Ryan Conklin, certified Cicerone and head barman at Euclid Hall, doesn't think his reasons for going into bartending were very different from what motivates other professionals in the industry. "Like a lot of bartenders, you just kind of have some sort of drive to it, whether that's getting behind the bar before you turn 21 and pouring a couple of beers, or being a kid and mixing together orange juice and lemonade or pouring a suicide from the soda machine," he explains. "You know you like mixing things together and seeing what you come up with. I think everyone knows early on."
Still, he didn't actually get behind a bar until he was of legal drinking age. "My first shot behind the bar was shortly after I turned 21, when I got a chance to bartend and pour beers at Rock Bottom," he recounts.
Shortly after Conklin's first exposure to beverages, he moved back to Colorado. "I focused my life on professional snowboard photography," he says. "I did that for five years while I bussed tables at Sweet Basil in Vail. I took a major step back in developing my restaurant skills, but I was learning about wine and the nuances of fine dining service."
Conklin developed a love for those nuances of hospitality and for educating guests who came through the door. So when he got another chance to get behind the bar in 2005, he took it -- and never looked back, working at places like the Gashouse and Zach's Cabin before coming on board at Euclid Hall, where he was afforded a unique opportunity to pursue the Cicerone program, which certifies professional beer servers -- much like the Court of Master Sommeliers does with wine. Six months later, with the help of a big community of mentors, Conklin had passed level one and level two of the program, making him the only certified Cicerone behind a bar in Denver.
What follows is Conklin's view of life behind the stick (or taps): Bartending rule to live by: My rule of thumb is that customer comes first. Maybe it's cliché, but a lot of people are moving forward into the craft cocktail sort of thing, and they forget that not everyone is on that journey with them. The guest doesn't know that you just learned you shouldn't shake a martini. If that's how they want it, you should give it to them. Make it the way they want it, because that's how they want their drink. Each guest needs to be read. Why did they come to your bar? Because they want to sit there and read the newspaper? Try something new? Meet a friend? The key is that it's about the guest.
Also, fresh ingredients always make the best cocktails.
Five words to describe your drink list: For the bar program: Relevant, fun, fresh, inspired, approachable. "Fresh" is the only thing I wouldn't include for beer - we serve fresh beers, and definitely do so when we should, but we also serve some beers aged because they taste better that way.
Favorite drink on your list and why: Right now, the Breakfast at Midnight. It's a beer cocktail made with Lefthand Nitro Milk Stout, bourbon, French Press coffee and maple syrup. But stop by quick, because the menu's about to change. We'll have another Milk Stout cocktail, the Naughty Girl Scout, which has chocolate vodka, peppermint schnapps and peppermint in it. Personally, I also like Lefthand Milk Stout with chocolate vodka and Grand Marnier or Combier. It's kind of a take on a Christmas chocolate orange. I'm excited about the Mustache Rye, too. It's Old Overholt rye, Averna, Amaro Montenegro and fresh squeezed orange juice. It's a rich, savory take on a whiskey cocktail.
Favorite item on your back bar: I've been really excited about Leopold's Maryland Rye lately. Ryes are gaining popularity, but some of them are tough to get, and some are tough to get regularly. So I've been really into experimenting with rye. It has an incredible flavor, aroma and palate.
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SHOW ME HOW
What was your craziest night behind the stick? I've been fortunate enough to avoid a lot of the high volume bars, so my crazy nights are mostly positive. Friday night this past year of the Great American Beer Festival was probably one of my most humbling, most awesome and craziest nights ever. I had Ken Grossman, owner and founder of Sierra Nevada, Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo from Russian River, as well as Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, sitting at one table. I had a group of eight from Beer Advocate, a group of twenty from Firestone Walker and a group of fourteen from Boulevard Brewing Company. As a Cicerone, I was doing my best to recognize all the VIPs and making sure they knew they mattered. I made sure their beers were on tap and I gave them tours of the basement facilities and the butchering facilities since there's a lot to the food program that makes the beer program exciting. Chef Jorel's precision is so key, and his passion is so infinite. When I show beer VIPs around, their passion for the place often comes from the food program. So I got to show those VIPs what makes Euclid Hall Euclid Hall. I had so many awesome people there, but I was also taking on the general public and fans that really wanted to taste something they'd never tasted before. You can fly out Denver during GABF and never buy a ticket but taste amazing beer. Places tap great beers in those four days. You're gonna taste things that you'll never taste anywhere else. The festival is bigger than the convention center. So we saw 1200 or 1300 people that night. And while trying to entertain those people, I also had the focus of 60 or 70 big people from the beer industry that I wanted to treat the way they deserve. It was crazy.
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: I go to Colt & Gray and I ask Kevin Burke to make me something, dealer's choice. I make a lot of decisions during the day, and they're based on what I know. So when I go out for a drink, it's always great to ask someone to pour me something. It's never about stumping the bartender. I just like to sit in front of an educated bartender who knows exactly what they're doing so they can share their passion with me, be it beer, wine or cocktails.