Through a Glass, Darkly

They'll Drink to That
Foam, foam on the range: Denver's long and liquid history.
By Patricia Calhoun

Before it toasted Denver as the "Drunkest Big City in America," Men's Health studied the number of drunk-driving arrests in the country's 101 largest metro areas, as well as the number of alcohol-related deaths (not including those in frat houses) and the number of alcohol-related liver diseases. To determine the winner of September's "Is Your City Sloshed?" survey, the magazine didn't even need to factor in Denver's low bar-to-resident ratio; or the fact that its mayor co-founded what has become the biggest brewpub in America; or that metro Denver's liquid assets -- alcoholic or no -- are such a big business that this area rated number one in the nation "for beverage production industry cluster employment concentration," according to a study funded by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.; or even that a certain Senate candidate carried the name of Coors. Most important, it ignored this piece of irrefutable evidence: Denver is the home of Modern Drunkard.

Since Drunkard was founded in 1996 by Frank Kelly Rich -- former Army Ranger, bartender and, perhaps most important, author of the early Shagman commercials for Rocky's Autos -- it's grown from a humble zine to a business that's now going global. "I didn't have ideas of it going out of Denver," Rich admits, but this weekend, his brainchild rated a major piece in the sober-sided New York Times, headlined "A Serious Business for a Humorous Drunkard."

Sitting at the Carioca Cafe on Sunday, Rich didn't have much time to contemplate his sudden rise to respectability. He was just days -- and many drinks -- away from the deadline for delivering the Modern Drunkard Manifesto to Penguin, the winner of a major bidding war six months ago for rights to the book. The Manifesto will consist largely of articles from the magazine, which regularly includes alcohol-consumption advice (Rich believes the drinking age should be lowered to eighteen, because "who's ever heard of someone drinking himself to death in a bar?"), as well as investigative reports on everything from the drinking habits of Mayberry's residents to the activities of MADD to ruminations on "The Zen of Drinking," penned by Rich himself. "I wrote it when I was really drunk," he says. "Because that's when you get to know yourself."

Modern Drunkard, which comes out bimonthly (or close enough for a publication that celebrates alcohol), is distributed free in bars around Denver and select cities, is sold for $4.50 at Borders and other big chains across the country, and is even carried on newsstands in London and Japan. Rich plans to spin off city-specific editions soon, following the model made popular by the Onion, and in the meantime, there's the website and the book and, yes, an annual convention. The first-ever Modern Drunkard convocation this past May attracted 500 drinkers from around the world to Las Vegas, where they drank, listened to lectures, drank, and even got married: Two people who'd chatted on the website headed off to the chapel within fifty minutes of meeting face-to-face.

Rich was born in Las Vegas forty years ago. His father drove a cab there, and he discovered early on the "glamour of drinking." By the time he reached Denver in 1992, he'd been in the Army, bartended in England and written the Jake Strait Bogeyman series, which made him enough money to drive around the country in a Corvair with his laptop. His first stop here: the Lion's Lair.

Denver, Rich fast discovered, "was a great drinking town." And it still is. So four years later, he moved back here, founded Modern Drunkard, put the zine on hold, made a movie, restarted the magazine as a glossy in 2001, got married to a bartender he'd met at the Streets of London pub -- Christa Rich is now Modern Drunkard's marketing director -- and kept the business growing. And all while the alcohol kept flowing.

When faithful Drunkard readers pass through town, they'll call Rich and often challenge him to a drink-off. "It's like every new gunslinger comes to town and says, ŒI've got to out-drink you,'" he says.

The challengers never win.

Denver has a long history of drinking research. For that, you can thank Tom Noel, "Dr. Colorado," who holds forth every week at the "Wasted Friday Afternoon Club" held at the Wazee Supper Club, one of the bars that makes Denver a great drinking town.

Back in 1973, Noel was a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Denver when he and professor Lyle Dorsett retired to Soapy Smith's bar on 14th Street (a building soon to be reincarnated as the Martini Ranch) to talk history -- and historic drinking. One month after Denver's founding, in 1858, Richen "Uncle Dick" Wooton had hosted a very liquid Christmas celebration, serving tin cups filled with a liquor variously described as "tanglefoot, shake me, rot-gut or bust head." Early on, this city had a reputation as such a bar-friendly place that Prohibitionist Carrie Nation campaigned here -- chopping up nude saloon paintings with her hatchet -- and while other municipalities supported her efforts, Denver locked her up.