No matter how much fun you have at a bar in Denver, there's always the melancholy time when the lights go up and everyone has to pay the tab and head home. If you're unlucky, the bouncer will shove you out. If you're especially unfortunate, the DJ will play Semisonic's "Closing Time." Either way, it's the end.
What with being popcorn-popper stuffed until letout, Williams & Graham may not be the ideal place to toast the end of the night -- not unless you got there earlier enough to grab a space. But it seems appropriate to end this series with a tip of the glass to this exemplary cocktail bar.
Since its opening in 2011, Williams & Graham has been racking up awards and gaining a reputation that extends beyond its neighborhood speakeasy conceit. Few places could live up to the avalanche of hype that accompanied W&G's early days, but two years later, it's still Denver's answer to flagship contemporary cocktail bars like New York's PDT or Seattle's Rob Roy.
At five in the afternoon, I managed to find one of the few times when the handsome bar is nearly unoccupied. It was at once too early and too late for the drink I had my heart set on -- a Corpse Reviver #2, a very twentieth century libation that I knew the barkeeps would execute beautifully.
The name "Corpse Reviver" was used for a drink as far back as 1873, in The Gentleman's Table Guide, and the #2 version was popularized by Harry Craddock's immortal Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in 1930. With Cointreau, Lilet Blanc and lemon juice, held together with gin and an absinthe rinse, it's a Jazz Age update on that brandy-based drink, which still survives in some form as the Corpse Reviver #1.
"There's a #1, a #3 and a #4, and none of them are very good cocktails. The #2, that's the one that's survived the test of time," says Chad Michael George, W&G bartender and president of the Colorado Bartender's Guild. He served me a sunlight-yellow Corpse Reviver #2 ($10) with a tart kick that was less like a shot of adrenaline than the steady shock of a defibrillator. A house-brandied cherry sat proudly in the drink, like a plump Bacchus.
It's heresy to add to the ingredients passed down by Craddock himself, but George says the liquors he uses make all the difference. "The beauty of the Corpse Reviver, in my opinion, is that it's a good, tart cocktail. So by using a less-sweet triple sec or Curacao, you're going to get more of that lemon coming through," he says. George makes use of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, a cognac-based orange liqueur that "is definitely one of the drier, less-sweet orange liqueurs out there," he notes. He also includes Cocchi Americano, which is closer to the Lilet Blanc of Craddock's day than the reformulated stuff at modern bars.
"It's definitely a bartender favorite, a lot of industry people order them," George says. "I make them a lot for people who say they want something slightly herbaceous, but citrusy." In the Savoy book, Craddock recommends the Corpse Reviver #2 as a hangover drink but cautions that "four of these taken in straight succession will unrevive the corpse again."
In my year of soaking up Denver's cocktail culture, I've certainly learned to respect my elders. So heed Mr. Craddock and do not drink more than three of George's elixirs. It's the only sensible option. The CMG Corpse Reviver #2 Ingredients:
3/4 oz. Spring 44 gin 3/4 oz. Cocchi Americano 3/4 oz. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao 3/4 oz. lemon juice 1 dash absinthe
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Rinse or spritz a martini glass with absinthe. Combine ingredients in cocktail shaker and shake well. Garnish with cherry. Contemplate the heavy burden of life in the face of apparent death -- or alternatively, do the "Thriller" dance.