If you’re a cocktail aficionado in the Springs, you’ve likely enjoyed Stephen Winchell’s handiwork. Winchell has been immersed in the local food and beverage scene since 19 years of age (he’s now 25), starting at Blue Star, a bygone restaurant that helped spearhead Colorado Springs’ culinary renaissance. He soon moved into bartending at Urban Steam and then Brooklyn’s on Boulder (Lee Spirits’ tasting room). Now you’ll find him working at The Warehouse, the Burrowing Owl and The Archives.
Winchell won the cocktail competition at Taste of Pikes Peak in April, aka the 24th Pikes Peak Food, Wine and Beer Expo. And he recently attended Tales of the Cocktail, an annual spirits festival in New Orleans that hosts thousands of bartenders in the historic French Quarter.
We sat down with the mixologist days after his educational visit to Louisiana to talk about his inspirations, favorites and the craft of his cocktails.
Springs: How was Tales of the Cocktail?
Stephen Winchell: It was my first time. There were so many opportunities—from seminars to pop-up bars with bartenders from Thailand, Mexico City [and] all over.
What was most impressive?
Alexandre Gabriel’s presentation. He’s with Plantation Rum [and] innovative in the use of stills. I also went to the famous Carousel Bar. It’s beautiful, and, of course, I ordered a vieux carré while there. [The 1930s New Orleans original is named for the city’s French Quarter.]
And I went to Tujague’s, a restaurant established in the 1850s. They make a great sazerac, another New Orleans’ cocktail, [built with] cognac, absinthe, sugar and Peychaud’s Bitters.
What was the take-away from Tales?
A perspective change: [seeing] the truest representation of brands. They bring their master distillers—their artists.
If you can choose, what’s your favorite cocktail?
The one that always comes to mind is the last word. It has my favorite ingredients: It’s equal parts gin, green chartreuse, Luxardo maraschino and fresh lime. It shouldn’t balance as well as it does.
I also really love drinks that are vermouth or fortified wine based, so the Americano: Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water with an orange twist.
There’s also this cocktail that was made for an old stage musical called Adonis, which is manzanilla sherry, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, stirred with a lemon twist, served up like a Manhattan.
Oh, and the Rob Roy … basically, a scotch Manhattan.
Who has influenced you most in your career?
Sophie Yoneoka. She’s a sommelier at The Broadmoor. She got me the job at Blue Star. Nate Windham, who developed Lee Spirits’ menu at Brooklyn’s on Boulder; he’s in Virginia now. [And] Luis Rodriguez; he tended bar at The Famous and now is at The Archives.
What are your bartending principles?
Knowing your product. If you don’t know your ingredients, you’re not going to [handle] them correctly or with respect. [Also,] let your palate shine—people will come for your taste. Finally, attention to detail and consistency.
What do you enjoy most about tending bar?
The history [and] elements. Also the way food, alcohol and social experience can make somebody’s night.
Had you competed before in Taste of Pikes Peak?
No, but I’ve participated in a regional competition called Last Slinger Standing with bartenders from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, who all showdown through a bracket system. At the time, I was with Brooklyn’s and traveled with Ian Lee, co-owner of Lee Spirits.
I also competed in a national competition [sponsored by] Heaven Hill Distillery, who makes Elijah Craig and Rittenhouse.
How many drinks did you make for Taste of Pikes Peak?
The first round was your planned cocktail [with a] choice between Herradura Silver or Old Forrester Rye. I opted for tequila. I used jicama, [thinking] it’d [compliment] the tequila. I added lemon and aquafaba, the starchy water chickpeas are canned in. I made bitters with coffee, cacao, coriander and cumin—a lot of things going on in there, but everything worked together really well.
For the second round, we were given a mystery ingredient aloe and had to use the remaining spirit, which, for me, was rye. Aloe and tequila pair well, but aloe and rye whiskey is hard. I knew I had to brighten it up and go in a sour direction. The drink was aloe, watermelon, lemon, sugar, salt, habanero, ginger and rye.
Which was better?
The overall winner was the combined scores of both rounds. I won the prepared cocktail round and Rebecca [Moon] received the highest score for the other. I [was awarded] with the highest points [overall].
And what did you name your winning drink?
Flor de Mayahuel. Mayahuel is an adored Aztec goddess, and her name comes from the agave genus. She has a strong presence within tequila and mezcal in Mexico. The whole idea of my cocktail was to try to work with ingredients from Mexico, while also thinking of desert sunsets: the experience of standing in that region. The cocktail is a distilled spirit combined with history, culture and ideology.
DIY Stephen Winchell’s Original Flor de Mayahuel
1 1/2 ounce Herradura Blanco
1 1/4 ounce jicama-almond syrup
3/4 fresh lemon
1/2 ounce aquafaba
4 dashes coffee bitters
Shake hard and double strain
Garnish with ground cinnamon, coriander and coffee bitters