Three years have elapsed since Williams & Graham and Occidental owner Sean Kenyon and Matchbox proprietors Justin Anthony and Lisa Vedovelli first announced they were working together on a RiNo bar called American Bonded, but last month, the three revealed that they're in the final phase of construction and are expecting to debut their bar in the first quarter of 2018. And when they do open the doors, they'll have one of this city's most high-profile bartenders at the helm: Kenyon says he's tapped Kevin Burke, who has spent the last eight and a half years managing the bar at Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie, to manage the bar at American Bonded.
Kenyon says he's watched Burke evolve as a bartender over the past several years, and after he started thinking Burke should manage American Bonded, he couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. So he approached Burke and worked out a deal. "The guy is super-talented — he has an eye for cocktails, a palate for whiskey and a passion for American whiskey," Kenyon says. "Kevin is someone who I can trust at the helm. He knows my work ethic. We have very similar philosophies. I needed someone who could nurture and teach their own staff. I didn’t want it to be a staff that I hired and taught, then handed over control."
Burke also saw the stars align. For starters, he really identified with American Bonded's mission to bring a high-quality, reasonably priced cocktail bar to the city. "I have this personal belief that a good cocktail need not be expensive," he explains. "There are a lot of great $13, $14, $15 cocktails out there, but there are also a lot of not-so-great $13, $14, $15 cocktails. If you have a $15 cocktail that you don’t enjoy, well, you can get a really good hamburger for that price. Cocktail culture has positioned itself in such a way that guests don’t feel like they can speak up — they don’t feel like they have agency."
He also shared Kenyon and Anthony's sensibility for putting the guest at the center of the experience. "Both of them have a very strong belief in customer-focused service," he says. "I’ve always considered it a personal tenet that as a bartender, I don’t serve drinks, I serve people."
Sealing the deal, RiNo is Burke's home turf, and he's looking forward to serving his neighbors. "I’ve lived in RiNo for the last six years — I think there’s something really responsible about bringing something to our own neighborhood and people."
Burke's transition marks the end of an era at Colt & Gray, but the bartender says it was an ideal moment to move on. "If I felt like I was just leaving something, I don’t think I’d be able to," he says. "A lot of what I was doing there, and what I felt strongly about there, was me being nostalgic. And in so many ways, I think nostalgia is important, but it can act like a block. We can reject new thinking or ways of operating or engaging service because we’re locked into this mindset."
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He's leaving the bar in good hands, he adds. "I’m very grateful for everything Colt & Gray has offered me. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of what I’ve done without the support of Nelson [Perkins, Colt & Gray's owner]. In no small part, me taking a step away is going to allow them to achieve greatness."
Burke's looking forward to a new challenge: forgoing the extensive booze library he built at Colt & Gray to focus on a more edited back bar — and to shine a spotlight on American whiskey. "American whiskey has become a much broader category with the advent of micro-distillation and what we'll charitably call negociant distillation," he says (referring to companies that buy distilled product and finish it in their own facility). "We are spoiled for choice in flavor and availability. I’ve been recently accused of having one foot firmly planted in Kentucky, and to that criticism I would shrug and say thank you. But I’m also interested in all the experimental stuff. This is an opportunity to use our bullhorn to shape the discussion."
The bartender plans to work a few more shifts at both Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie before he makes his exit, which will happen sometime in mid-January. Kenyon says staff training will start then, too, and American Bonded is now looking at an early February opening. "We're targeting Groundhog Day. I would love that to be our anniversary," he adds.
When it does open, American Bonded will be built around a 36-foot bar ("It's got to be one of the longest in Denver," says Kenyon), twenty draft lines, a classic and classically inspired affordable cocktail program, food from J Street food truck and a rooftop bar.