Denver Is Already a Cocktail City!

Sean Kenyon at one of his bars, Occidental.
Sean Kenyon at one of his bars, Occidental.
I woke up in a Boston hotel room this past Friday morning to this headline on “Death and Co.'s Arrival May Turn Denver Into a Cocktail City.”

My first thoughts:

“What the fucking fuck?”

“Who wrote this shit?”

“What should I have for breakfast?”

Honestly, I am incredibly excited about Death & Company opening in Denver. And you should be as well. The owners, operators and many of the staff are friends and people I have known and respected for many years. They have received worldwide acclaim, and rightfully so: Their bars are well thought-out and their training program is top-notch. Also, they have seamlessly integrated into the Denver cocktail community. They had applicants from all over the world, but they chose to hire locals. From what I’ve seen, D&C has come to Denver to be part of our community, not to set itself above the community. I will drink there often.


click to enlarge At a 2014 RiNo Yacht Club event, McLain Hedges (left) and Death & Company owner David Kaplan show off identical tattoos, taken from Death & Company's whiskey menu. - KEVIN GALABA
At a 2014 RiNo Yacht Club event, McLain Hedges (left) and Death & Company owner David Kaplan show off identical tattoos, taken from Death & Company's whiskey menu.
Kevin Galaba
The Condé Nast Traveler writer, Mark Elwood, has no clue about where Denver is as a “cocktail city.” I am tired of Denver not getting the respect it is due. I am done with major-market bias and the notion that food and cocktails are inherently better in bigger cities. I have had guests practically pat me on the head as if to say, "It's so cute you are making great cocktails in Denver."

True story: At the Squeaky Bean in 2012, a guest asked me out to the table to say in all seriousness, "This is the best Manhattan I've ever had, and I know, because I am from Manhattan." While I was grateful for the compliment, it is an example of how we are perceived as a cocktail and culinary city.

The rebirth of cocktails in Denver began around 2005, mostly in restaurants. Thoughtful bartenders were teaming up with and learning from their chefs about flavor pairings, making syrups, aromatizing spices, etc. They were taking a culinary approach to cocktails in places like Elway’s Cherry Creek, TAG, Steuben’s, Root Down, Colt & Gray, etc. They dove into history and learned about the 150-year-old recipes and techniques. I am extremely lucky to have been bartending in Denver during this period of time.

The Colorado Bartenders Guild was formed in 2008, and we started to meet regularly. We shared ideas and challenged each other creatively. Currently, there are over 200 active members.

The Cruise Room, our oldest cocktail bar, opened December 6, 1933, the day after Prohibition ended. (Their cocktail program was long neglected, but has since been revived by Sage Restaurant Group.) In 2011, Green Russell debuted as the first new dedicated craft-cocktail bar in Denver. Eight months later we opened Williams & Graham. Since that time, over 25 cocktail-centric bars have opened, many of them earning national attention. Our bar, Williams & Graham, was named one of the World’s Top 50 Bars in 2015 by Drinks International Magazine, and Best American Cocktail Bar at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in 2016.

Several others in our bar community have won national or international competitions and awards as well, including Bryan Dayton, Jason Patz, Chad Michael George, Allison Widdecombe, McLain Hedges, Mike Henderson and Ken Kodys.

Mark Elwood of, I have a few questions regarding your research into Denver as a cocktail city. When was your last visit? Which bars did you frequent? How did you come to the opinion that Denver was not a cocktail city before Death & Company’s arrival? I’d love for you to come visit and let me take you on a three-day tour of our city.

I live in Denver, a cocktail city, and I am proud to be part of this community. Death & Company does not legitimize us as a cocktail culture, but it will certainly enhance our scene. It will not “turn” us into a cocktail city; it will make us better for its presence.

A short, but by no means complete, list of Denver cocktail bars/lounges (restaurants with cocktail programs not included): The Way Back, Union Lodge No.1, Ste. Ellie, The Tatarian, Bar Fausto, Finn's Manor, Green Russell, Hudson Hill, RiNo Yacht Club, Big Trouble, Palenque Mezcaleria, Williams & Graham, Occidental, the Family Jones, Millers and Rossi, B&GC, American Bonded, Arvada Tavern, Cooper Lounge, Cruise Room, Bellwether, Curio, Kiss & Ride, Fort Greene, Bar Helix, Retrograde, Poka Lola Social Club and Terminal Bar.

Now, maybe you should rethink that headline.