Behind the Bar: Sean Kenyon of Steuben's

It seems oxymoronic to call a guy covered in tattoos a geek, but when it comes to cocktails, Sean Kenyon is the biggest geek in town. He has taken his engineering coursework and applied it to the engineering of cocktails, with infusion experimentation and enhancements behind the bar a daily occurrence. When you mention a recent article about ice cubes from the New York Times, he's not only interested, but can tell you at least ten things about ice that you never knew. His love of the restaurant industry is contagious, and his enthusiasm for Steuben's and its sibling, Vesta Dipping Grill, is just as infectious.

Now serving: Sean Kenyon, bar manager at Steuben's.

How did you get into bartending? It's the family business. My grandfather, father and mother were bartenders/owners in New Jersey where I grew up. I can't remember wanting to be anything else. While the other kids wanted to be firemen, police officers or superheroes, I always wanted to be a bartender. Although I must admit that the power of invisibility would be awesome.

What would you tell someone who wanted to get into bartending? You have to have passion, patience and a sense of humor. If you are only in it for the money, it will show.

What's the most memorable pickup line you've heard? "If you come home with me, we can do whatever we want -- as long as we don't wake up my mom."

Best tip you've ever received, either monetary or insight. I received a $5,000 tip one night with the advice "Don't spend it all in one place or on one woman." I paid off my car loan.

What is the weirdest drink anyone has ever asked you to make? I was working in a gentleman's club in Austin, Texas, and one of the "gentlemen" asked me if I could get one of the entertainers to piss in a cup so that I could mix it with vodka for him. You'll have to ask me in person about what happened next.

What is your favorite drink to make? A classic Manhattan. Simple, balanced and fantastic. It has to have rye whiskey, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, Angostura bitters and a touch of maraschino...and it must be stirred. It makes me crazy when bartenders shake Manhattans. Whatever you do, do not put one of those phony glowing red maraschino cherries anywhere near that cocktail. There is only one place for those cherries: the trash.

What is your least favorite drink to make? I will never understand drinks like orange-flavored vodka with orange juice, or citrus vodka with lemonade. You could drink plain vodka with either of those drinks and you would never know the difference.

What's your favorite alcohol? I am a whiskey drinker. Irish whiskey, bourbon, Scotch whiskey, Japanese, you name it. You can keep the Canadian whiskey -- I haven't found one yet that I like.

What's your drink of choice? A Vieux Carré. Rye, cognac and Carpano Antica vermouth, Benedictine, Angostura and Peychaud's bitters. Stirred. Simply fantastic.

One alcohol you despise: Apple Pucker. Check that -- any pucker.

Other than your co-workers, who do you think is the best bartender in Denver? Anika Zappe at Root Down. I'm her biggest fan.

Other than your own, what do you think is the best bar in Denver? TAG. Bar manager Mike Henderson is the shit. A true cocktail geek, and his menu is diverse and creative. Another one of his bartenders, Jared Boller, is a rising star. Someday he will be the best bartender in town. He's close now.

Where do you drink most regularly other than your own bar? Avenue Grill. Bar manager Randy Layman and his twin brother, Ryan, make some great cocktails and are entertaining, to boot. They are also both world-class air-guitar champions. Really. Randy, aka Big Rig, is in the Air Guitar Hall of Fame. Is that a real place? Or perhaps it's in an "Air House."

How do you feel about cutting people off? I have no problem with it. I've done it a thousand times, with mixed results. In the end, we're serving intoxicating beverages, and we have to take the responsibility that comes with that service.

What's your worst cutting-someone-off story? I was working in a bar in New Jersey, after the Irish national soccer team had just played at nearby Giants Stadium. Well, the team and their supporters came in after the game. We were so packed that an Irish fellow did not want to lose his spot at the bar, so he decided to urinate right on the bar, thinking no one would notice. I recognized that familiar look of relief on his face and immediately flagged down a huge security guy who picked the guy up midstream and shook him back and forth while taking him out the door. This action caused a "lawn sprinkler" effect, and he basically pissed on everyone at the bar. It was hilarious to watch.

If your employer gave you the keys and let you change anything about your bar, what would you change? My employer has given me the keys. I wouldn't change a thing.

What do customers do that pisses you off most? This happens every day. Me: "Hello, How are you doing today?" Guest: "Jack and Coke." Is that an answer? I don't let it bother me, because I have a secret plan to make sure that they have a great time whether they like it or not.

For part two of Nancy Levine's interview with Sean Kenyon, check this space tomorrow morning.

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Nancy Levine
Contact: Nancy Levine