Star Bar
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.

The Cooper Lounge

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
Bar Fausto
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.

Syntax Physic Opera

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 Squeaky Bean Farm + Table

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.

Union Lodge No. 1

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

Acorn serves some of the best food in Denver. But across from the bustling kitchen is Chris Clewell, shaking up some of Denver's best cocktails behind the bar. Clewell has always been relentless in his pursuit of excellence — a challenging goal in a restaurant with meticulously high standards. But his dedication is paying off: His recipes started showing up on Acorn's cocktail menu, and he now helps to run the bar program there. Clewell seemed to be everywhere in 2015 — participating in local and national cocktail competitions, bartending events and any educational opportunity that could further his knowledge of his craft. But his talents go way beyond mere technique: Sitting at his bar, you're as charmed by his humility and empathy as you are delighted by his drinks.

Readers' choice: Brittany Wangsness

Larimer Square, once considered an unsafe part of town, was slowly gentrified into the downtown core's most glamorous block. But the glitz of the resulting restaurants and retail spaces has slowly spread northward twenty blocks, peppering Larimer Street with places to eat and drink. Work & Class, Cart-Driver and Los Chingones were the pioneers that first broke dirt at 25th Street, and that movement took over every block up to 35th, where Hop Alley and Metroboom are surrounded by fresh construction sites, promising even more watering holes. In between are a winery, two breweries, and a handful of Denver's hottest restaurants, including the Populist, Bar Fausto and Finn's Manor. Side streets include two cideries, more breweries, and even more bars and restaurants, making this part of town an easy night of bar-hopping and boozing — all within walking distance of each other.

Linger
Mark Manger

Ky Belk is a man with his eyes on what the world is drinking. As bar manager at Linger, he's charged with synching his bar program with the kitchen's ambitiously diverse, globally inspired menu. He does that by creating drink recipes that represent every corner of the world, from sangrias to Scotch punches. Belk even offers global twists on classics, such as the Thai Old Fashioned, with peanut-infused whiskey, tamarind and bitters. But while noticing the rise of gin bars in Spain, Belk was quick to design his own Spanish-style gin and tonic, which captures the botanical essence of gin. He stuffs a large wine glass with thyme, juniper berries and grapefruit bitters, relying on the tapered sides of the glass to capture those aromas. After adding ice, he pours in gin and grapefruit juice, topping it with an herbaceous, fizzy tonic water from Spain. It's delicious and refreshing, and pretty, too: When people see one from across the dining room, they order the Spanish Gin-Tonic in droves.

Leopold Bros.

Distiller Todd Leopold hit the bull's-eye last summer — yet again — with his version of a bitter Italian liqueur that he named, simply, Aperitivo. The 22nd spirit in the Leopold Bros. lineup is an astringent, scarlet-hued aperitif that finds a rightful place on back bars next to Campari and Aperol, its cousins by nature. Aperitivo's base spirit is vodka, which Leopold re-distills in two separate batches — one with grapefruit peel, the other with coriander, saving only the best parts of each of those distillations. In a mixing tank, the grapefruit and coriander distillates are blended, then allowed to macerate for two to three weeks with cane sugar and a blend of botanicals: hyssop, petite wormwood, gentian root, vanilla and sarsaparilla root. The result is an earthy, floral and slightly bitter spirit that is perfect in a Negroni (or its whiskey variation, the Boulevardier) — or simply on the rocks. Notes Leopold, "There's a floral overlay, with the grapefruit dancing above it."

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