A big gap — both stylistically and philosophically — exists between mixed drinks and cocktails. Mixed drinks are two-ingredient blends that you order when you don't care for the taste of a specific type of booze (hence the vodka-tonic), when you want to disguise the fact that you're drinking too early in the day (good morning, Bloody Mary and Screwdriver), or when you just don't want to spend much money to get a head start on the night (ginger ale and whatever's cheap from the well, please). But cocktails have a long and proud history of combining several disparate flavor profiles — bitter, sweet, sour and boozy, to name a few — into a balanced tipple.
And cocktail bars are a big business in Denver today. We're not talking restaurants with bar programs; these are all establishments where the bar is the central focus for guests. Here are the top ten cocktail bars in Denver:
3126 Larimer Street
Part carefree hipster hangout and part smartly conceived classic-cool hot spot, Bar Fausto (named for a legendary Italian cyclist) is the kind of easygoing cocktail bar that makes everyone feel welcome. Opened in summer 2015, this unpolished, sleek-yet-simple RiNo space offers a clever cocktail program and savvy small plates. The ten rotating specialty cocktails are numbered, so you don't have to rattle off five ingredients to get the right drink, and the classics (think Manhattan, French 75, Sidecar) are well crafted. A short but sweet list of wines by the glass and a well-rounded roster of beers means there's something for everyone, while salumi, crudo, bruschetta and other tasty snack items could have you staying for the evening.
The Cooper Lounge
1701 Wynkoop Street
During the summer of 2014, Union Station held its grand reopening for the public after a stunning facelift that included restored windows and fixtures and three coats of white paint, among other things. A few weeks after that, Cooper Lounge, on the mezzanine level of the station, made its debut. The space sports a long, sleek bar with seats facing 17th Street and is decked out with comfortable sofas and lounging areas. The Cooper offers high-end cocktails and an extensive wine list, along with elegant dishes designed by chef/restaurateur Lon Symensma to conjure the golden era of railway travel.
2927 Larimer Street
You'd think this RiNo bar was trying to be a speakeasy, with no phone number listed (see the bar's website for details), a grotto-like setting behind tall fences, and a squadron of food vendors outside to draw you away from the front door. But the DIY atmosphere and unfussy bar service (sans curly mustaches and proper bow ties) add a distinctly laid-back, almost Caribbean vibe to the place. Cocktails, a daily punch and a roster of mixed shots keep things festive, and a short menu of rare draft beers from the U.S. and Europe satisfy beer hunters looking for something far beyond standard IPAs and lagers.
Golden Moon Speakeasy
1111 Miner's Alley, Golden
Sure, there are plenty of great bars in Denver, but how many of them distill all the spirits that they stir and shake? Duck into a tiny passageway off Golden's main drag and you'll slip into a place that does: the cozy, Prohibition-era Golden Moon Speakeasy. All of the booze on the back bar is distilled across town at Golden Moon Distillery — more than a dozen spirits, with more regularly added. Many of the cocktails on the extensive menu are classics, ranging from Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds to lesser-known vintage libations such as the absinthe-based Brunelle or even punches. The bar team here is one of the best around — highly trained, dedicated, and steeped in the classics that their grandparents probably enjoyed.
1422 Larimer Street
When Green Russell's doors — specifically, the pie-shop door that fronts the place — opened in November 2010, they revealed the beautiful space that Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno and award-winning bar manager Adam Hodak had created in this subterranean spot in Larimer Square. Exposed brick walls back intimate nooks and crannies filled with clusters of armchairs; plush red swivel bar chairs line up before the bar, and a greenhouse full of herbs destined for future cocktails casts a green light behind it. Throughout the space, there's an air of hushed, sultry secrecy — even though Green Russell has never been much of a secret. And six years later, it stands as one of the advance guard of Denver's burgeoning craft-cocktail scene.
Pon Pon Bar
2528 Walnut Street
We're hesitant to tell you about Pon Pon, because once you know about this boozy, artsy spot, it will be harder for us to get a seat at the bar. Still, the cocktails are so good, we can't resist sharing. Paul Garcia and Eric Corrigan are the masterminds behind the uber-hip den, which is half bar and half gallery. Order a drink from the list and sit back as the vinyl spins and the hours pass.
RiNo Yacht Club
3350 Brighton Boulevard
When the Caprock Farm Bar pulled out of the Source, diners and shoppers were eager to see what would take over the central bar space in the complex. Pop-up juice bars filled the void for a while, but the booze started pouring again when the RiNo Yacht Club opened for business in September 2014. The Yacht Club is primarily a bar centered around cocktail creations from co-owners Mary Wright and McLain Hedges, who also own the Proper Pour liquor store in the Source. The drink list has a global, almost seafaring theme, but there are also more than a dozen wines are available by the glass, plus another two dozen or so by the bottle, and beers include craft standouts from Colorado and beyond. If you're in need of a little grub but don't want to give up your bar stool, slurp down a few oysters from the raw bar or dig into chef Theo Adley's batter-dipped fried chicken.
Union Lodge No. 1
1543 Champa Street
Arvada Tavern owners Lenka Juchelkova and her husband, Mike Huggins, took over the small space at 1543 Champa Street and opened it as Union Lodge No. 1 in May 2015. The room already had plenty of antique charm: high ceilings, exposed brick and a large foyer with tall wooden doors that open out to the street. Accordingly, when creating a drink menu for this classic American cocktail bar, the pair dug into pre-Prohibition recipes, since the building was built in 1889. There are classics like the Sazerac, the Vieux Carre, the Knickerbocker and the Sherry Cobbler, and in keeping with the era, no Coke or Pepsi products or any other modern-day mixers are used. Ice is chipped by hand, and the cocktails, served in vintage glassware, are all made by hand while you watch. This isn't some hipster hangout; it's a slice of cocktail history for serious beverage nerds.
The Way Back
4132 West 38th Avenue
You know Denver's tastes are changing when we recommend someplace on West 38th Avenue that's not Chubby's. That's because there's room for both greasy-spoon Den-Mex and clever cocktail concoctions on this fast-changing stretch that demarcates the West Highland, Sunnyside and Berkeley neighborhoods. The Way Back is serious about drinks without taking itself too seriously. The evidence: cocktails named Death by Mariachi, I'd Buy That Drink a Drink and Oaxacan the Garden — as well as the threat of a good brain freeze from a frosty daiquiri. And the Way Back knows its way around food, too, so you needn't worry about grabbing a smothered burrito down the street. Options run from small plates of ceviche, sweetbreads or squid to larger portions like a roasted half chicken and a hefty, dry-aged New York strip.
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Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon Street
To create Williams & Graham, bartender Sean Kenyon and Todd Colehour transformed a ramshackle flophouse at West 32nd and Tejon into a stunning speakeasy, with a high, tin ceiling that dates back to 1906 (they took it through a car wash to clean off decades of grime), cozy booths, and an actual bookstore entrance, where you can buy cocktail books and the works of famous drunken authors (think Hemingway). But the focus is the big wooden bar, which has a drink menu featuring vignettes, anecdotes and profiles of spirits written by prolific bartenders from around the country, as well as a roster of simple, elegant cocktails that can be paired with dishes from a small menu. Five years and numerous national and international awards later, Williams & Graham stands as the blueprint for a successful Denver cocktail bar.