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Stem Ciders

Tucked behind the Mile High Winery in the RiNo district, Stem Ciders boasts of "being just hard enough to find" for cider fans. But the real find here is the rotating series of Tuesday specials — pairings of ciders and cheeses, ciders and pies, an open-mike night that encourages performers with a free glass of cider, and so on. In a town awash with happy hours and wine tastings, Stem Ciders has become a hotbed of real ferment.

Golden Moon Distillery

Sure, there are lots 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 — thirteen spirits, with more coming very soon. "We hit the classics pretty hard," says bar manager Noah Heaney: Twenty-five of the sixty cocktails on his drink menu range from classic 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.

Readers' choice: Williams & Graham

Les Baker V is one of those mad-scientist bartenders, intrigued by the alchemy of cocktails and the magic of mixology. Dry ice? He'll use it. Scorpion venom? He'd probably find a way to work it into a drink. In 2014, he stuck a finger in the eyes of all the snooty, elite bartenders who take cocktails too seriously by creating a bright-blue sapphire of a cocktail: the Blue Negroni. Based on the classic Negroni recipe of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, Baker's version uses gin, dry vermouth and a deconstruction of the Campari portion. He cunningly crafts it with a base of vodka and blue curaçao, then adds ginseng root, orris root, eucalyptus, coriander and black peppercorn. The other ingredients are a secret, of course. Order it by name at Session Kitchen, because it's not on the menu — yet.

The way that Scott and Todd Leopold make their gin tells you a lot about how the dynamic duo does things: First, a spirit is distilled using Colorado-grown grain. Then, unlike many gin producers, Todd individually distills each botanical in separate runs — keeping each of them isolated — to blend later, according to his exacting standards; that way, no one flavor can overpower another. The result: a spirit with delicate layers of flavor. Since 2008, when they moved their operation here from Michigan, the Leopolds have been known as the guys who not only make great spirits, but do so with eco-friendly techniques: organic ingredients, intelligent management of water and waste products, even a reliance on gravity to drain vats instead of using electricity. No artificial ingredients are used in any of their many products, and all spirits are barreled and bottled by hand — an impressive feat handled in Leopold's new, 1,900-square-foot distillery, located just outside Denver.

Readers' choice: Stranahan's

Danielle Lirette

Jake Norris loves whiskey. He was head distiller at Stranahan's when it opened in 2004, running operations for one of Colorado's most-loved spirits. In 2011, when the ownership of Stranahan's changed hands, Norris stayed on for a few months to assist with the transition, then parted ways with the new corporate honchos. When he met Al Laws, he found that they shared a true passion for making small-batch whiskey with no compromises on quality. The two made some booze and put it into barrels, where it sat for more than two years. Norris waited for the day when he could finally release the bronze-colored liquid he'd carefully brought into being. That day arrived in October, when he delivered bottles of A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon to bars, restaurants and liquor stores in the Denver area. Welcome back, Jake.

Since alcohol put Golden on the map, it's not surprising that metro Denver's best dive bar is in this once-sleepy foothills town. Bar fans have been living it up at the Ace Hi Tavern since Leo Stillman purchased the old Opera House restaurant on historic Washington Avenue and opened the bar back in 1961. Today it's run by Leo's grandson, Sid Stillman, and it's still a place where workers getting off their shifts at Coors plop themselves next to Colorado School of Mines students preparing for a tough day of class. The place is Western-themed and Colorado-proud, with maps of the state and "Native" signs adorning the walls, and old-fashioned steer horns fancied up with Mardi Gras beads stationed above the cash register. You can sink into a cushy booth if you don't feel perky enough to perch on a bar stool, and the tavern has plenty of distractions for drinkers who need to rev up for another round, including a pool table. But at a true dive, you don't need more than good company and good drinks for a winning hand — and Ace Hi deals plenty of both.

Readers' choice: hi-dive

After decades of operating bars and restaurants in Grand County, Mike Ayre and Charles Wessels had gotten out of the business — but then they found a spot in Denver that was just too good to refuse, in the heart of Five Points, a part of town that was once jumping with joints. A deal had just gone south on the 115-year-old house and fifty-year-old storefront next door that had been occupied by Dunbar's barbershop; Ayre, who was working in real estate, persuaded Wessels to get back in the game and help put the "bar" in Dunbar. The result is a casual, comfortable spot with exposed-brick walls and a bar made from old wood reclaimed from the house; the original barbershop sign hangs on an interior wall, near old photos of the barbershop and other old Denver scenes. Nearly all of the beer and liquor offered here is local; the food menu is a nod to Wessels's roots, with Southern specials that include a pimento-cheese appetizer. The big Sunday brunch is one of the best-kept secrets in town — almost as big a find as the new patio out back. All in all, Dunbar is a great neighborhood hangout — in a great neighborhood that's making a strong comeback.

Readers' choice: Asbury Provisions

Williams & Graham

If she's not behind the bar at Williams & Graham, Allison Widdecombe is probably winning a cocktail competition somewhere in America. Not content to simply be a part of the stellar team at Williams & Graham — which was recently honored as one of the fifty best bars in the world — Widdecombe has her sights set on even higher summits. In January, she took first place in a national Manhattan competition in New York City...but that's only one of her many victories. Whether it's whiskey, tequila or you name it, Widdecombe can craft a winning recipe with the spirit. The Hawaii native loves Denver, and while on the road, she does her best to rep our city. Not just a skilled and knowledgable bartender, she's also one of the most genuine, gracious and charming people you'll ever meet. Cheers!

Readers' choice: Kari Cummings

If the nature of restaurant service is to take care of people, no one is doing a better job than Nathan Buss, a server at Session Kitchen. Buss took the concept of service to the next level by creating his Tips for Tuesdays program, in which he donates all the tips he makes during his Tuesday-night shifts to charity. He estimates that he's given away over $8,000 so far to local nonprofits such as Urban Peak, Veterans to Farmers, Project Helping and Mile High Squash, to name just a few. What began as a way to help people has attracted guests — sometimes forty or fifty every Tuesday — who dine at his tables for the opportunity to donate to his chosen weekly nonprofit.

So you've settled into your seat at Acorn or Oak at Fourteenth, and you're looking over the menu as your drinks arrive. Look carefully. What you're holding isn't just doing what most menus do — laying out the options and listing ingredients to help you decide what to order. After you've eaten as many meals at these restaurants as we have, you begin to see the menus for what they really are: culinary haiku. Okay, so dish descriptions don't have exactly seventeen syllables, but the way the ingredients come together on your plate is nothing short of poetry — and chef-owner (and 2015 James Beard Foundation semi-finalist) Steven Redzikowski is the reason why. Like any good poet, Redzikowski is a master of juxtaposition, putting together cuisines, spices, flavors and textures in invigorating, unexpected ways. Take carrots, for example. Who else would pair these root vegetables with burrata, blood oranges and chile-almond jam? Or sprinkle togarashi over shaved apples and kale? With an eye to the seasons and a global curiosity, Redzikowski dreams up the food we long to eat, with numerous dishes so good, they've become the standards against which others in town are measured.

Readers' choice: Jennifer Jasinski

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