Cocktails | Conversations, Carlos David Garcia of Lee Spirits Co.
A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art. – Jacques d’Amboise, award-winning dancer and choreographer
I took note of Carlos David Garcia while a guest at his gin bar – he was having fun, enjoying his work, seemingly the ringleader of entertainment. Later, I had the privilege of speaking with him over wine at The Wild Goose Meeting House in downtown Colorado Springs. Next-door, Garcia works as bar manager of the gin speakeasy, Brooklyn’s on Boulder Street. The cocktail lounge hides behind the facade of an early 20th century haberdashery, and operates as the tasting room for Lee Spirits Co.
Established by cousins Nick and Ian Lee, Lee Spirits Co. is a Colorado-based distillery that crafts fine gin and artisan liqueurs fitting for classic cocktail recipes and modern drinks inspired by such. Brooklyn’s on Boulder St. is Lee Spirits’ tasting room, inspired by Prohibition-era speakeasies, and masked with the front of a fine clothing store.
Garcia’s father was born in Peru and came to the States in his teens. He arrived with his grandmother, who wanted a new opportunity. “The story [is] grey,” says Garcia. “Overall, my father doesn’t talk about it.”
According to family lore, his great grandmother was a Visconti, a noble name of Italian dynasties. She married a racecar driver – which, at that time, was considered a peasant’s occupation – and her family disowned her. However, her husband became very successful, and she traveled with him as he raced around the world. He sadly crashed and died in Peru, where she would eventually remarry.
In an entirely differing locale, Garcia’s midwestern mother was born in Nebraska. His parents met in Denver, where he went to high school and also ran from home – he and his father came to odds during his youth – and Garcia stubbornly lived in cars and on couches until “adopted.”
“I always wear this,” says Garcia, displaying a necklace. “The pendant reads, Love Always, Leva. [Leva] was this girl I knew from newspaper class…and a friend. Her family took me in before college. Initially, I wasn’t gonna go [to college]; I planned to drop out my sophomore year.”
A teacher convinced him to graduate, and during his senior year she threatened to fail him if he didn’t apply to colleges. “I applied just to be a smartass. I was accepted by UCCS and my teacher was like, ‘Just go. Freshman year is basically partying.’ I thought that sounded appealing.”
After taking an entrepreneur class, he fell in love with education and graduated.
They said I was too charismatic and outgoing – that I wouldn’t be a good bartender.
Working in the service industry throughout his teens, he’d always been interested in tending bar – persistently asking to be put behind it. “Every place said I was too charismatic and outgoing – that I wouldn’t be good because I wouldn’t focus on getting drinks done. They were corporate jobs – and at the time, I thought they made sense.”
His journey to bar manager of Brooklyn’s started with his college capstone (senior exhibition) – to create a business. At the time, tequila fascinated him, along with other agave-based liquors, such as mezcal, raicilla, and bacanora.
Mezcal is distilled from a variety of agave plants – unlike tequila, which is only distilled from blue agave. Mezcal gets its smokiness when the heart of the plant, known as the piña, is roasted in stone-lined pits. It is primarily produced in Oaxaca.
Raicilla is similar to mezcal, the hearts are harvested, fire-roasted, mashed, fermented and distilled. Originating in Jalisco, Raicilla pre-dates the arrival of conquistadors. It is typically more than 100 proof.
Bacanora has been made and distilled the same way for hundreds of years. Workers harvest the agave’s piña and roast it in volcanic rock. It ferments in airtight cement pits and then is distilled. Bacanora was bootlegged for many generations, only being made legal in 1992. It is produced in Sonora municipalities.
For his capstone, he wanted to start a tequila distillery. During this time, he met Ian and Nick Lee through an entrepreneurial program. He reached out to them, asking to be taught distilling. The Lee cousins agreed to, and Garcia volunteered his time in exchange – bottling, sweeping, and mopping.
One day, Garcia arrived late, and the Lees asked why. “I told them I applied to be a bartender. I needed a job.” The Lee cousins, both baffled, offered a position on the floor – answering the door, greeting guests, serving, and washing dishes. Quickly, opportunities kept opening – bar back…bartender…head bartender – leading to Garcia filling his current role. “I’ve been bar manager for a year. Ian and Nick opened the door, and Nate [Windham] mentored me – he taught me everything.”
You can make the best martini, but if you’re a dick, people will go somewhere else.
Windham, who’d been tending bars for 20 years, showed Garcia what to read – American Bar by Charles Schumann, Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, Straight Up or On The Rocks by William Grimes, and Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails.
Death & Co opened on New Years Eve 2006/07 in Manhattan’s East Village, and has since received worldwide recognition as a cocktail institution and industry leader. In the spring of 2018, Death & Co opened a second establishment in Denver, inside The Ramble Hotel – located in the River North (RiNo) Arts District.
“Nate was charismatic. His knowledge was impressive. He was the opposite of what the corporate bars told me,” says Garcia. “His approach was about having fun while teaching. He would tell me, ‘We teach people how to drink.’ Under Nate, the things that were most beneficial related to the mindset of [focusing on] the guest. At the end of the day, you can make the best martini, but if you’re a dick to everyone…people will go somewhere else.”
Garcia intentionally refers to his customers as guests. He wants them to feel as if they’ve been intentionally invited into his home. As a result, he’s met and affected people from all walks of life. “I’ll never forget this private party…a guest thanked me, saying, ‘I was in the military. I haven’t relaxed like this in fifteen years.’ He almost started crying. He was drinking, so I took it with a grain of salt. However, his daughter wasn’t drinking. She comes up saying, ‘I’ve never seen my father this happy.’ That melted my heart.”
When it comes to spirits and bars, the question is: What’s your goal?
Garcia and I are talking about favorite drinks and bars, and he mentions taverns in Denver: American Bonded, Nocturne, Union Lodge No. 1, Ste. Ellie, Cooper Lounge, and Star Bar. “I really enjoy Star Bar. It feels like a dive, but those bartenders really know what they’re doing,” says Garcia. “My favorite, though, is The Dead Rabbit in New York, in Lower Manhattan. That was, hands down, the best.”
The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog is a pub in the Financial District (FiDi) of Lower Manhattan, New York City. Since opening in 2013, the establishment has won several prestigious awards, including World’s Best Bar 2016 by World’s 50 Best Bars.
As far as drinks go, his first choices are simple and traditional. “My knowledge comes from Lee Spirits,” Garcia admits. “I’m surrounded by gin; I love gin. My favorite cocktail is a Tom Collins or a Bronx.”
A Tom Collins (likely deriving its name from Old Tom gin) was memorialized with Jerry Thomas’s 1876 recipe. A typical Tom Collins is built as such:
3 parts gin
2 parts freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 part simple syrup
Carbonated water to taste
Mix the gin, lemon juice, and sugar syrup with ice – top with soda water, garnish with a lemon slice and maraschino cheery, and serve in a Collins glass (typically taller and narrower than a highball glass).
A Bronx is essentially a martini with orange juice. In the early 20th Century, the Bronx was a popular rival to the martini and the Manhattan. Like the Manhattan, the Bronx is named after one of New York City’s five boroughs. A Bronx recipe’s proportions vary, but the drink is commonly made as follows:
6 parts gin
3 parts sweet red vermouth
2 parts dry vermouth
3 parts orange juice
Pour ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice; shake well, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Serve the drink straight up, without ice, and garnished with an orange peel.
Garcia continues, “When it comes to drinking, the question is: What are you trying to achieve? What’s your goal? If you want something that tastes like hot cinnamon candy that’ll get you drunk, Fireball wins. If you want a craft experience, then an entirely different option wins. If you want to play video games and drink beer all night, you can go to Supernova, [the arcade bar] across the street.”
I’ve never been creative in any other avenue. This is the best industry where I can keep growing.
He paints a picture for me of how Brooklyn’s menu is created – a collaborative effort akin to a writer’s room. A suggestion for an experimental syrup, such as beet syrup, is pitched from someone on the team and they will make it. The concept is tasted as a group, and paired with various elements. Feedback and criticism is given; changes are made. “Lee Spirits is a quality brand. We’ve strived to be the best,” says Garcia. “To be the best, you can’t have an ego.”
He continues, admitting, “I’m not a creative person – I can’t draw…can’t sing…can’t write. I’ve never been creative in any other avenue. This is the best industry where I can keep growing.”
Lee Spirits Co. is growing as well, beyond Colorado, selling their products now in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, with plans for further expansion.
With wine glasses empty, I ask if he has anything that he would like to plug – any events, competitions or projects – and he tells me about a new venture that he is developing, Behind The Stick. It’s a podcast that he is creating and recording. The name, Behind The Stick, is a phrase that means, “behind the bar” – possibly, not certainly, referring to the tap handles pulled to pour draft beers. He describes the podcast as being “by bartenders for bartenders,” with conversations about how to learn and grow in the industry. “I’m interviewing bar managers, brand ambassadors, and distillers. I just interviewed a woman who works for Death & Co. New York, actually.”
As we’re getting up from our table, Garcia adds a coda to our conversation, telling me, “[Lee Spirits] is [incredibly] giving and caring to their employees – they [press] all of us to grow and become better people. This company has changed my life. …I learned to keep pushing, keep trying, and stay hungry.”
Kristian DePue, contributing writer for Springs magazine and Edible Pikes Peak Region
Photographs by Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios
*Drinks photographed (top to bottom): Tom Collins, Bronx, Martinez
Lee Spirits Co. | A Craft Gin Distillery in Colorado Springs
Carlos David Garcia | Bar Manager of Brooklyn’s on Boulder St.