Behind the Bar: Ann Whitley of the Rio Grande

On Saturday, August 15, the Rio Grande will celebrate ten years of pouring on the fun -- and pouring out the booze -- in LoDo. This homegrown chain is a margarita powerhouse; with only six restaurants, the Rio Grande restaurant group claims to be the largest seller of Jose Cuervo in the world. And the margarita recipe that no doubt includes Jose Cuervo is a secret as tightly held as the formula for KFC.

After ten years of extensive personal "research," I know that the Rio's bartenders will inevitably tell you that they have no idea what is in the margaritas. Truth is, they make the margs in five-gallon buckets in the back every day, then lug them up to the bar at regular intervals as customers try to slurp their way past the three marg maximum (a brilliant marketing ploy). But according to Rio marketing director Christine Sullo, the real secret ingredient to the margaritas is their "people."

I like my bartenders like I like my martinis -- a little bit dirty, or occasionally with a twist. Neither describes Ann Whitley, the bartender who served up my most recent Rio margs as well as the company line -- which is neither dirty nor twisted. But after a few margaritas at Saturday's birthday party, you may become both; the party starts at 5 p.m. at 1525 Blake Street.

Ann Whitley will be on hand that night; in the meantime, you can drink in her bartending words of wisdom in the following interview:

How did you get into bartending? I needed a second job and I had a friend who worked at the Rio. It seemed like a great place to work.

What is your favorite drink to make? A margarita on the rocks -- we make them by the dozens!

What is your least favorite drink to make? A scorpion, a shot that we offer for those customers who don't like taking straight shots of tequila. But sometimes when I am busy, it is time-consuming!

What is the weirdest drink someone has ever asked you to make? A frozen marg with diced-up fresh jalapenos!

Why do Rio margaritas get you so much drunker than normal margaritas? The Rio margs have more alcohol in them than your average restaurant margarita.

What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to get the Rio margarita recipe? I was offered $500 once for the recipe!

How do you feel about cutting people off? As a bartender, I think it is important to serve responsibly. Sometimes it's awkward to cut someone off, but it usually works out for everyone involved.

What do customers do that pisses you off most? Order me around all night, then they forget (or choose not) to tip me for my services.

Tell me the most fun you've ever had while working. The best times are always the anniversary parties. The music, the atmosphere and all of the people make it a lot of fun.

What's the best tip you've ever received, either monetary or insight? I waited on a few Avs players and some of their friends one nght, and they tipped me $1000! It was awesome!

How many times do you have to see someone at your bar to considered them a regular? I would say enough times for me to learn their name -- so probably four to five. We have a lot of regulars at the Rio.

What's your favorite alcohol? Pinot Grigio, but I can never say no to a Rio marg.

What's your drink of choice? Most of the time. you will find me drinking a Bud Light.

What's the one alcohol you despise? Tuaca -- the night never seems to end very well if I have had a shot of Tuaca at some point!

What do you think is the best bar in Denver (other than your own)? I love to go to Ogden Street South. It is always a good time.

Where do you drink most regularly other than your own bar? Illegal Pete's. It's a great spot to go when we get off work.

What do you do in your spare time? I am a P.E. teacher and I coach a high school volleyball team, so I don't have a lot of spare time.

Tell us one thing about tending bar that we might not know. It's a lot harder than it looks!

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Nancy Levine
Contact: Nancy Levine