Green Russell has been lurking behind its pie-shop facade in a Larimer Square basement space for five years now, pouring exquisitely designed cocktails with an eye toward historical recipes and an ear for customer requests. Barman Adam Hodak has been at the head of the program the entire time as beverage director for all of the restaurants under Frank Bonanno's umbrella.
Green Russell will celebrate its fifth birthday this Thursday, November 12, with $5 libations and $5 snacks from 5 p.m. to midnight. In advance of that guaranteed good time, we checked in with Hodak to talk about five years in the evolution of Denver's cocktail scene, his thoughts on drink trends versus good customer service, and some of his most memorable nights behind the bar.
Mark Antonation: How do you see the evolution of the cocktail scene in Denver since Green Russell opened in 2010?
Adam Hodak: I see the scene catching up to those cities we all look up to: NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, for example. The focus on fresh ingredients has been constant for years; however, we are now seeing bitters/tonics/syrups being produced in house or from a small local source. Having other cocktail bars such as Williams & Graham, St. Ellie, and Bar Fausto opening has been expressive of the need for more higher-end cocktail lounges.
What kinds of changes have you seen in the preferences of Green Russell's customers in that time?
We started out with people coming in "looking" for a unique experience but really wanting their same dirty martini or vodka soda. With the years behind us, people now come in knowing they are going to get a unique experience if they are just trusting. I see this not just as a Green Russell phenomenon, but rather an overall change in guest behavior. They are open and want to try something new.
What are the key points of the different bar programs at the Bonanno Concept bars, and what makes Green Russell unique?
The level to which Green Russell takes the program. We produce bitters/syrups/sodas/tonics for all the restaurants; however, each one only uses a few of those. Green utilizes all of them: twenty-plus syrups, five or more sodas, ten-plus bitters, and a few tonics.
What's your current focus on new cocktails to help keep Green Russell fresh?
I truly feel that creating a beautifully crafted cocktail based on your flavor preference will always be fresh. We anchor ourselves in pre- and post- (until about 1940) Prohibition-style cocktails, which have survived for a reason. I never see this style of bartending going out of style, merely staying relevant with service standards and attention to our guests. I have released a Rare & Endangered whisk(e)y list for Sunday to Tuesday that allows people to experience whisk(e)y they may never get to try outside of Green Russell.
What percentage of your efforts go toward discovering new spirits and ingredients versus building a foundation of standards that customers can expect?
There is no difference in these two ideas, in my mind. I have a spirits list at Green that sits at about 620 different bottles, mainly whiskey. Service standards will never get anything other than better. We care more about the experience than our actual product list. They are connected, but new spirits are less important than a customer experience.
What are your favorite spirits and ingredients to work with?
Ingredients are merely modifiers for spirits, in my mind. The base is the most important aspect of a cocktail. If I was more worried about the ingredients, I would run a vodka bar. I am a huge fan of fruit distillates such as brandies and eau de vies.
Does the bar ever get requests for drinks you'd rather not serve — like Long Island iced tea or rum and coke? How do you and your staff handle these requests?
We do get those requests and do everything we can to match the flavor profile. We have made a few iterations of cola from early 1900s recipes, and the majority of people say, "doesn't taste like coke".... We talk it out and utilize what we have, and more often than not, people have a second drink.
What do you like to drink if you're going out for drinks? Is it situational, or do you have a standby?
IPA, Fernet, Negroni, Nigori sake.
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Any best or worst moments behind the bar in the past five years?
Getting hit in the face by some doctor from NYC; I got a hold of him, he ended up arrested and in court. I was okay.
We had [comedian] Bill Burr in, and he was looking for Pappy [Van Winkle] whiskey; after a short conversation, he was drinking some 56-year-old cognac of which only 270 bottles were ever produced. He was the same guy on stage, and that was pretty cool.