Sean Kenyon isn't the kind of guy to shy away from the spotlight -- or the liquor cabinet. The Denver-based cocktail kingpin (or bartender, as he prefers) has been slinging drinks for 26 years, and he's incredibly good at it, racking up contest titles and accolades around the world, sitting on the board of the Colorado Bartenders Guild, acting as the brand ambassador for different spirits, opening Williams & Graham, a speakeasy in Highland where he shares ownership, writing an occasional bartending column for Westword, and elevating Denver's drinking scene to new heights.
But when Johnny Ballen and chef Max MacKissock gave Kenyon the opportunity to create the cocktail list at the new Squeaky Bean, which re-sprouted two weeks ago at 1500 Wnkoop Street, Kenyon "freaked."
"I've been doing this for years, I own my own bar and I was working at the old Squeaky Bean, but this cocktail project freaked me out a little bit because Max is just so crazy-talented, but it's also a really cool challenge, and I couldn't miss the opportunity to be a part of such an insanely talented team," he says.
And MacKissock, asserts Kenyon, "has become a monster in the kitchen." Not that he wasn't already -- MacKissock was doing some of the most ingenious food in the city at the former Bean -- but in the year between closing the old Bean and reopening the new one, "Max's creativity has just skyrocketed," says Kenyon.
And it was up to him, he admits, to design a cocktail roster that would do justice to MacKissock's fearlessness in the kitchen.
"I'm a classicist," says Kenyon, "but I look for unique touches, and I love experimenting with new approaches and techniques, just like Max." He adds that when he created the cocktail syllabus at the Bean, he was half "Willy Wonka and half Mr. Potato head -- that's how my mind works," he tells me.
His list, which is divided into 1970s and '80s movie headings -- The Longest Yard (tall drinks); Rocky III (all drinks served on block ice); Up the Academy (drinks that are served up); and Weird Science (crazy-fun experiments) -- is compact and focused but ambitious, especially his smoked cocktails, which fall under the Weird Science heading, a catalog of cocktails that, like the rest of his roster, will change at least four times a year.
"I've seen people cold-smoke cocktails before -- it's not new -- but a lot of bartenders use wood smoke, which I think is too harsh," says Kenyon, who was recently in Chicago, where he spoke with a European bartender about the development of the Bean cocktail list -- and the potential use of smoldering spices to smoke his own potions.
When he returned to Denver, he went straight to the Savory Spice Shop, where he handpicked a litany of different herbs and spices: dehydrated ginger, dehydrated lemon and orange peel, Saigon cassia cinnamon, and allspice and cloves, which he aromatizes and grinds in house. "The mix produces a lighter smoke, but you still get the great toasted flavors of the spices," he says, noting that he uses frozen beakers, a PolyScience Smoking Gun and a bowl -- as in a similar bowl that you'd use for pot -- and natural corks to cap the smoke. Kenyon is currently infusing smoke into three of his cocktails, and the result is a perfumed bonfire in a glass.
"We pour the smoked cocktails tableside, and you just get these beautiful aromas," explains Kenyon. "The smoke lays the atmosphere right in front of you, and it settles on the top of the cocktail like night mist on a lake."
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours behind the bar with Kenyon, sipping the majority of his new cocktails, and while I was pretty damn woozy by the end of the marathon, I managed to capture his liquid assets on film, the photos of which are on the following pages.
Smoke & Mirrors: Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Sandeman's rainwater Madeira, Leopold Bros. peach liqueur, Bitter Truth decanter bitters. Real Genius: Tanqueray No. Ten, Blume Marillen Apricot Eau-de-Vie, pineapple syrup, fresh lemon and Angostura bitters. Naked Gun: Spring 44 vodka, honeydew melon, lemon balm from the Squeaky Bean farm, ginger and fresh lemon. The Devil Inside: Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Briottet crème de Cassis, fresh lime juice and house-brewed ginger beer. Old Tom's Cup: Ransom Old Tom gin, Angostura bitters, muddled fresh strawberries and cucumbers and sparkling lemon. The Uncle Jesse: Old Grand Dad Bonded whiskey, Rothman & Winter Orchard cherry and Cynar. Night Shift: Appleton 12-year rum, Prunier Axel Gay cognac, Bonal Gentiane-Quina, Allspice Dram. Up in Smoke: Bank's Five Island rum, Dimmi liqueur, Domaine de Canton and lemon bitters. Around the Equator: Linie Aquavit, cherry Heering, a Danish cherry liqueur and Nux Alpina Nocino, a green walnut liqueur. The Squeaky Bean spritz: Aperol, Vovetti prosecco and soda water with a Castelventrano olive.