Behind the bar with Joshua Smith at TAG and Williams & Graham
courtesy of Joshua Smith
"My dad used to be a chef, so I'd been in the kitchen for a long time, and I've been working in restaurants since age twelve," he explains. "After I graduated high school, I was serving at this college bar, and the bartender didn't come in one day. The boss asked, 'Are you legal?' I said yes, even though I wasn't, and he told me to get behind the bar. The Long Island pour was the first trick I learned. I got hooked, and I've been doing it ever since."
Smith traveled the country, picking towns where he could work as a ski instructor during the day and bartend at night. He continued to work in bars when he went to college in Montana, where he earned BFAs in acting and dance, and when he moved to California, where he went to Cirque du Soleil's formal training school. "I bartended and cooked throughout," he says. "I loved being on stage, and bartending was my stage."
At that point, though, bartending was just a means to an end for Smith, who hoped to make a career out of performing. "It was just a job," he explains. "I loved it, but it wasn't going to be my career. The stage was going to be my career."
Physically exhausted in 2006, Smith took a break from Cirque and came out to Colorado, where he planned to bartend and ski. He took a job at The Keg as head bartender and trainer, and started meeting people who loved food, wine and cocktails as much as he did. And that's when he changed his career path. "I called Cirque and said I wasn't coming back," he says. "I was supposed to be with them for three more years."
From The Keg, he went on to work the club scene, pouring drinks at La Rouge, where he was a bartender and trainer. "That's where I did my first competition," he explains. "And I won a flat screen and a whole bunch of cash. I got kind of hooked." He bounced next to the kitchens of Amuse and 5 Degrees, then put together the food and drink menu for Cherry Creek Country Club. He helped out friends at Crave and Alibi before moving to the Avenue Grill. While he was there, he met Jeff Osaka, and was with him when he opened twelve, and then spent two years behind the stick there. But when Troy Guard pushed him to take the TAG|Raw Bar spot, he agreed to take that on, also working at the bar at TAG. And when Williams & Graham opened, he joined that staff, as well.
Though he left the stage years ago, Smith credits his performing background for his personality behind the bar. "It's probably why I'm so animated," he explains. "I love to wow people. I love their eyes to pop out of their heads."
What follows are Smith's thoughts on life behind the bar:
Bartending rule to live by: Guests first. If someone wants their red wine with Diet Coke, then I oblige it. They ask for Merlot and Diet Coke and I say, "Okay, okay, I"ll make you the best Merlot and Diet Coke you've ever had." We're there for the guest. We're there to make them happy and make them have a better day. Beyond that, find your way to educate people to drink better using a non-pushy format. I've had people who come in and are stuck on Grey Goose, which I don't carry. So they say, "Oh you don't carry Grey Goose? Oh, Chardonnay." And that opens an opportunity for me to say, "Hold on, have you ever seen such and such? Let me give you a little taste of it and tell you about it an you can tell me what you think." Find ways to educate and open up the palate of your guest, and they'll thank you for it.
Also, you're on stage the entire time from when you step behind the bar to when you leave it -- and sometimes beyond. I like to make a good cocktail and keep my guests entertained. The things you do back there are very apparent - I notice myself being watched. If I do something stupid, it's going to be noticed. I keep myself upright, look around, see who's next. I shake with a smile. I let people know that I'm having a good time. Five words to describe your drink list:At TAG, it's seasonal, fresh, vibrant, deconstructed and crisp. At Williams and Graham, I'd say classic, approachable, focused, brown and clean.
Favorite drink on your list and why: At Williams & Graham, it's the Smoking Frenchman. That was owner Sean Kenyon's winning cocktail from the Domaine de Canton competition. It's cognac, Canton, Peychauds bitters, Angostura bitters and a wash of Caol Ila scotch. It has all the aspects that I look for and personally enjoy. I love smoky things, be it mezcal, scotch, aged bourbon. Has that bright cognac right up front, which blends super nice with the Canton. It has a sugar level that I like -- it's a little sweet, but dry on the finish. The final kick is the wash of Caol Ila. Islay is my favorite region for Scotch - I love peat bombs. Caol Ila is right up there with LaPhroaig. It's so well-balanced, but really peaty.
At TAG, it's the Colorado Conundrum. I created this one at twelve using Hennessy VS, Leopold orange, Leopold cherry, Leopold Three Pins herbal liqueur, a dash of orange bitters and a dash of Angostura. Christmas in a glass is what it comes out to be. Sip on it and feel like you should be in front of a stone fireplace with the lights turned down low or at your condo in Breck while the snow falls out the window. It reminds me of family and home. I also created the cocktail to pay homage to Scott and Todd Leopold and the great things Colorado is doing. I used the Cognac base and folded in great Leopold products. Three Pins changes the structure of the cocktail. There's not another spirit I could substitute for that.
Favorite item on your back bar: At TAG, Damrak gin. I love Damrak a lot, but no one carries it - I want to change that. It's a perfect blend in between a dry style gin and a sweet, malty genever. I love making martinis with it. I love using different elements of spice with it, like Chartreuse, strega and Combier orange liqueur.
At Williams & Graham, I'm into the block ice. I really, really love to have block ice to work with. I like to play with it. I made a lady a diamond for her drink because she wanted a drink inspired by diamonds and losing her virginity. I make spheres throughout the day, and I get dorky and focused on it whenever I have a down moment. I made a triangle to fit right into a martini glass. We make cylinders that fit into the double old fashioned, single old fashioned. We make julep ice. Besides Green Russell, we're the only ones using block ice - ice makes a big difference.
What was your craziest night behind the stick? I had a Halloween party one year and my buddy and I both blow fire, you know because I used to be in the circus. My buddy blew a 20 foot fireball and took off a guy's eyebrows.
Other than that, the things that stand out are really traumatizing and bad. I watched a guy get stabbed to death ten feet from me. St. Patty's Day 2008 at Alibi right here in Denver. Got stabbed 18 times in front of 50 people. Happened just outside our front door. We had just kicked people out. I watched the police officer hold him as he died. That's a rough thing to have in your memory bank. I was also bartending the night 8 people got shot on 15th and Market.
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: I have two, and they're both pretty equal for me. I'm a big Euclid Hall fan, and I like Green Russell. I was kind of anti-Russell for awhile, but they've lightened up and are very inviting. There's a cocktail on the list called the Alpine Punch, and it's just amazing. The flavor profile reminds me of a Colorado Bulldog on crack. It's creamy, it's got the spice and it's comforting. It's wicked awesome, but you probably wouldn't catch me drinking it the summer. Euclid is my go-to spot for a few reasons: I'm always hungry and they serve late, I know everyone and they're super cool, and they have Tank 7 on draft. Boulevard is one of my favorite breweries in the nation, and Tank 7 is at the center of what they do. So I order a Tank 7 with a Del Maguey Chichicapa back. And then I have five of them and I'm done.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.