The more I travel, the more I'm impressed by the barmen and barwomen of Denver -- many of the beer, wine and spirits professionals in our city can stand with any other bartender in the world. They're professional and knowledgeable, and they pour some pretty awesome drinks. Without a doubt, I had some of the best meals I've ever had in Denver in 2011. But many of those meals were enhanced with the help of the stellar beverage programs that have become the norm in our dining scene.
Here are the ten best beverages, alcoholic and otherwise, that I consumed since January 1 of this year:
WC and Soda at Oak at Fourteenth Bryan Dayton's bar staff at Oak at Fourteenth had plenty of time to meditate when the restaurant closed for eight months after an early spring fire, and when the place finally reopened, it was clear that no one rested on their laurels during the sabbatical. Case in point: the bottled housemade alcoholic sodas barman Greg Van Wagner spent his summer developing. When he popped the top on the WC and Soda, a kumquat and tarragon soda infused with campari, I wanted to squeal with delight. I foresee a long summer afternoon of patio drinking that includes at least a six-pack of those things in 2012.
Scorpion Bowl at Steuben's I'm always impressed by the Layman brothers' knowledge when it comes to cocktailing, but I am absolutely enamored of their love for all things tiki. They've got a couple of kick-ass throwbacks to the golden age of island bars on their list, but my favorite is the scorpion bowl. The knock-out mix of Gosling's Black Seal Rum, Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum, Leopold Bros. Peach Liqueur, orgeat, orange juice, pineapple juice and cranberry juice is served in a volcano bowl and topped with flaming Goslings 151 rum. It's technically for two to four drinkers, but I know at least a few people -- myself included -- who have consumed one on their own and then coasted through the rest of the night on a happy buzz.
Whimiscal wine pairings at Table 6 A lot of places in this town can pair wine to food, but none so whimsically as Table 6. Aaron Forman nails it every time, dropping off geeky selections, mind-blowing matches and stuff you'd swear you'd never drink, just to prove you wrong. My favorite instance of this in 2011 came when I ordered a lobster dish and Forman dropped by with a "slutty California chardonnay," which I would have never, in a million years, ordered. "It's naughty, but you have to," were his only words. And damn it, he was right.
House margaritas at El Camino My heart is open to all forms of the margarita, from the frozen -- which is sometimes not a margarita at all -- to the classic blend of good tequila, good triple sec and fresh lime. But I've consumed more margaritas at El Camino than anywhere else, where the house version is equal parts sweet and tart and so drinkable that I'll while away an evening with a group of friends drinking pitcher after pitcher. I like mine on the rocks, no salt.
L'Hermitière Poiré De Normandie at Colt & Gray I'll admit that Colt & Gray is the closest thing to a home bar that I've got, and since head barman Kevin Burke mixed up the best brown, bitter and stirred cocktail I'd ever had the first time I sat at his bar, I've consumed countless libations in one of his seats. But this year, with an order of oysters, Burke poured me a glass of poire -- pear cider from France. The sweet, bubbly drink was a surprising and perfect complement to the salinity of the briny oysters.
Various beer selections from Ryan Conklin at Euclid Hall I've heard more than one person say Ryan Conklin, certified cicerone and beer director at Euclid Hall, should be wearing a suit and working the floor like a sommelier, and after drinking through much of his beer list this year, I agree. Conklin's got a comprehensive understanding of everything beer, and he takes great care in putting together a beer list that has something for everyone and pairs beautifully with the food. Whether I'm feeling a tap pull of Tank 7 from Boulevard, a bottle of the Duchesse de Bourgogne -- my favorite sour ever -- or something plucked off the rotating Library List to pair with my food, Conklin will deliver. I've never been disappointed.
Scarpetta Barbera on tap at Pizzeria Locale I'm a big fan of the wine-on-tap trend, not least because it means the reds actually get served at the right temperature. But the place I'd most like to guzzle a carafe of the juice? Pizzeria Locale, where Scarpetta Barbera pours straight from a stainless steel nozzle. The juicy, high-acid wine is an ideal pairing to pizza - and it's a red I can drink summer or winter, rain or shine. It's good enough to make me forgo the rest of the list whenever I'm posted up for a pie, even though you can sip anything from the formidable Frasca cellar when you're sitting in the pizzeria.
Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol, neat, at Pinche Tacos A rowdy evening at the bar at the new Pinche Tacos taqueria began with a massive tequila and a new discovery: Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol, which is in the same family as tequila and mezcal, but made from a different plant. Silky, smooth, lightly sweet and definitely vegetal, it's lighter than tequila... and I was instantly in love with the plata version; later tastes of the reposado confirms it just gets better with age and time in a barrel.
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Bacon bloody Mary at Arapahoe Basin Perhaps it's because I've been drinking the bloody Marys at Arapahoe Basin since I was underage, but I've never found another that surpasses it in quality. Made with a base that's equal parts spicy, peppery, tangy, salty and horseradish-y with a full pickle salad for a garnish, it's a killer way to kick a hangover before getting on the slopes. But just when I thought it could get no better, it did - with bacon-infused vodka and a strip of bacon garnish. Breakfast - or lunch - in a glass.
Cappuccino at Crema Coffee House I enjoy my fair share of tippling, but I actually can't get my day started without some sort of coffee drink. And while most of the time I'm drinking it strong and black and -- hopefully -- from a French press, there are many mornings when I'm making a special trip to Crema for a cappuccino. Few places in town pull a shot of espresso as well as these guys, and fewer still top off that great shot with properly proportions of milk and foam. But Crema does it right -- really right -- and to make it better, the shop changes up the espresso beans, giving me ample opportunity to geek out while getting my caffeine fix.
An honorable mention goes to $2 PBRs and gin and tonics at Lipgloss, La Rumba's weekly Friday night dance party, because they're served by the best high volume bartenders I've ever encountered.