A Complex Craft: Justice Snow’s of Aspen

Words: Mundi Ross

Photos: Tanya Martineau

Justice Snow’s Restaurant and Bar has become an Aspen staple. It’s both both hip and rooted in history - not to mention the bar has the largest cocktail selection in North America. The restaurant concept is the brainchild of Michele Kiley, and at one point the name was highly controversial.

“I think it wasn’t a popular name at first, primarily because it was hard to understand and say,” Michele said. “But it’s actually a historical reference. We wanted the naming of the space to be historically relevant. I discovered these old headlines, and one read ‘A Bad Day in Justice Snow’s Court.’ I thought, ‘how interesting that we had a Justice of the Peace named Snow,’ and our current economy is predicated on snow. So for me there was no other naming choice.”

Justice Snow’s is part of the Wheeler Opera House building built in 1889, and entering it feels like a classy boudoir of dark woods, leathered upholstery and textured wallpaper.  The local young and hip are seated at the bar where everyone knows everyone, but at further glance around the space, there is a mixed demographic. Michele is aware of the aging population in Aspen and is intentional to be inviting to all by making sure that Justice Snow’s is grounded in community and all things to all people.

One of the ways Michele is creating community is through her version of the turn-of-the-century salon. Three times a week she has carved out time for creative outlets in both performance art and music. Justice Snow’s recently launched a program called writ - largely based on The Moth Radio Hour series on National Public Radio - which gives locals the opportunity to share their story. The programming has been impactful, but Michele doesn’t ever want it to take away from what Justice Snow’s essentially is: A restaurant and bar that values great food and drink.

Really, Justice Snow’s shouldn’t worry about its food and drink being forgotten. The restaurant is known far and wide for its 200 plus cocktail menu. The sizeable number of drinks wasn’t something the restaurant originally set out to do, but its original head bartender, Joshua Smith, was inspired and created them, so the cocktails are now a part of Justice Snow’s legacy. Sam Gemus, the present head bartender extraordinaire, is more than willing to to talk about the hand-crafted cocktails that Joshua created.

“Joshua was such a brilliant man who was given the permission to make a bar program he always dreamed of making, so we continue on,” Sam said. “I asked him before he moved away to San Francisco why he never wanted to downsize and his response to me was simple: ‘Cause I liked it.’ ”

Sam is a Detroit native who eventually made his way to the Aspen snow and never looked back. He always wanted to get into bartending, and three years ago was given the opportunity. He started out at Hotel Jerome, eventually landing a gig at Justice Snow’s. He and the other bartenders on staff are making a name for themselves in mixology by winning awards and accolades. The bar was voted one of Food & Wine’s Best New Bars in America in 2014.

Justice Snow’s prides itself on doing its best to source what it can locally. All the syrups are made in house, many of the herbs and garnishes are from local farms and gardens and whenever possible, Justice Snow’s uses Colorado spirits.

“Some of the garnishes you see here come from the sweetest man who delivers in return for a [Pabst Blue Ribbon], and if he drives, we give him five bucks,” Sam said.

Jacob Johnson, another bartender who comes from a farming background, talks passionately about using local ingredients.

“The florals and herbs used as muddlers or garnishes take the cocktail to a whole new level,” Jacob said. “The subtle intricacies of the fresh ingredients allow us to explore different ways to use them in a cocktail that are unique and not readily available to everyone.”

For example, Josh said the bitterness of fresh cilantro will add some depth and complexity to a cocktail, whereas mass-produced cilantro will not allow us to achieve this flavor. Even the use of hawthorn berry, which tastes like a combination of passionfruit, peach and lemon flavour creates an intense addition to a drink.

“[There’s] immediate flavor as it hits your tongue, so I don’t have to add lemon to the cocktail, because the berry does it for me,” Josh said.

The aroma and flavor of the cocktails created behind the bar force one to slowly sip and savor it like an elegant dessert. Clearly, spending even a short afternoon in Justice Snow’s reveals it to be one of the best bars in Aspen. If anyone ever walks in overwhelmed by the cocktail menu, they can ask Sam or anyone else behind the bar for the Dealer’s Choice. This allows someone to circle different attributes he or she is looking for in a cocktail and the bartender will create something special. But if you want to skip the menu and drink like a local, a favorite is the PDA. Whatever one ends up ordering - sweet or spicy, bold or bubbly - it will not disappoint.

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