In this interview, Root Down bar manager Mike Henderson weighs in on the formation of the Colorado Bartenders Guild, counting to four and the rise of the beverage professional.
Westword: How long have you been a bartender? What made you get into the profession?
Mike Henderson: I got into bartending after college in Madison, Wisconsin, my hometown. I was working as a door guy at a bar called Paul's Club, and one night it got really busy. The manager said, "Can you count to four? Then you can make drinks, so get behind the bar." The most complicated thing I ever had to do there was a cosmo or a white Russian, but seasoned bartenders gravitated there. So I really learned from day one about hospitality.
When I first came to Colorado, I lived in the mountains and did restaurant management. Then I went down to work for Big Red F in Boulder. Soon after, St. Germain gave me an opportunity to be their rep. I wanted to get back into cocktails, and there weren't a lot of places to do it, so I figured St. Germain was a good place to start. I still had this desire to get behind the bar again, though. So when TAG opened in Denver, I went there to be the bar manager. That was 2007.
I left TAG to go work at Colt & Gray because I'd started toying around with the idea of opening my own bar, and I thought Colt & Gray would be a good place to go. The bar didn't materialize, though, so I left C&G, went to Lou's Food Bar for a short time, and then the opportunity opened up at Root Down. That was a year ago almost to the day. I'm pretty stoked on Root Down and Linger right now. This is definitely my home for the foreseeable future.
In the midst of all that, the Colorado Bartenders Guild started in 2007. Bryan Dayton and I had met -- we'd both been talking independently about the idea, so we got together and got a hold of Sean Kenyon and Ky Belk. It all launched at Steuben's one afternoon. Ky backed out, and Anika Zappe came on board, and for many years, it was the four of us running it. Bryan Dayton stepped out when Oak at Fourteenth opened, so for the last year, I've been running the guild. We're in the midst of our first real election, and this month, guild members will elect a new board. It's great to get some new blood and people in the scene.
Bartending rule to live by: Be nice. We've got great jobs. We get paid to make cocktails, hang out with people and throw parties in our home every night. It's an awesome job, so there's no point being upset about it.
Five words to describe your drink list: Simple, seasonal, sustainable, sour and savory Favorite drink on your list and why: We've got a cocktail on right now called The Beet Down. It's gin, Aperol, marinated beet cubes and lemon. I personally love beets, and I've tinkered around with using them before, but it's never worked. It works here, and it's awesome. It comes out this vibrant red, and it's earthy and delicious.
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Favorite item on your back bar: Spirits-wise, Angel's Envy. It's a brand new bourbon that just came to market, and it's finished in port casks. It has an awesome, super dark stone fruit finish to it. People love it. That and green chartreuse. You can never go wrong with that. What was your craziest night behind the stick? My longest days behind the bar were up in Breckenridge. We had day-long festivals, and city would allow drinking to start at 7 a.m. so the locals would come out and start drinking bloodies. We'd get up at 6, set up the bar and then work from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. You'd hit the wall in the middle, and then you'd have a coffee and keep going. We were beat to shit by the end of it, but it was really fun. I would never want to do it again.
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: I love Williams & Graham right now. Right in my neighborhood, and it's definitely where I go after work if I go anywhere. I love a glass of whiskey and chat with the bartenders.
What's next for the Denver bartending scene? It's so cool. In the last year or so, Denver has gotten a little bit of recognition, and that really comes back to the bartenders in this area: bartenders are taking this profession seriously and being committed to being a professional bartender. I love meeting new guys and seeing what they're doing. So what's next? Bryan Dayton kind of spearheaded this, but I think it's what's next for Denver and the country: people becoming beverage professionals and not just mixologists. You see so many places out there that have great cocktails, but the beer program sucks. Or they have bad cocktails but great wine. I love to see the attention put into all the aspects of the beverage system -- including coffee and water -- and I think that's the direction people are moving.