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Behind the Bar: Mike Henderson of TAG

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Every week, Drink of the Week columnist Nancy Levine gets behind the bar with a local mixologist. Now serving: Mike Henderson, bar manager at TAG.

How did you get into bartending? After college, I got a job as a doorman at a bar called Paul's Club in Madison, Wisconsin. I had only been working there a couple of months when one night we randomly got crazy busy and it was just me and the bar manager working. He literally came running up to me as I was checking someone's ID and shouted, "Can you count to four?" I gave him a puzzled look and before I could respond he shouted, "CAN YOU COUNT TO FOUR?" Not knowing what the hell he was talking about, I responded with a sheepish "uhh, yeah..." and then he said, "Good, then you can make drinks. Let's go." That was my first shift as a bartender.

What do you think of bartending school? Not very much. I believe the best way to learn how to master this craft is hands-on, behind the bar, with a seasoned professional barman. You can learn more in ten minutes behind a real bar with real customers than you can in ten days in a classroom.

What would you tell someone who wanted to get into bartending? Read David A. Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. I use this book as our training manual at TAG, and it is probably the single best text on how to make proper, balanced cocktails and what it means to be a bartender.

What is your favorite drink to make? Right now I love making TAG's Guava Fizz. The cocktail uses egg whites, which many of our guests at TAG aren't really that used to seeing in a cocktail. The cocktail is amazing, and it always gets the "wow" response. I love that.

What is your least favorite drink to make? Honestly, I don't think I have one. My job when I'm behind the bar at TAG is to create balanced cocktails and provide a unique bar experience for our guests. If that means making someone a "Campari and Frangelico with an absinthe wash and a sea salt rim" all night, then so be it.

Weirdest drink someone has ever asked you to make? Vodka & Diet. I know it's not that weird or uncommon, but I'll never understand that one.

How do you feel about cutting people off? Just fine. Frankly, sometimes it just needs to be done -- not only for the well being of the particular patron, but also for that of the other guests. As the bartender, you kinda have to act as the host of the party and the host is responsible for the guests. That being said, thankfully I don't really have that problem much anymore.

What's the best line you've ever heard to get a free drink? "Wanna buy me a shot, it's my birthday!" This one always irks me. Listen, if it's your birthday, then your friends should be buying you drinks...not me. That, or you should just get new friends.

What's the most memorable pickup line you've heard? By a friend of mine to some unknown girl at the bar I used to run in Breckenridge: "Hi, my name is Theo. I raise llamas." It wasn't even close to being true, but the girl cracked up and if I remember correctly, it worked.

Tell me the most fun you've ever had while working. It would probably have to be the last night I worked at Paul's Club in Madison, the night before I moved to Colorado. The bar was packed with friends, regulars and other bartenders. It was one huge send-off party and a night I won't soon forget... that, and the fact that I think I walked with close to $1,000 that night.

Best tip you've ever received, either monetary or insight. From my dad one night over drinks: "Integrity is what you do when other people aren't looking."

What's the worst/best job you've ever had? Worst: I was nineteen, in college, and between summer jobs. I went to find work through a temp agency and the first (and last) job they sent me to was at a plant that made insect traps and used peanut butter-flavored insecticide as bait. That job lasted exactly four hours...I left at the lunch break and never went back. Best: Being the bar banager at TAG. I'm doing something I love, and if I won the lottery and didn't need money it is something I would probably do for free.

How many times do you have to see someone at your bar to consider them a regular? Once.

What's your favorite alcohol? Right now I'm in love with Green Chartreuse. It's a French liqueur made from 130 herbal extracts and works brilliantly as an ingredient in cocktails and is equally brilliant served on its own with a cube of ice.

What's your drink of choice? The Negroni. With only three ingredients, it's everything I think a good cocktail should be: a balance of sweet, strong, sour and bitter. In addition, the Negroni is a great litmus test of a good bartender because although it's a relatively simple cocktail to make, it's also a relatively easy cocktail to screw up.

Who do you think is the best bartender in Denver (other than your co-workers)? In Denver, it's probably my boy Sean Kenyon over at Steuben's. Not only can Sean sling drinks like a twelve-armed octopus on a slammed Friday night, but he's also a total drink dork, like me. He doesn't mind when I show up asking for some obscure cocktail from some obscure cocktail book that of all the people in Denver, probably only he and I have even heard of and I dig that.

What do you think is the best bar in Denver (other than your own)? The best bar in Denver is actually in Boulder, at Happy Noodle/Bitter Bar. As far as Denver goes, though, I recently revisited The Avenue Grill over on 17th and was really impressed with what they had going on behind the bar. They've got good barmen who care about making good, balanced cocktails, and in addition they have a wonderful selection of spirits. The bar is warm and inviting with plenty of seats and is a great place to go after work to wind down.

Where do you drink most regularly (other than your own bar)? I tend to gravitate to bars putting out good cocktails because I like to poke around and see what everyone else is doing. Right now I think Frasca, Happy Noodle/Bitter Bar, Steuben's, Root Down, Osteria Marco, Avenue Grill and Beatrice & Woodsley are putting out pretty good drinks.

What do do in your spare time? Being behind a bar five nights a week can make you a little claustrophobic and want to get outside and play, so I try and get outdoors as much as I can. That, and I spend a lot of time reading flipping through classic cocktail books and hunting down cocktail geek stuff online.

Tell us one thing about tending bar that we might not know. Bartending is easy, being good at it is not.

To read last week's interview with Ann Whitley of the Rio Grande, click here.

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