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Sensi Magazine

Tasty Tasting Rooms in Denver

Aug 23, 2016 04:05PM ● By John Lehndorff
So there I was, inhaling scented oxygen and sipping on a blueberry water kefir when I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror behind the bar at Tonic Herban Lounge. I guess nobody ever looks great with a cannula stuck in their nose, but when everyone around you is wearing one, well—you go with it.

One key to a memorable tasting room experience is to embrace it all—the rituals, the history, the equipment, the terminology, and the ambience. It helps to have an open mind when you take your first sip of “archie” kava from a bowl at Denver’s Kavasutra. The greyish liquid has an odd root-like flavor and slightly numbs your tongue.

Tasting rooms for craft breweries and distilleries have proliferated, and big festivals draw crowds almost every weekend in the Denver metro area. However, consuming is not tasting. Whether you are quaffing ale, kava, or whiskey, you hit the point where your ability (and desire) to pay attention drops pretty fast. At the following out-of-the-ordinary Colorado tasting rooms, your guide is often the person who brewed the perry, kept the bees, crushed the Riesling grapes, or roasted the coffee beans. Ask them what they taste, smell, and feel when sampling the beverage.

{1} Oxygen and Jun: Open 15 years, TONIC HERBAN LOUNGE is best known as an oxygen bar where you buy scented O2 in 10-minute increments. Many a tourist who ignored warnings about the altitude has been revived here, along with some who simply overindulged the night before. The subdued lighting, meditative music, cool vibe, and couches make relaxing hard to avoid. I hooked up to the oxygen (with my personal disposable cannula) with lavender-accented “Joy,” one of many aromatherapy blends. The packed 12-page menu is only available as plastic-covered sheets in a binder and not online. Besides hot tea, French press coffee, organic wine and sake, and various cocktail combinations with added potions and herbal elixirs, the roster features jun. Jun is a slightly effervescent drink like kombucha, fermented from green tea and honey. Tonic’s water kefir is fermented from water and fruit juice or honey, not milk. I did over-hear some only-in-Boulder, otherworldly conversations but I saw no one at Tonic glued to their smartphone (including me). I departed feeling nicely rebooted.
2011 10TH STREET

{2} Kava: It makes a certain sense to locate a bar celebrating South Seas tranquility in one of the noisiest, grittiest urban stretches in Denver. Colfax disappears when you walk into K AVASUTRA with its cool feel, mesmerizing flatscreen videos, and pulsating ambient tunes. Kavasutra, part of a five-location group, serves kava, a legal island root that is made into a beverage found to be relaxing and good for calming anxiety. Two varieties are sipped from plastic bowls that look like coconut shells. Milder tasting Van Kava and the manlier Archie Kava are served in single, double, and triple pours. I had an Archie and felt a mild, pleasant sense of well-being. To avoid flavor qualms, enjoy a frozen kava piña colada or margarita or stay simultaneously perky with a “Kavachino” made with cold-brew coffee. The menu also includes hot teas including matcha and yerba mate and bowls of acai sorbet, granola, coconut flakes, banana, bee pollen, and honey. The bar’s $1 happy hour is at 1 p.m. and 1 a.m. but the kava must be gulped down by 1:01 p.m. or a.m. to get that price.

{3} Perry and Cider: Benjamin Franklin had the right idea. “It’s indeed bad to eat apples. It’s better to turn them all into cider,” the founding father wrote. Hard apple cider is now the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage in the U.S., but sadly most of those are sweet commercial cider beverages. STEM CIDERS in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood is just the ticket to alter your perception of how fruit-based beverages can taste. Order your flight of four semi-dry, lightly fizzy ciders at the bar and settle in to sample the range of tastes from red Zinfandel barrel-aged Le Chêne to Branch & Bramble brewed with raspberries. My favorites are the seasonal dry perry, made from pears and aged in French oak, and the game-changing NovoCoffee Cider, great coffee cold brewed in apple cider. Every week, small firkins of experimental flavors such as Straw-
berry Basilare are tapped. Me? I’m coming back for the monthly cider pairing with four flavors of  freshly baked minipies.

{4 } Port: Almost everything about BALISTRERI VINEYARDS is a surprise for first-time visitors. Start with its location near a power plant in an industrial neighborhood off of I-270, where the winery sticks out as a cool wooded oasis with a winery tasting room, patio, and event center. Winemaker John Balistreri favors rich flavors, ripe fruit, and a slightly higher alcohol content that charm visitors wondering about Colorado wines. He started me off with a not-sweet 2015 Colorado Riesling—nice spicy floral aroma—and continued with his 2015 Colorado Sangiovese and 2014 American Tempranillo (using some grapes from a family farm in California). Another revelation is a worth-the-drive lunch menu starring crusty bread and olive oil, salumi and cheese boards with lots of tasty grilled and marinated vegetables, plus hot Italian sausage with peppers and avocado soup. Finish up with a tour of the cool downstairs barrel room that includes kegs of dessert-like Colorado Cherry Wine aged in Stranahan’s Whiskey barrels and a wonderful aged Port.
1946 E. 66TH AVE

{5} Coffee: Are you a cupping virgin? Do you know your full-bodied Ulos Batak beans from your juicy Ojo de Agua? One of the best ways to elevate your coffee consciousness is to experience one of the Friday tastings at Denver’s NOVO COFFEE. A cupping of various beans and roasts with the head roaster really helps you identify what you’ve always been tasting in your morning mug. The group tour includes the roasting room, and attendees leave with a bag of fresh coffee beans. Reservations are required.

{6} Mead: MEDOVINA, one of Colorado’s finest makers of honey wine, doesn’t have a tasting room, but meadmaster Mark Beran offers private group seminars at the Niwot meadery, where Medovina’s bees produce the honey it uses to make mead. If all you know about mead is that it is too cloyingly sweet, Medovina offers an eye-opening range of styles from the off-dry Classic Mead—a rich, earthy, and floral sipper—to the lighter, easy-drinking Summer Solstice that’s best served chilled. These tastings also allow visitors a sip of exotics like Stinging Rose Mead infused with local rose petals. A tour of the bee yard and production area is included. Bonus: Free espresso is available along with mead, fine chocolate truffles, and beeswax for sale at the end of the tour.

{7} Whiskey and whisky: Besides pouring many excellent ales, PINT ’S PUB boasts one of the largest collections of single-malt whiskeys in the U.S. The more than 275 bottles on the walls range from the Lowlands to the Highlands, including Lagavulin, Pittyvaich, Glenugie, and Oban, plus “whisky” from Ireland, India, and the U.S.
221 W. 13TH AVE.