

Each had their own cabana, equipped with sampling cups, a voting station and each competitor’s unique decorations. As people began to pour in they got to work, shaking and mixing drinks for hundreds of thirsty voters. For more than three hours the competitors gave it their all to earn one of three voting tickets given to each guest upon arrival. And while each drink offered something uniquely delicious, only one walked away the winner — Mr. Leicester from Retrograde with his Palisade peach cocktail.

Following cheers and applause, the Retrograde bartender was soon greeted with a massive bottle of Gentlemen Jack and awarded the grand prize — a roundtrip flight, including hotel stay, to Los Angeles for three nights to visit the invite-only Room No. 7,  baseball tickets and concert tickets.

“It’s a tiki-inspired cocktail that focuses on the flavors you’d find in a peach cobbler using Colorado peaches,” explained Leicester. “It’s a hot summer night in Colorado on a rooftop so the two categories I hit here are tiki and culinary. Gentlemen Jack has really strong undertones of vanilla and caramel so with that I wanted to stay local by making a citric acid palisade peach pure. And the culinary inspiration is a classic peach crumble. So to hit those notes that you get in a peach crumble and gave it a buttery characteristic by putting a brown butter fat wash on an Italian amaro.”

Jack and the Western Peach, the winning drink, was served in a tall pilsner glass over crushed ice, garnished with scorched cinnamon, a fanned Colorado peach, citrus blossom and plated with spiced and candied walnuts. And if that weren’t enough, Leicester even served his spiced nuts as a snack for the voters — something that he believes played a part in his success. And while Jack and the Western Peach was created for a one-night cocktail competition, Leicester plans to feature the drink on his menu at Retrograde and may even keep it on board permanently.

“I worked really hard to put balance, depth and character in this cocktail and it was a fun thing to see peoples reaction to that,” Leicester stated with a winning smile. “We’re going through a big menu change right now and we’re definitely going to feature it,” Leicester said.” Will it become a mainstay? I don’t know, well see what happens.” 

Didn’t make it last night? Make sure to keep your eye peeled for future events and to start thinking of who’d you nominate.

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All photos by Giacomo Di Franco. 

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