In Aspen, Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar is where the heart is
Aspen has never had a shortage of places to imbibe. There’s après-ski spots, saloons, swanky hotel and restaurant bars, taprooms and a plethora of TV-equipped joints geared toward sports enthusiasts.
Something was missing, however, and Wendy Mitchell, proprietor of the phenomenally successful Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop, had an idea of what might fill the void. She’d long dreamed of opening a “craft cocktail bar,” so when the dank basement space (previously a series of nondescript dives) beneath the restaurant became available, Mitchell seized the opportunity.
“I love the idea of basement bars. Done right, they can feel cozy as opposed to creepy,” she says. Aspen was also ripe for a small, independent watering hole owned by a longtime local. Hooch’s emphasis on spirits— don’t fret, there’s also a well-appointed list of mostly Colorado craft beers and a solid wine list—also filled a void in the drinking scene.
“We felt Aspen had room for something else,” says Hooch’s general manager, Lindze Letherman. Indeed, the bar attracts everyone from off-duty restaurant and bar employees to longtime locals and visitors who love the easygoing vibe, friendly bartenders and expertly crafted libations.
When Hooch opened in May 2016, it was an instant hit. Gone was the aroma of rancid grease of bar food gone by; the Formica-topped tables and beer-soaked carpet were also history. In their place was a lively, meticulously curated jewel box. The exposed brick back bar supported long glass shelves of bottles displayed like museum artifacts; the lighting is dim and supplied by a combination of candlelight and vintage chandeliers.
With the help of Pam Weber of Basalt’s Weber Interior Design, the space was transformed in just eight weeks into what more closely resembles a home den: There are nooks for hanging out, communal tables and worn leather couches that invite lounging. Ornate leather chairs in dusky blue bump up against rough-hewn wooden side tables; gold leaf mirrors, candles and groupings of paintings glow in the soft light.
Every aspect of Hooch, from the furniture and art to the vintage crystal barware, has been sourced by Mitchell from consignment shops and antique stores around the world (an ongoing process, says Letherman).
“The little details in this place amaze me,” she says. “Even the renovation materials have a story: The bar top is made of local barn wood, while the base is made from the barn doors.”
Perhaps the fact that Hooch is composed of elements pulled from so many different lives is what in part makes it so welcoming. Says Letherman, “We wanted to be everybody’s bar. I know that’s a lot to ask for—you can’t be everything to everybody—but our goal has always been to be unpretentious and make our guests feel comfortable. You can order a beer or throw a complicated custom order at us. If you want to geek out, we employ some of the most knowledgeable bartenders in town, starting with bar manager Pat Flanagan.”
Cultivating talent … and craft
In a transient place like a ski town, finding skilled workers who stick around is a tall order, but that’s not the only challenge employers and managers face. Says Letherman, who joined Hooch in the early planning stages, “In Aspen, it’s really hard to find staff who care, and this is also a tough industry. We’re so fortunate—at peak season there’s only nine of us, and most have been here since day one. We’re definitely a family; even on my days off, it’s still my favorite place to hang out.”
That collaborative, familial ethos comes from the top. Before she moved to Colorado, Mitchell ran a successful chain of burrito restaurants in her native Houston. Now, two decades later, she’s a thriving Aspen entrepreneur with an eye for talent.
“Wendy cultivates people,” says Letherman. “She has a reputation for valuing her employees’ quality of life and nurturing their passion for their craft. She’ll be the first one in the door and the last to leave; she’ll fix the dishwasher or clean the grease trap if that’s what needs to get done.”
Letherman even left a job she loved for an opportunity to work for Mitchell. “My background is in restaurants; prior to this, I was the GM at the Grey Lady. It was a great experience, but I applied for this position because I wanted to work for Wendy, not because I knew anything about running a bar. I’m grateful she took a chance on me.”
Letherman’s husband, Adam Etchegoyen, is a certified sommelier at Casa Tua and she notes, “We have a disproportionately high number of Master Sommeliers (MS) in Aspen and Hooch has become a kind of hub for people studying for their MS exams.”
There’s also Hooch’s ability to morph from intimate living room to spontaneous house party. “Our happy hour is one of the best in town (think $5 pick-your-poison Mules and well drinks and $3 Fernet shots and draft Pilsners, as well as discounted bar snacks),” says Letherman, “And the vibe gets grittier late night. People start to crave something different, more of a social club. We fill up with F & B [food and beverage] people, everyone starts table-hopping, furniture gets moved around, sometimes there’s dancing.” Or, as Mitchell says, “We’re like your living room, only more fun.”
To fuel all of that festivity, Hooch’s back bar is stocked with one of the most eclectic curations in the Valley. From cachaca to Louis XIII Cognac; The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky to exquisitely pricey Yamazaki Mizunara Whisky, there’s plenty of picks for spirit aficionados.
The bar menu changes every spring and fall, and includes seasonal housemade syrups and infusions. This time of year, you’ll find Calvados apple or habanero honey syrup, or black pepper–coriander compound (a “simple syrup with a few extra steps,” says Letherman). Take the chill off with a Jalisco Campfire (smoky Chinese tea–infused Olmeca Altos Plata Tequila, lime, Thai chile agave syrup, black lava salt rim) or a Local Colorado Cocktail (A.D. Law’s Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Marble Distilling Co. Midnight EXpresso, Peach Street Distillers Amaro, coffee bean garnish).
“We could literally do an all-Colorado spirits bar,” says Letherman, “but that wasn’t our goal. We carry what we think has the best quality—for example, I think Woody Creek Distillers’ gin is the most underrated on the market.”
Every bar needs snacks, and while the bar program at Hooch is separate from that of Meat & Cheese “there’s unquestionably a sisterhood,” says Letherman. “Former chef David Wang [current chef Carson Kennedy is a 2018 Edible Aspen Local Hero] consulted on our winter menu and we’ve added things like Korean brisket and Thai coconut dip. The Dan Dan noodles— chewy housemade strands mixed with spicy ground beef and cucumber—and our selection of other dips, warm nuts and cheesy sriracha popcorn will remain.”
Delicious bites and booze aside, Letherman says, “Hooch is special for so many reasons, but I think our success is about the people. The staff I consider friends and the patrons who frequent this unique little space give it a diversity and charm that always make for a fun time. You never really know what you’re walking into when you visit. You just have to head downstairs and follow the adventure.”
GO FIND IT!
Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar
301 E. Hopkins Ave.