Behind the Bar: Ky Belk of Elway's in Cherry Creek

Ky Belk doesn't judge who's coming in the door at Elway's in Cherry Creek. His best tip was a thousand bucks one night from a guy wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey. And while he won't say it, I'm sure that some of the flashiest people at the bar have forgotten how hard Ky works for them, day in and day out.

Ty is one of a growing number of bartenders in town who isn't just slinging cocktails, but is considered a true mixologist. He's worked in restaurants since he was eighteen, with thirteen years as a corporate wonk at the Rock Bottom Corporation and then moving to Elway's when it opened almost five years ago, and he's seen how bartending has changed, with more and more people behind the bar embracing their craft.

There's no question that Ky can make one hell of a drink, and he's my go-to guy when I want a Manhattan. I don't know if it's the Vya vermouth he uses (which costs, on average, two to three times more than your average vermouth) or the fact that he believes in stirring, not shaking, his Manhattans, but he definitely makes the best in town.

And now he's serving you: My interview with Ky Belk, bar manager at Elway's in Cherry Creek, follows:

What's your favorite drink to make? I guess I have a signature drink, although I've never come up with a name. It has muddled strawberries, ground black pepper, lemon juice, agave nectar and gin. I think it's perfect, and people sort of freak out about the components.

What's your least favorite drink to make? Chocolate martinis. I just can't get over feeling that these two concepts have no business sharing a glass.

What's the weirdest drink someone ever asked you to make? A big-time country-Western star who shall remain nameless (at least in print) wanted Malibu rum (which isn't even really rum; it's a coconut rum liqueur made in Canada) mixed with DIET root beer. I guess country-Western stars have changed a bit since I was a kid.

How do you feel about cutting people off? I do it. It's my responsibility, and I know how it ends if I don't.

What's your worst cutting-someone-off story? All of 'em. Basically, no one ever says, "You're right, I've had too much to drink."

What do customers do that pisses you off? Put me in the position to have to cut them off. That's their decision, not mine.

What about co-workers pisses you off? Sloppiness. I'm a bit of a neat freak at work; everything has a place. (Keep me away from the label-maker.)

How did you get into bartending? At eighteen I got a dishwashing job. On my first day, the general manager assigned me the task of moving the liquor storage from one part of the restaurant to another. While still a dishwasher, I ended up responsible for weekly liquor inventories. I learned a lot about the product before I ever opened a bottle. I guess it started there.

What would you tell someone who wanted to get into bartending? Get a job in a restaurant with people you like and with a management that rewards hard work. Then work hard. Ultimately, it's about being the right person in the right place at the right time.

What do you think of bartending schools? I don't know enough about them to be fair. But I've never worked with a bartender who went to bartending school. Any funny stories about bartending competitions? I've had success that I didn't deserve and failed to get credit that I couldn't comprehend. Pretty much like life. I do them because I think it's good for my profession - raising the bar, rewarding talent and creativity, fostering a sense of community -- and try not to get too caught up in the results.

What's the worst/best job you've had? Worst? I was a telemarketer once selling newspaper subscriptions. Just not my scene in the least. I see bartending as "service," not "sales." And I am in no way a salesman.

If your employer gave you the keys and let you change anything about your bar, what would you change? That's a pretty long list. And boring. But I think my ice sucks. I'm a bartending geek in a lot of ways. Bad ice bugs me.

What's the best line you've heard to get a free drink? "You may be the sexiest man I've ever laid eyes on." I've never actually heard that one, but it might just work.

What's the most memorable pickup line you've heard? The only pickup lines that work are not pickup lines. A young, attractive woman was asking an elderly gentleman if she could have the bar stool next to him. He said, "Only if you promise not to try to anything." They talked for hours.

How many times do you have to see someone at your bar to consider them a regular? I can usually remember what you're drinking the second or third time you come in. Unfortunately, names take me a lot longer.

What's your favorite alcohol? Just might be port wine. A thirty-year tawny is transcendent.

What's your drink of choice? Good cognac on the rocks. Maybe with a lemon twist. I never want more than two. (That's what happens when you get all growed up, kids.)

What's one alcohol you despise? Pumpkin spice latte schnapps.

Co-workers aside, who do you think is the best bartender in Denver? Stefanie at the Thin Man. She is unflappable. Always a smile. A great high-volume bartender. Incredible positive energy. You can't teach that.

Other than your own, what do you think is the best bar in Denver? I have to admit that I don't get out much, but I've spent a couple of quiet, quality nights at Jonesy's EatBar, and I'm a fan.

Where do you drink most regularly other than your own bar? At home. My liquor closet is sort of ridiculous.

Any rules when you're tending bar? Never have bowling or pool tournaments on the television.

What do you do in your spare time? Mostly spend time with my girlfriend and my dog. Cook dinner, work in the garden, go to a movie.

Tell us one thing about tending bar that we might not know: I've probably never heard of that one drink you had at that one place that one time. It's confusing and I'm sorry, but bartenders today are creating new signature cocktails for their bars all the time, and we don't share a brain. Stick with the basics, or maybe ask if I make something special that you might like.

What's the best tip you've received, either monetary or insight? One of my early mentors in the restaurant business told me you can either work hard or work smart. When you don't know enough to work smart, all you can do is work hard.

Any tips of your own? When you're in a bar for the first time, ask to see the cocktail menu. You can tell a lot about the caliber of the bartenders in a joint by the drinks on the menu.

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Nancy Levine
Contact: Nancy Levine