- Griffin Swartzell
- Even bagged, 503W’s cocktails work.
Restaurants operate on narrow margins even in good times; that’s no secret. So Gov. Jared Polis’ announcement that restaurants with bars could sell alcohol to-go with food was, for some restaurant businesses, the difference between just prolonging the inevitable and having a real chance of surviving the lockdown. According to Cody Rilo, co-owner at vegan dive The Burrowing Owl, they had a loyal enough customer base, but the day that announcement was made, their sales doubled. The Owl serves vegan, organic, non-GMO food, so their supply cost is higher than most, she says. In better times, they kept their prices lower despite narrow profit margins on food by making up the difference in bar sales.
These days their cocktail menu remains roughly the same as when they hosted their usual crowds. But when we order our Masked Owl cocktail, we have to choose between buying a 32-ounce or a 64-ounce bottle. Rather than sell individual portions in to-go cups, The Burrowing Owl has moved to bulk drinks, as well as selling mixed six-packs of their massive canned beverage selections. It seems to be a sound decision for the bar, allowing customers to load up on their favorite cocktails while giving the Owl more cash per transaction in the short term. Plus, the Owl has been selling their drinks in sterilized bottles they’ve used behind the bar — reuse being a form of recycling that fits into their way of doing business.
The menu says the 32-ounce Masked Owl makes about five servings. It’s a simple drink: a mix of well gin and house-made ginger beer. But that ginger beer has some magic in it. Specifically, the magic of making a ginger beer that doesn’t taste like somebody’s spice cabinet but, rather, like straight, clean, fresh ginger. It’s got a good level of that lovely rhizome burn, but it’s not just burn. It presents the full flavor of the ginger root with just enough citrus kick, juicy and fresh enough for summer, warm enough for winter, with the gin playing a minor flavor role. And at $30 per quart bottle, it’s as much of a steal as it was when the Owl was open.
Of many other area bars selling takeout hooch, 503W has taken a similar approach. They are offering bottles of pre-mixed cocktails, priced at $5 per serving. When we stop in, GM/bar manager Emillio Ortiz shows us bottles of some favorites that they’ve batched out, drinks like their 24 Karrot cocktail or a bottle labeled “negronis for the homies,” stashed behind a bar lined with packaged wine and sake, also for sale. They’re also selling smaller batch cocktails, vacuum-sealed in FoodSaver bags, labeled with simple instructions like “serve over ice” and sold in portions for two or four. Ortiz keeps a few around, but he says that with notice, he can batch out anything that was on his old menu, as long as it didn’t have soda in it. Even then, he’s offering vacuum-sealed mules as a two-part kit, the pouched alcohol hanging from a half-liter bottle of Fever Tree ginger beer.
We pick up a black walnut Old Fashioned for two, a drink we know reasonably well. It comes with plastic condiment cups, each holding a Luxardo cherry and a section of orange peel. Per the package, we split the cocktail over ice — it’s pre-shaken, so that’s all it needs — and finish by adding the cherry and expressing the orange peel before dropping it in. It’s as good as we remember, sweet, nutty, bitter and complex.