Ski towns are known for their “live hard, play hard” ethos, and from that have sprung some of drinking culture’s best-known—and sometimes most questionable—creations. To wit: the shotski, Vodka Red Bull and gelände quaffing. The Flatliner, however, just may be the best high-altitude cocktail you’ve never heard of.
Comprising vodka, Kahlúa, Baileys Irish Cream and a shot of espresso or cold-brew coffee, the Flatliner is widely considered to be the signature drink of Telluride, Colorado. The tiny ski town, sequestered in a box canyon in the state’s San Juan Mountains, is no slouch when it comes to drinking, but the Flatliner has carved out a niche as the rare cocktail that transcends time of day. “Here, it’s pretty standard practice to ski all day, party all night, and recover the next morning with a Flatliner as a hair of the dog,” says Mark Rineer, a longtime local bartender and current maître d’ and general manager of La Marmotte, a French restaurant and bar housed in a 19th-century icehouse.
“The Flatliner is the town’s signature drink because people have them for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner,” adds Luke LaFemina, general manager and beverage director at 221 South Oak. According to LaFemina, the local favorite is considered “a little boost of caffeine and alcohol to loosen you up, put you more forward in your ski boots or ease off the brakes of your mountain bike.”
It was bartender Steve Foster (whose son Lucas was on the 2022 U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team) who first introduced the Flatliner to Telluride. In the summer of 1995, Foster was a bartender at The Peaks Resort & Spa. While working a wedding, the bride and groom requested a Flatliner. “They were from New Zealand and told me it was a popular drink in the South Pacific made with equal parts vodka, Kahlúa and Baileys, with a shot of espresso, shaken with ice and served up with a coffee bean garnish,” explains Foster.
Though the Flatliner bears an overt resemblance to the Espresso Martini and the Mudslide, it’s Foster’s impromptu creation that has endured as Telluride’s unofficial cocktail, with the bartender as its unwitting ambassador. “Foster is pretty humble, but he’s as much of a Telluride institution as the drink,” says Rineer.
Foster, for his part, chalks up the Flatliner’s success to being in the right place at the right time. “I’m not a craft bartender, at all. I don’t go home and dream up new cocktails, so it’s just funny to me that I happened to be the one who heard about this drink,” he says. “A lot of people think that I invented it, and a lot of people try to take credit for it, and I find myself debunking origin stories fairly often.”
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By the end of the summer of ’95, the Flatliner had become The Peaks staff’s post-shift drink of choice. Soon, other service industry workers were requesting it, too. “That inevitably led to guests ordering it, which the staff hated, because it was a pain in the ass to make,” Foster says. “Back then, we had to pull a shot for every drink. It created a huge bottleneck, every time.”
It wasn’t long before Flatliners and Flatliner variations—the most popular of which calls for vanilla vodka as the base—popped up around town. And when Foster moved on to become founding bartender at Allred’s, a fine dining restaurant perched at the gondola’s Station St. Sophia, the Flatliner craze continued. “It’s such a silly cocktail, but people love it,” he says. “And it is delicious—guests appreciate a good dessert drink.” Of course, when consumed at Telluride’s base elevation of 8,750 feet, the drink can have profound consequences for those unaccustomed to the altitude. Foster cautions: “Some visitors come in thinking it’s a weak drink, and they can be sorely mistaken.”
Over the ensuing decades, as Colorado’s craft distilling scene expanded, regional spirits began to enter the Flatliner formula. “We use Telluride Distilling Company’s vodka, because we love supporting all things local,” says Megan Ossola, owner of The Butcher & The Baker, who also uses espresso liqueur and fresh espresso from small Colorado businesses. “We’re a popular breakfast and lunch spot, and I think of this as a breakfast-y cocktail,” says Ossola. “That’s why we use a double shot of espresso, to help people with the ‘get up and go.’”
At La Marmotte, the bar team favors the combination of cold brew, Kahlúa, Spring44 vodka and The Irishman Irish Cream liqueur, which has “a cleaner and less artificial flavor than Baileys,” says Rineer, adding, “personally, I think I make the best Flatliner in town. Tell Foster I said so.”
For LaFemina, the secret to a flawless Flatliner lies in its froth. “You have to use a fresh shot of espresso,” he says, noting that others turn to cold brew in their versions. “If you’ve ever had a shakerato, you know what happens when you shake the shit out of a shot of espresso with a dash of simple syrup. It gives you the frothiest head you’ve ever had,” he says. To finish, 221 South Oak adds a dash of cinnamon as a garnish to round out the flavor.
It’s been over 18 years since Foster left Allred’s to staff the elegant Victorian bar at the New Sheridan Hotel’s Chop House Restaurant. The drink—and its legacy—followed. “It’s not uncommon to see the Chop House bar full of locals on a Sunday morning, all with a Flatliner in front of them,” says Rineer.
While the true genesis of the Flatliner may remain a mystery, Telluride has gladly laid claim to this silky, frothy, craveable cocktail. No bar is complete without one. As LaFemina notes, “The first rule of Flatliners is: Make extra Flatliner.”