I don't believe in ghosts. When my wife tells me about presences she's seen and felt in the middle of the night, I tell her she was dreaming. When she tells me we can't buy an attractive house in Five Points because a woman who committed suicide there decades ago still haunts the halls — shrieking and slamming doors every night over the agony of murdering her own small children — I tell her those are the shrieks of meth heads and crack whores in front of Town Liquor, just down the street. So when Kyle Burns, one of Denver's most venerable bartenders and the bar manager at the year-old Blake Street Vault (1526 Blake Street), tells me that his people have seen and heard the ghost of a saloon girl from centuries past, I want to tell him, "Give me a goddamn break, Kyle."
Instead I say, "Give me another Moscow Mule."
'Round these parts, the Moscow Mule — vodka, ginger beer, lime juice and bitters — is sometimes (and always affectionately) referred to as a Denver Donkey. Served in a copper mug with heavy ice, the Mule might just be my favorite cocktail, were it easier to find. (Counting the Vault, I can think of four places in town that make it right, though I'd love to hear about more.) The trick is the copper cup, which keeps the drink gelid and which is so expensive to purchase and keep track of that Kyle holds my ID so I don't make off with one. The $7.50 price initially strikes me as too damn much to pay for a mug o' moonshine, until I realize that the Vault's Mule is made with a double shot of Russian Standard (and accept that I'm in LoDo, which for me is a lot like waking up in a foreign country without knowledge of the lexicon or enough cash to get a drink). Also cool: The Mule became a mainstay here on Blake Street because bottles of ginger ale dating back to the nineteenth century were discovered during excavation of the basement.
Constructed in 1863 (after the devastating fire that led to Denver's Brick Ordinance) as a boardinghouse and saloon, the basement of the former American Costume Company still boasts a walk-in steel vault, a 120-year-old freight elevator and tunnels that illegally transported booze during Prohibition and at one time led to brothels. Don't believe me? If it's slow, Kyle will take you down for a private tour.
I visit on a weeknight quiet enough for Kyle to close up early but too loud for a tour. After consuming three Mules in record time, I switch to a signature How the West Was Won (also $7.50) – a shot of Buffalo Trace bourbon and an eighteen-ounce schooner of Shiner Bock – and buy one for my friend Scotty. I am suspicious of the Mule/schooner similarities between this joint and the Edgewater Inn, but before I can vocalize my distrust, Kyle feeds me and some friends a complimentary Apple Madras shot — an original creation made of vodka, OJ, cranberry, apple Pucker and Sprite. This lollipop of a shot turns out to be a gentle bracer for the glass of Southern Comfort that Scotty forces into my hand moments later, which turns out to negatively affect my ability to walk a straight line to the bathroom, which turns out to be more of a museum dedicated to motion-activation technology than a simple place to piss. Holy crap, I'm hammered.
Not for the first time, certainly, although it's been more than a minute since I last let go of my billfold in the lower part of downtown. Still, I like this place. I like that it's more saloon than club, with a copper-top bar, a pressed-tin ceiling and whiskey barrels as bar tables; that there's free food during weekday happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.); and that you can purchase a bottle of Single Barrel Jack for $150 and leave it in a glass case by the front door for bottle service during future visits. I also like that everyone thinks it's haunted.
Good thing I ain't afraid of no ghost.
Contact Drew Bixby at [email protected].