Crafting memorable cocktails from award-winning whiskeys is an art and science that Billie Keithley of the Breckenridge Distillery has mastered. Her passion for the product and the industry have not gone unnoticed. Keithley’s years of innovations, education, and experimentation have culminated with the very honorable title, 2021 American Icons of Whisky for Bar Manager of the Year.
The Icons of Whisky are an annual industry award organized by Whisky Magazine. This award recognizes the very best people and places in the whisky business around the world. For those who know Keithley, aka the Breckenridge Distillery’s Liquid Chef, this accolade comes as no surprise, but for Keithley, it was a moment of happy tears, a bit of disbelief, and a whole lot of joy.
Finding her love for the craft
For a rockstar in the world of mixology, she is a humble soul who is thankful for some of the serendipitous moments she has experienced alongside her tenacious, yet humble personality. Billie Keithley arrived in Breckenridge, Colorado 27 years ago. Like many in the area, Keithley worked at the ski resort and within the town’s food and beverage industry. On a night 20 years ago Billie had started her evening managing a local restaurant when one of her service bartenders didn’t show up for their shift. She said, “out of necessity I jumped behind the bar and became absorbed by the colors, bottles, and the art of the craft. I wondered why am I not doing this?” This chance discovery set her on the path to becoming a full-time bartender and bar manager.
As Keithley was progressing in her career a friend invited her to a seminar by the great Francesco LaFranconi the Founder of the Academy of Spirits & Fine Service at Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada. It was a jaw-dropping learning experience and became an epiphany for Billie Keithley. That day she took about ten pages of notes. Billie reminisced, ” I was humbled as I realized how much I didn’t know, but at the same time so inspired that I knew at that very moment that I wanted to absorb and share every morsel of knowledge of this amazing craft and put smiles on faces with every sip.”
Bartender to Bar Manager
Keithley’s path soon crossed with Bryan Nolt, owner of the Breckenridge Distillery and Head Distiller, Jordan Via. Keithley reminisced, “They walked in and I had no idea who they were. I made them an egg cream cocktail and it must have really impressed them because the next day Bryan hired me and I have been with them ever since. Soon after I received my official title, The Breckenridge Distillery ‘Liquid Chef’ because if it is edible, I can make a cocktail out of it. I have been challenged in the past but have been able to create something out of some of the craziest ingredients. Once I was challenged to make a cocktail out of wasabi peas and wafers”.
Humble and Passionate
Keithley’s approachable demeanor and incredible passion for the craft boldly shine. Her role at the Breckenridge Distillery can be summed up in one word – unique. Keithley is not your traditional bar manager. From her outgoing personality & hair, rimmed glasses, and rockabilly style to her passion and love for the industry, Billie is quite unforgettable in the best of ways. Litch Polich, investor of the Breckenridge Distillery and friend of Billie, summarized her skills, “I think the fact that Billie wears so many hats is what makes her such a great bar manager, she’s done it all which also means not only can she handle the day to day minutia that a bar requires but also conveys empathy for those she manages. He goes on to say she genuinely wants to see her staff grow and succeed while mastering the skills to give the guest the best experience possible. Billie continues to learn and teaches her newfound knowledge to her team. “There’s a fine line between a manager and being friends with those you manage,” said Polich. Billie can walk that line and gain the respect of her team by being friendly and professional, her goal is to allow them to have the same confidence and positive attitude that she possesses while respecting each other and the guest. “I truly believe if it were up to Billie every person out there would be a bartender,” continued Polich.
Keithley was hired for her bartending skills but also worked introducing and selling the Breckenridge Distilleries products at events around the country. Rather than pour each product neat she began pairing the distilleries products with her exceptionally crafted cocktails recipes. In many ways, Keithley changed how the consumer and connoisseur were able to experience the spirits that the Breckenridge Distillery crafted.
Never stop learning
Always striving to grow and learn in the fast-paced world of cocktails, Keithley wants to be her best at everything she does and to make sure those around her are well informed. As “the face” of the Breckenridge Distillery, Keithley is highly involved in national events, offers bartending and cocktail instruction, is involved in numerous national news segments, leads the Distillery’s virtual cocktail demonstrations and is involved with Colorado Bartenders Guild. On top of that, Keithley is preparing to achieve a Master’s accreditation from the United States Bartenders’ Guild.
The world surrounding Keithley is her sensory inspiration board, from the smells of the seasons and a visual from the sky to ideas garnered from Food Network shows and every book and magazine on the subject of culinary crafts and spirits; each of her discoveries along with a bit of scientific knowledge is shaken and stirred into her work. Keithley’s large home lab, which most people call a kitchen, allows her to conduct trial and error experiments that result in showstopper cocktail recipes and entertaining presentations that often incorporate smoke, fire, bubbles, and other fun accompaniments to her cocktail experience. “Bartending taught me math and science. Over a decade ago I dabbled in molecular gastronomy. Now I’m back in that realm but of course, elevating the ideas further. Constantly experimenting with powders, acids, thickening agents, textures, etc. I’m trying to create an experience with each and every cocktail,” explained Keithley.
Although she wears her brand ambassador hat on a 24-hour basis you can also find her hiking in the backcountry, paddling on the water or new riffs with her husband for their rockabilly band.
Written by Holly Battista-Resignolo, Photos by Liam Doran