His motorcycle broke down last week on a road trip from Denver to Louisiana, but Sean Kenyon kept moving. He shipped the bike home from Memphis, hopped in a car and pushed on. He was headed to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, an annual five-day convention that draws top mixologists from all over the country. And at the event, Kenyon was awarded the title American Bartender of the Year, a first for Denver. We caught up with Kenyon at Williams & Graham, his craft cocktail bar in LoHi, where we talked about what the award means for bartending, what it means for Denver, and what's next for him. See also: Williams & Graham and Sean Kenyon both finalists for Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
"It feels good to be home, especially because I travel so much," Kenyon says, sinking into one of the cozy tables in his charming speakeasy. He looks tired, but happy. He's had a busy summer: tending bar at prestigious industry events in Aspen, teaching cocktail classes in Russia and then attending Tales of The Cocktail. "I've spent a lot of time behind other peoples' bars in the last month," Kenyon adds. "It's nice to be home."
We're sitting in a small room at Williams & Graham, a room that was twice as big last week, before the bar closed for a few days so that half of that room could be turned into a hallway that will lead guests to a new bar next door, The Occidental. "We lost five seats," Kenyon says of the project, "but in the end, we're gaining eighty-something."
Closing the place also allowed most of the Williams & Graham staff to attend Tales of the Cocktail; the bar was also a finalist in two other categories.
In February Kenyon, like hundreds of bartenders across America, submitted applications to Tales of the Cocktail to be considered for the title of American Bartender of the Year. In June, those hundreds were whittled down to ten candidates, and then to four finalists, with the winner to be announced at an awards ceremony during the convention. The final four represented some of America's top mixological talent: Kenyon, Jeff Bell (PDT, New York), Marcovaldo Dionysus (Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco) and Bobby Heugel (Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston).
Judging the competition was a panel of 75 bartenders, bar owners and hospitality-industry professionals, all hand-picked from locations around the country by Tales of the Cocktail event organizers.
The judges looked at a composite of qualities in each of the four finalists to determine the winner. "They wanted somebody who represents the world of bartenders well," Kenyon explains. "That's what they were really looking for in the award -- the bartender's affect on the community, how they are behind their own bar, that kind of thing."
Kenyon says he's good friends with the three other finalists, having met them at competitions and conventions over the years. "We felt like any of us could be standing up there at the end," he adds. "We were all rooting for each other. It was fun."
But while Kenyon won the distinction of being American Bartender of the Year, that wasn't the award he was really hoping to win. As the awards ceremony drew near to the end, Kenyon's preferred prizes -- Best Bar Team and Best Cocktail Bar -- had already been claimed. Keep reading for more about the awards...
"We knew by then that Williams & Graham hadn't won either of the ones we'd been nominated for," he says, "which was a big bummer, because to me, those are the most important awards. I believe that we do have the best bar team, but that's okay, we know it. It's very much a family at Williams & Graham, which is really cool."
Best Cocktail Bar went to Dead Rabbit (New York City), and the staff at Trick Dog (San Francisco) was named Best Bar Team.
Upon being announced America's Best Bartender, Kenyon was presented with a large crystal plate with his name etched in the center. "My biggest impression of this award," he says, "is that the plate says 'Sean Kenyon, Denver, Colorado.' The most important words on that plate are 'Denver, Colorado.'
"It's literally the first time that Tales of the Cocktail, which is the biggest organization in the bar world, recognized a 'no-coast' secondary market for a major award," Kenyon adds. "New York, L.A. and Chicago have ruled the awards since 2008 -- you know, the big cities. It's cool that somebody from a smaller city won, and it shows that it's not just being done on the coast. I think it's huge for us in Denver, as far as the cocktail scene goes. I'm happy for us, and I'm happy for Denver."
He's not the only one who thinks so. After the ceremony, New York Times writer Robert Simonson tweeted that Kenyon's win was "likely to be biggest thing yet to happen to Denver cocktail scene, attention-wise."
So what's next for someone who has received top honors in his industry?
"I want open more great bars," Kenyon says. "So many talented people work here at Williams & Graham. Eventually, I need to have more things for them. I would love to see them running their own programs -- and everybody here behind bar right now is capable of doing so. The Occidental is next; I don't know what's after that. I just want more great places to drink. I'm pretty sure we can open a few in the next couple years."
His new bar will share a kitchen with Williams & Graham, and also the same service standards -- but not the same philosophy. The Occidental will be a more casual, neighborhood bar with a big deck, dartboards, video games, eight draft beer lines and a cocktail list that won't be as ambitious as the one next door.
But that's months away.
"As far as the aftermath of the award," he says, "the love I've received from my peers and friends, and even people I don't know -- people I've never met in person -- is pretty incredible. That's a great feeling in itself, because those people have never met me, and just kind of read about it, or heard about it. I'm at a loss for words."
But not drinks: For now, Kenyon is back to bartending at Williams & Graham. "I'm home five weeks in a row, which makes me very happy," he says. "I get to be back behind my own bar. I'm really psyched about it."
And psyched about the future for Denver's bar scene. "Where this craft is headed," he concludes, "I see a lot of great things. It makes me feel pretty good."
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