Why Salt Lake City's Cocktail Scene Deserves Your Attention
Despite Utah’s cumbersome restrictions on alcohol, distilleries and breweries are thriving.
When Salt Lake hosted the Olympics in 2002, the area established itself as an international destination for winter sport. But if you’re coming here expecting some overgrown ski town, get ready for a big surprise. This is a city with cosmopolitan yearnings as grand as the snowcapped peaks that backdrop its skyline. Nowhere is this more evident than in the local cocktail scene.
Despite Utah’s cumbersome restrictions on alcohol, distilleries and breweries are thriving in and around its capital region. Artfully assembling these liquids is a rapidly expanding set of exuberant tastemakers, defying preconceived notions with each turn of the shaker.
“A lot of people, from out of town, come into the bar and immediately ask questions about state liquor laws,” observes Mike Askerlund, a native bartender who opens Alibi, later this summer. “They have this impression that Salt Lake hates drinking, which makes me laugh. The Salt Lake City government supports its city’s nightlife.”
Rolling down Broadway on a Thursday evening provides all the evidence you need. The wide thoroughfare is dotted with hip hangouts, each offering its own distinct vibe. At Under Current, patrons enjoy ingredient-focused medleys in a loft-like atmosphere, where the extensive menu is broken down by spirit. Their Pollen in Love combines gin, sparkling wine and lavender bitters into a soothing aperitif. Local rum is spun into off-beat tiki arrangements.
“We make all our modifiers from scratch, including our House Tonic, which utilizes fresh lemongrass, grapefruit, lemon, lime, and orange,” explains GM Andrew Cliburn. “We use local products from the market — everything from parsley to pear — and continue to seek out new ways to express and enhance our carefully selected liquor selection.”
It helps, of course, to have close relations with the local producers. And charismatic craftsmen such as Chris Barlow of Beehive Distilling are easy to embrace. Bottles of his vibrant, sage-infused gin and hand-distilled organic vodka are abundant on back bars across town. “I think being the first local producer of gin in Utah — since prohibition — we were welcomed in an enthusiastic way, from friends and industry experts alike.”
A strong sense of community is on display all along the liquor shelf. Whether it's the iconic iridescent bottles of High West whisky — Utah’s first and foremost brown spirit producer — or more esoteric offerings, such as the Old World liqueurs of Waterpocket Distillery, Salt Lake bartenders are eager to take care of their own. As are the folks sitting on the other side.
“Most of our customers drink local,” says Will Sartain, owner of the Urban Lounge. As a live music venue with an endearing divey-ness, this was never the setting for stuff more elaborate than whatever’s on tap. But nowadays everyone is thirsty for something more serious. “Our local distillery brands have seen a large jump over the past 10 years. We’ve graduated into more of a whiskey and beer kind of place.” Use a good enough whiskey, and even a boilermaker can be considered a craft cocktail.
In its finest bars, SLC demonstrates the knowledge and enthusiasm necessary to prepare expert drinks, while dialing down the self-importance found in too many a coastal cosmopolis. For a great example head to Bar-X, which has evolved into something of a weekend institution since opening in 2010. Big and boisterous, the vibe here is playful while the drinks — mostly revamped classics — are altogether serious.
Nowhere, though, regards drinking with the same degree of seriousness as the city’s fine dining establishments. The evolution of cocktail culture around here is pegged to the contemporary proliferation of high-end eateries. “The last five to six years, the food scene really upped its game,” notes Barlow. “With so many quality restaurants coming on board, the cocktails scene has quickly followed.”
At Stanza, a sleek Italian bistro serving sausage-stuffed arancini and house-made pastas, bar and kitchen are afforded equal emphasis. Above a list of seasonally focused cocktails, a permanent section of menu is dedicated to Negroni variations. The Beehive is named after Barlow’s sturdy barrel-aged gin, combined here with Carpano Antica, and Cappelletti — an amaro made from rhubarb. These slightly bitter-forward arrangements are effective aperitifs. Post-dinner features ‘digestivi’, where Toadstool — a local amaro — and Gewürztraminer grappa are served neat, or built into chilled and tidy sippers.
TableX is perennially in the conversation of city’s best restaurants. Their cocktail menu is concise by design; constructed specifically to enhance the garden-derived nuance characterizing a five-course chef’s tasting menu. The Blood Orange Sour is fun and frothy on its own, thanks to its namesake fruit, and the bold application of High West Double Rye. But a finishing touch of toasted spice and Maldon salt allows the drink to kick up the richness in a house-made burrata, and to elongate the umami in a Mushroom Fricassee. This is hardly a coincidence. It’s the result of honed synergy between a skillful chef and a precise mixologist.
A healthy community is one that’s always pushing forward. Even though Salt Lake City has come a long way in a short time, its drink-makers seem unwilling to rest on those laurels. They lean on each other for inspiration, embracing the excitement of a nascent scene, as it actively defines itself. “No, we are not San Francisco or NYC,” Barlow proclaims, unapologetically. “But for a city of this size, the talent is here, and it’s coming alive. It’s evolving as we speak.”