Best Brewery Innovation 2016 | The Crowler | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Oskar Blues

Until a few years ago, the only way to take home beer from your favorite non-packaging brewery was if it sold growlers — typically 64-ounce glass containers filled at the tap. But these vessels are too big and unwieldy, and they often leave beer flat after a day or two. More recently, breweries began offering smaller containers made of different materials, which helped. But last year, Oskar Blues revolutionized carryout beer with the Crowler machine. These allow bartenders to force oxygen out and then seal a 32-ounce can of any beer a brewery has on tap — and although they aren't reusable, Crowler cans are easier to carry and recyclable, and keep beer fresher longer. Oskar Blues has now sold hundreds of the machines to breweries all over the country; in the Denver area, you can find them at Cerebral, Lost Highway, Black Shirt, Dry Dock, Wonderland, Grist, and Great Divide's Barrel Bar, among others. Look for more soon.

New to craft beer? Want to try an ounce or two of several different styles — from the standard to the exotic — without committing to an entire glass? First Draft offers the freedom to do all of that. The place works like this: Walk in and lay down a credit card and your ID in exchange for a card or bracelet that operates the taps. Then walk over to the wall of forty taps, swipe your card and pour a little, or a lot, of any beer into your glass; you'll be charged by the ounce. Then clean your glass and try something else. Want to sample the latest Portland pale ale, a new sour, an obscure beer from a Colorado mountain town? Do it here.

Laura Shunk

Sitting in the dining room downstairs at the Arvada Tavern, you'd never know that the upstairs houses one of the most authentic and fun speakeasy experiences in the area. Slip into the old-fashioned phone booth in the back and head up a long flight of stairs that takes you into the modestly sized but cozy and warmly lit Bernard Ballroom, where you can order one of the Tavern's beautifully crafted cocktails — the bar makes a mean French 75, as well as a delightfully orange-flavored take on the old-fashioned called an Olde Town Fashioned — and kick back at one of the well-worn wooden tables. On Friday and Saturday nights, the ballroom hosts free live music, usually jazz or bluegrass — perfect for the made-for-dancing wood floor under your feet.

Sarah James

Several of Denver's best dive bars disappeared this year: The Rocky Flats Lounge suffered a devastating fire; the owner of the Rustic Tavern sold the spot, which is now a bakery and breakfast joint; the Filling Station will soon be wiped off the map by a big RiNo development. Other longtime dives have been renovated into shiny shadows of their former selves, often transformed into hangouts for hipsters. Well, we're betting you won't find a single hipster at Sam's Bar & Lounge, a watering hole that opened on Leetsdale Drive 62 years ago. You won't find any wi-fi, either; as one message on the bar's chalkboard urges, "Talk to each other and get drunk." That's not hard, especially if you sit at the big, four-sided bar — there are a few comfy booths, too — and chat it up with the bartender, who pours stiff, inexpensive drinks. As so much of old Denver dries up, the neon sign of Sam's shines like a beacon. Drink up!

Readers' choice: hi-dive
Courtesy of Star Bar

Star Bar will surprise you. The scruffy, wood-paneled bar in the Ballpark neighborhood often gets rowdy with karaoke and baseball fans and country music, but it shines unexpectedly when it comes to cocktails. A lot of that has to do with a back bar stocked with carefully selected spirits — with a strong emphasis on Colorado products — that includes rare Japanese whiskeys, more than a dozen Italian amari, and an entire barrel of bourbon. But it really comes down to the bartenders: Star Bar's staff is composed of a variety of local talent, whose brilliance is evident in their capacity to serve anything from a Coors Light to a caipirinha. Bartender Les Baker's smoked Manhattan, for example, is made with bourbon, artichoke liqueur, sweet vermouth and whiskey-barrel-aged bitters, served in a tobacco-smoked glass. In a twist on the usual, Star Bar is a dive bar for cocktail connoisseurs.

What's old is new again at the Cooper Lounge, the stunning cocktail bar that opened last year on the mezzanine of the reborn Denver Union Station. The setting is elegant and intimate, with the kind of furniture you might find in your grandmother's fancy living room, surprisingly comfy here; servers roll by with upscale snacks courtesy of ChoLon's Lon Symensma, designed to recall menus from the great days when everyone would follow the advice on Union Station sign and travel by train. Still, we prefer to grab a seat at the long, expansive bar — with 28-foot-high cast-iron windows offering a stunning view of downtown — where you can chat with a fellow traveler or the friendly bartender who pours cocktails as classic, and classy, as the setting. The prices may be steep, but the drinks are stiff. And on the night of a full moon, when all of 17th Street is suddenly aglow, the view is priceless. All aboard!

Readers' choice: Williams & Graham
Mark Antonation

Part carefree-hipster hangout and part smartly conceived classic-cool hotspot, Bar Fausto is the kind of easygoing cocktail bar that makes everyone feel welcome. Calculatedly unpolished, the sleek-yet-simple Fausto — the name comes from legendary cyclist Fausto Coppi — is the creation of friends Jonathan Power of the Populist and Koan Goedman of Huckleberry Roasters, who have pooled their talents to offer 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 — Hungary's Bull's Blood and the lovely Carpineto sangiovese among them — and a well-rounded roster of beers means there's something for everyone, and salumi, crudo, bruschetta and other tasty snack items could have you stopping for the night. Happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday) brings $2 "Dad's Beers" — including Genesee lager and Schlitz — and two oysters for $5.

Those who like to consume non-alcoholic beverages in adult settings often get the shaft when it comes to choices beyond the soda gun. But Syntax Physic Opera gets everything for the non-drinker right — starting with its calm and smooth beet lemonade, made in-house. For the sweeter tooth, Syntax carries Rocky Mountain Soda's all-natural Evergreen Elderberry soda and its spicy Golden Ginger Beer. But where the innovative, old-timey saloon of the future really shines? Its fascinating and fancy cocktail menu, stacked with a variety of uniquely formulated drinks layered with muddled mints, citrus zests and bitters — many of which can be made with soda in place of alcohol. During certain times of the year, Syntax also offers housemade shrubs — a fruit syrup preserved with vinegar that can be mixed with water or alcohol for a tangy take on refreshment. To top it off, the venue's service is constant and kind; regardless of how much booze you aren't consuming, these mixologists are happy to serve you.

The cocktail menu at the Squeaky Bean is filled with fresh ingredients that arrive daily from the restaurant's nearby two-acre farm, falling right into the hands of bar manager Jack Bethel. Those ingredients become the foundation for an exquisite array of delicious drinks. But Bethel is inventive with any ingredient, which is evident in his redesign of the classic rock and rye: he infuses rye whiskey with apricots, then again with the faintly peppery cubeb berry, grains of paradise, cloves, cardamom and citrus peels in a process called nitrogen cavitation, which breaks down an ingredient's cell walls to produce fresher flavors. Bethel's strategy is to pack as much flavor as he can into a single ingredient, allowing him to make complex cocktails with only a few components. His cocktail program is a fun one, executed by a team of bartenders that pride themselves on being affable and offbeat.

In the cocktail world, there's a lot of focus on Prohibition this and Prohibition that, but Union Lodge No.1 delves even deeper into America's past, resurrecting recipes and techniques from the glorious barroom days of the late nineteenth century. The cocktail is an American invention, and owners Mike Huggins and Lenka Juchelkova open a window onto history with a menu that's chock-full of cobblers, flips, fizzes, sours, smashes and juleps. They essentially created a museum of bygone cocktails, keeping alive recipes like the Ramos gin fizz, the Saratoga, the Knickerbocker and the Blue Blazer. The back bar is limited to products that were available around 1880 (no vodka here, and no Coke or Pepsi, either). Bar manager Alex Daniluk trains his bartenders to carefully craft each drink in the traditional way of the period.

Readers' choice: Bar Fausto

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