Kelly Wooldridge, beverage director and sommelier at the recently opened Trillium, was still in high school when he felt the first stirrings of interest in professional bartending.
"There was this guy, Willie Grandison, at the American Restaurant in Kansas City," he explains. "This bartender had been there since the restaurant opened. I met him in 2002, and he had been there for almost thirty years. He was a Playboy bartender of the year, and he had this incredible joy for tending bar and being there with his customers every day. It was one of my first experiences with the hospitality of bartending. I was in high school so I couldn't drink, but I was so intrigued by the guy and his following."
It wasn't until five years later, though, that Wooldridge would catch the bug in a more meaningful way. "When I moved to Boston in 2007, I met a guy named Cliff Travers," he says. "Whether or not he would remember me, I don't know, but he was consulting on a bar program at Gaslight, which I was helping open. I was blown away by his cocktails. He was making cool drinks and taking drinks in a direction I didn't know about. At that point, I just knew Manhattans, tonic drinks and candy cocktails. I had no real concept of bartending or revival cocktails. He made a big impression on me."
Plus, Wooldridge got a chance to work intimately with his program, taking over the bar when Travers moved on to other projects. "I just crash-coursed it," he recalls. "I started going out to a ton of bars and cocktail palaces, where I was drinking and learning and getting into it. I got to blindly feel my way through."
Cocktails weren't Wooldridge's first love in the beverage world, though: He fell into spirits almost accidentally, via his obsession with wine. "Wine has always been my passion," he explains. "I had my first real experience with it was when I was a kid working at this country club. I helped cook a dinner; it was a five-course vertical tasting with Opus One. I was just pumped because I was this sixteen-year-old, the youngest kid by like ten years, and my boss invited me to cook this dinner with him. Afterwards, he said, 'Hey, let's taste some wine. It's important to taste these things to learn about it.' I was totally sucked in."
So when Wooldridge moved out to Boston, it was to work in wine. "I was going there to be a wine director," he says. "The spirits thing was just this happy accident."
Back in Denver, Wooldridge sold wine and spirits for Alpha Wine and worked at Colt & Gray while he studied for his advanced sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. He passed the test earlier this year and is now waiting to be invited to sit for the Master exam.
In the meantime, he got on board to run the beverage program when Ryan Leinonen's Trillium opened in early December, lending his immense knowledge of wine and spirits to the bar. What follows are his thoughts on life behind the stick: Bartending rule to live by: There's no wrong answer when you ask someone what they want to drink. I'm so tired of the snotty attitude about stuff like vodka. If someone wants vodka, be excited that they're in your bar drinking vodka. The money still folds your way. Don't lose the patron just because you're playing stump-the-bartender. The most horrible thing you can do in hospitality is to make someone feel bad about what they drink.
By the same token, if you're a patron, don't apologize for the drinks you like. People see what's on the list and apologize for their Dewars and soda order. What you like is what you like. That said, be patient. Not every bar can have an encyclopedic back bar. Life's too short to get bent out of shape because a place doesn't have Red Bull.
Five words to describe your drink list: Grounded, delicious, adventurous, nostalgic, honest.
Favorite drink on your list and why: Right now, it's the Four Hour Day. It's kind of a tequila Manhattan, made with tequila, sweet vermouth, Aquavit and lemon bitters. It's simple, it's to the point, it has a distinct profile, and it combines some things that are familiar and some things that aren't, like the Aquavit. It's meditative but not challenging. I liked the name of it, which I came up with first, and I was thinking about what the drink should be. I was thinking about a lazy day sitting by the beach in some delightful Latin American country. So there it was: a little tequila, a little vermouth. I love vermouth. It was one of the greatest gifts Kevin Burke gave me while I was working at Colt & Gray.
Favorite item on your back bar: I'm a huge Amaro Montenegro fan right now. You can take it all over the place. It mixes well with clear and brown spirits, and it still interacts well with citric elements, which is challenging with amari in general. Plus, it's the right speed. I love Averna and Fernet, but the Montenegro has so many different tones and so many cool floral components. I dig it a lot.
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What was your craziest night behind the stick? I had the night from hell in Boston while I was working at Union Bar and Grill. For whatever reason, a restaurant week-like promo coincided with the American League play-offs. It's Sunday. The Sox are looking good, looking like they're going to head back to the World Series, and we're in the middle of doing 250 covers in an 89-seat restaurant, so three full turns. And we're just totally in the shit.
Tom Brady is in the house and he's just started dating Giselle; Steve Martin was there because they were finishing shooting the second Pink Panther. I'm helping cover the service bar because our service bartender is completely in the weeds, plus I'm in the midst of opening hundreds of bottles of wine when I look over and see the owner change the channel from the baseball game to the NBA draft because he'd bet on it. Then I turn around and see one of my bar regulars who's a guy who can normally take care of himself but who'd just gone through a break-up. He's quietly throwing up in his lap. Then, to top all that off, the valet gets in a fistfight with someone out front because the guy wanted his car parked up front and they had no more parking spaces. It was the craziest night I've ever seen in any hospitality situation. I'm surprised the restaurant didn't just spontaneously combust. I'm still emotionally scarred from it, too. Sometimes I wonder what will happen when baseball season starts.
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own, and what you order when you're there: It's still Colt & Gray. I love going there, I love drinking at Kevin's bar. Kevin has incredible service awareness. He's one of those barmen who seems to be always on top of it. It was such a joy to work there. I order whatever it is that Kevin will make me, though I prefer it to include barrel-aged gin. I'm very partial to the Ransom Old Tom gin. Other than that, I also really dig drinking at My Brother's Bar. There's no pretense. It's not possible to be a pompous ass on either side of that bar. When I'm there, I'm a whiskey drinker, maybe with a Krusovice Imperial Lager. That bar wants you to drink whiskey.