Madison Street bartender Matty Durgin brings back the tiki tradition

If you're looking for a proper tiki drink in Denver -- you know, a Polynesian-themed sour rum cocktail that soared to popularity in the 1940s and 1950s -- Matty Durgin, barman at Madison Street, is your man. He's built a fan following for his tiki drinks, which he showcases once a week on Tiki Tuesday.

Despite his tropical drink obsession, Durgin doesn't come from an island background. He got his start bartending while working as a bar back at Andrew's Pub on Blake Street. "Eventually someone didn't show up, and I had to take the well," he explains. "I had Brad Beale and Butch Buckley screaming recipes to me on the fly. Thankfully, in those days, the craziest thing that might be ordered was a weirdo martini or some bozo shot like a Jamaican 10-Speed. Needless to say I learned really quickly. That place was amazing: wall-to-wall people almost seven nights a week. All in the go-go 90s."

Eventually, he joined the Steuben's and Vesta group -- bussing, barbacking and serving -- before moving to Boston, where he worked in wine and on the floor. When he returned to Denver last May, he immediately started working at Madison Street, which is where his love for tiki drinks finally manifested. "I've collected rum for years, and Madison Street gave me a platform to do tiki nights," he explains. "It ended up being something really cool, and I recognized it was something Denver didn't really have."

He was recently recruited by the group opening a tiki bar on South Broadway, which he'll join full time when the spot opens in the next few weeks. In the meantime, you can find him behind the stick at Madison Street next Tuesday, where he'll do one last Tiki Tuesday with guest bartender Kevin Burke. What follows are his thoughts on life behind the bar:

Bartending rule to live by: Anyone can be taught to make a quality drink. Hospitality and intuition are innate. Be a bartender for the right reasons, and always remember: We're in the hospitality business, not the "bar" business.

Five words to describe your drink list: Balanced, respectful, geeky, tiki and sour.

Favorite drink on your list: Rosarita's Fire. Mezcal was my nemesis this summer, and I was constantly seeking a perfectly balanced preparation. After a lot of trial and error -- drinking and thinking -- I managed to achieve the balance. This presentation uses Sombra Mezcal, Velvet Falernum, muddled cucumber, pomegranate juice, a dash of simple syrup, fresh lime, and soda. The cucumber is muddled with the syrup, then the spirits and juice are added. Once shaken, the mixture is strained into a collins glass and topped with soda. This drink has it all: It's smokey, refreshing, faintly sweet and even a bit tart. There are a lot of complex flavors, but they all have a place. Plus, I like getting naysayers to drink mezcal and like it.

Favorite item on your back bar: Angostura Bitters. It's nice to do drinks like the one I mentioned above once in a while, but I absolutely love the old formula of booze, bitters and a proper stir. Angostura Bitters add the perfect aromatics to whiskey and rum-based cocktails. And it settles my stomach -- win win!

What was your craziest night behind the stick? At Andrew's Pub, we used to have Customer Appreciation Night once a year. We offered a free, open bar from like 7 to 11 p.m. or something, and it was crazy. There were so many people behaving so badly (in a good way) that the wheels almost came off. As an eighteen-year-old barback, I saw some stuff that I considered rather crazy. Boobs were exposed well before 9 p.m., I had to clean up vomit before 10 p.m. (which the whole world knows is waaaaaaaaaaaay too early in the evening to be dealing with puke), I walked in on some consensual adults in my prep kitchen of all places -- and I ended up making some serious money for the first time in my life. It took us until almost 5 a.m. to clean and close the bar, mostly because we couldn't do one thing without one of us telling another tale of debauchery we'd witnessed that night. After that, I knew I was part of something strangely cool and that I was in the right place.

Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: I like to visit Williams & Graham. They have an amazing selection of rum and some really heady mezcal. More often than not, I prefer a cold beer and straight spirit as opposed to a mixed drink. When I visit, I like to enjoy a Utica Club and a shot of Smith & Cross or Chichicapa. Sean and Courtney always have elusive stuff up on the shelf, so it's nice to go enjoy the best of the best alongside a can of cheap, delicious beer.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk