Ask the bartender: What's up with Colorado winning so many contests?

I just returned from a week in Manhattan (New York, not Kansas), where I worked at the BAR 5-day program. The BAR 5-day is a masters'-level spirits and mixology course taught by six men -- F. Paul Pacult, Steve Olson, Andy Seymour, David Wondrich, Doug Frost and Dale Degroff -- who are icons in our industry, and each year it is attended by about fifty hand-selected bartenders from around the globe.

This year, knowing that I am from Colorado, many of those bartenders asked variations on the same question: "What is going on in Denver? It seems like Denver/Colorado bartenders are winning many of the big national competitions..."

After winning the national Bombay Sapphire competition (and moving on to the international finals), Bryan Dayton said it best: When it comes to cocktails, "We're not just a flyover state anymore." In the past eighteen months, four of Colorado's bartenders have taken top prize in a national or international competition: Dayton (the Sapphire win), Mark Stoddard of Bitter Bar (international 42 Below World Cup winner), Noah Heaney (one of five national winners for Don Q) and myself (national Domaine de Canton Bartender of the Year competition).

And yesterday, I learned that Alex Parks of Green Russell is a national finalist in the Auchentoshan Switch competition, which will send the national winner to London for a week at a top London cocktail bar.

During the eleven years I have been in Colorado, the cocktail scene has gone from nothing to nationally recognized. And unlike in bigger cities, for the most part this has happened without ego or pretension. We've come up quietly because before Green Russell opened last November, most of the great cocktails in Colorado were coming out of restaurants, not cocktail bars. Prior to Green Russell's arrival, the Front Range only had the Cruise Room to claim as a cocktail bar. But while the hospitality and atmosphere at the Cruise Room are awesome, their cocktails leave a lot to be desired.

I receive a lot of credit for helping to change Colorado cocktail culture through the bar program at Steuben's Food Service. (Randy Layman's program at Steuben's is still one of the best in the city.) While that acclaim is flattering, the real forefathers of Colorado's cocktail scene are three men: Dayton, Ky Belk of Elway's, and James Lee, now of Le Grand Bistro. Belk and Lee, then with Zolo, were using fresh juices, making bitters, mastering the classics and pushing the envelope of new cocktail creation long before anyone else; I looked to them both for inspiration at the time and continue to do so. Dayton was the first to suggest creating a bartenders' guild and built the Colorado Bartenders Guild (a USBG affiliate) from a dozen members to almost 200; he also served as the original president. The guild offers educational seminars, competitions and events to unite Colorado bartenders for the greater good of our craft.

These three fine gentlemen are directly responsible for the rise of Colorado's cocktail prominence nationally, and I raise a glass (filled with mezcal) to you all. I am proud of what we have achieved throughout our state, and I know it will only get better.

With that, let's all cheer on Alex Parks as she heads to Vegas for a chance to win another national title for Colorado! Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can often find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall and here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. Post them in the comments section below.

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Sean Kenyon
Contact: Sean Kenyon