Bars

Shift Drinks: Beers and Shots at Highland Tavern with the Block Distilling Co.'s Jessica Elliot

The Highland Tavern building has been there for 120 years.
The Highland Tavern building has been there for 120 years. Jake Browne
I’ve never met Jessica Elliot, but we’ve met all the same people, because we are, oddly enough, the same person. We’re two Midwesterners staring down the barrel of age forty. We both moved to the high plains desert as kids to chase women, bail on the jobs we wanted in college, and then return to the city when we were reminded of why we left our hometowns.

In our first text message, she asks if I know “Weed Chad” and I send back a picture of me officiating his wedding. Now we’re sitting down for a beer and a shot at Highland Tavern, at 3400 Navajo Street, because a stranger from Instagram commented on a post after Westword posted the first Shift Drinks earlier this month.

“I literally lived at the end of the block here in one of the houses that’s been torn down,” Elliot says with a hint of a Chicago accent, gesturing north toward 38th Avenue. “I paid 350 bucks a month.” I nod. My own apartment and the adjacent karate studio were gutted to make Williams & Graham, I tell her — a two-bedroom for $300. “It was amazing, and now they get nine times that for a one-bedroom apartment,” Elliot laments.

She’s drinking a Coors heavy with a shot of Fernet Branca, and I start with a PBR and an Espolón before switching to White Claw. A couple of white people who were gentrified out of a neighborhood they loved by richer white people. Somewhere, a real Northsider gets their wings.

This was at the start of her second stint in Denver. The first chapter was getting her culinary degree at the now-closed Johnson & Wales, an experience she describes as alternately good and a waste of time. “I could have done it just staging, putting my time in,” Elliot says with a knowing sigh. Afterward, she moved back to Schaumburg, Illinois, and found her love of dive bars at the Easy Street Pub. “We would go to Cubs games, take the train back, go to Easy Street, get fucked up, drink Old Style,” she says. “It was this old building that was saved by [being] a historical landmark building, so they couldn’t tear it down.” Sadly, the carpeted institution, which had “smell” mentioned in a third of its Yelp reviews, was another COVID casualty.
click to enlarge Jessica Elliot wants to find a wife, perhaps over a game of foosball. - JAKE BROWNE
Jessica Elliot wants to find a wife, perhaps over a game of foosball.
Jake Browne
In 2011, Elliot returned to Denver and nabbed a cheap apartment with a friend from college whose family owned several houses on the block, as well as the Zitro CityView Tavern. I’ve only ever been there to buy cigarettes, but if you’re looking for a true dive, it’s the type of joint where there are crockpots of food on Broncos game days and where men go to not make a lot of eye contact. Back then, the “safe” place for service-industry folks and local hipsters was the Highland Tavern.

The structure itself has been there for 120 years, but the Tavern has been many different things to many different people over the years. It became notable after an April 2013 appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives for, among other things, its homemade tots. My halcyon days there were in my twenties before the kitchen was even built, when we’d play nude photo hunt at the bar, try not to get caught doing cocaine as we clown-car’d out of a single bathroom stall, and make sure none of our crew ran afoul of the Hells Angels, whose office was nearby, when we’d inevitably black out.

Needless to say, things have changed since Guy Fieri showed up. Elliot and I trade stories about the “cocaine era” of the bar. “It ended about the same time as my son showed up,” jokes the bartender, who overhears us. “Parenting is my new hobby. The amount of sleepless nights stays about the same.”

“A bunch of us worked for a local caterer, and we’d all pile in here after a shift,” says Elliot. At a place like Highland Tavern, you make friends with the staff quickly, and she grew particularly close with then-bartender Leslie Sorum. “When she told me she was moving away, I wanted to cry,” Elliot recalls.

Sorum and her roommate, also a Jess, would go to Phish shows, come home trashed, and Elliot would mess with them. “I’d be like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and they’d have no clue what the fuck they were saying to me,” she recalls. Full disclosure: I once offered to fight Sorum’s dad on a particularly debauched night. She never forgave me, but I still think the world of her.

I have too much history here for us to have a conversation, something I apologize to Elliot for as we’re interrupted for the fourth or fifth time. She’s gracious about it in a very Corn Belt way that makes me feel at home. “That’s the thing here. That’s what it is,” she says. “You’re going to bump into nineteen people from three different eras of your life, and it’s the best part.”

Her third era is whatever we’re calling this collective “living with COVID-19 because we can’t beat it” period, where she's fought to remain in the service industry by taking a position with the Block Distilling Co., a spirits brand she'd previously brought into Old Major. “I went in one day and bought a bottle of vodka, and one of the owners, Michelle, was like, ‘Oh, my God, how are you doing?’” Elliot remembers. She was no longer at Old Major; owner Justin Brunson sold the restaurant in June 2020 (it's now the Fifth String). Elliot relayed that it was tough, but that she was, befitting her spirit, hanging in there. Two weeks later, the Block followed up and offered her a position at its location in RiNo, at 2990 Larimer Street.

“Every time I get a new job at a bar or a restaurant, I’m like, ‘This is the last time. I’m gonna get out,’” Elliot says with a laugh. “And then you think about it, and you’re like, ‘No. I can’t fucking do it. I need to be kissing somebody’s ass or making new friends or juicing cucumbers. It’s just what I’m good at, I guess.'” She is, for the record, very good at it, with the eighteen Yelp reviews that mention her all having five stars (and zero mention of any "smells").
click to enlarge Does orange juice make the beer look fancier? Maybe. - JAKE BROWNE
Does orange juice make the beer look fancier? Maybe.
Jake Browne
She’s also stepped into a sales role, serving as an evangelist for the Block’s many offerings at bars across the city. “In the past, I did everything I could possibly do as far as beverage,” she notes of the new challenge. Now the director of beverage, the self-described lesbian dork is active in multiple facets of the distillery. “We were talking about Pride and how we don’t need to do anything special because we’re here for everybody at all times,” says Elliot. “We’re not going to run some shit to make sure everybody comes here and spends all their money.”

We’re on our fourth round, and I’m bitching about rainbow capitalism and straight white women packing X Bar when Elliot tries to offer me some perspective. “Pride is moving into RiNo,” she says. “It’s at X Bar, but it’s also at Exdo. Now they’re opening it up to every night, all day, not just three bars.” She encourages people to support businesses that are welcoming year-round, not just throwing up a flag to make money — but things are better than they’ve been. Now, Elliot’s more concerned with finding a wife.

“I just want her to be the most perfect, feminine lady that is cute and adorable and perfect, and I’ll take care of her on the other end,” she says, almost in a daydream. “If she needs me to fix a tire or change a fucking screw on something? I’ve got it.” I have to admit that if I were talking to a fellow straight white guy, this would be the most problematic and horniest end to an interview I’ve ever had — like when she jokes about having a lesbian night at the bar so she can “pick and choose.” There is such a romantic earnestness to it, though, where you can tell Elliot legitimately wants someone to love.

“Let me take you to a lake and show you your reflection, girl,” she theoretically offers with a sincerity that is both the sweetest and corniest thing I’ve ever heard an adult say. It’s the real vulnerability and humanity that bleeds through everything she does. We might have met a decade ago here, falling down drunk or hunting nude photos for quarters, but I don’t think we’d recognize who we are today. Cheers to that.


Chaser: Q&A with Jessica Elliot

What makes a good dive bar?
Carpet

What’s on your jukebox?
A bunch of shit my ex-girlfriend made me play because it makes me sad. The Lilac playlist on Spotify.

What’s the best bar game?

Rummy

What’s the best bar snack?
Tots

Best thing to have on a bar TV?
I like when they play the Ridiculousness-type bullshit where people are getting fucked up and falling on stuff.

Best well shot?
Any tequila, I don’t care what it is.

Best domestic beer?
I’m a Midwestern girl, so Miller Lite all day.

Favorite drink to make?
I love shaking anything with an egg white, so a whiskey sour.

Favorite drinking city that’s not Denver or Chicago?
Portland, Oregon. It’s beautiful, and I love the rain.

Good brunch or late-night menu?

Late night, all day.

Most overrated cocktail trend?
The espresso martini — but if you’re at the Block, it’s so good!

What’s the best shot?
The Winnebago

Why do you bartend?
Because I like to flirt with girls.

Know a local bartender who would be up for throwing back a few with Jake Browne for Shift Drinks? Email [email protected]
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Jake Browne is a former cannabis critic, game show host, rapper, male model, and shower food reviewer. When he's not getting drinks with bartenders, he writes about professional Magic: The Gathering strategy.
Contact: Jake Browne