A new Golden Age for Cocktail Bars and Speakeasies in Denver

A new Golden Age for cocktail bars and speakeasies in Denver

Down an alley between Second and Third Avenue in Cherry Creek is the entrance to the newest speakeasy in Denver. Stair 3, a sign says, and a golden-speckled door bell facing the construction site across the alley gives the only clue to B&GC’s covert location.

Another new speakeasy — a modern homage to the illicit establishments that popped up during Prohibition — is Uptown’s Retrograde. The bar is camouflaged behind the metal door of a walk-in cooler, inside a new ice cream parlor. A handwritten sign counsels onlookers to ring a door bell.

Both speakeasies launched in Denver this summer.

The veil of mystery at B&GC is so thick that the bartenders won’t tell you what the letters stand for, but one solid guess is Boys & Girls Club, a fun-filled 1960s era after-school program. This bar is set in a mid-mod basement space at Halcyon, a new hotel, where adults are getting their fair share of cocktail-fueled joy.

Retrograde, a speakeasy located on 19th Avenue, was born out two things: the desire to play with alcohol-infused ice creams and signing a lease on a space that was bigger than what husband and wife team Josh Gertzen and Geraldine Kim needed for their core business. Frozen Matter, the ice cream parlor the duo owns, got a liquor license and took advantage of the extra space to open Retrograde. The 1950s sci-fi-influenced establishment seats about 35 guests, and prides itself on cocktails created with quality ingredients, all served under a starry ceiling.

Before B&GC and Retrograde, Denver had the The Green Russell and Williams & Graham, both of which are much easier to find, with actual signs outside of their doors. Chef Frank Bonanno opened The Green Russell in a LoDo basement, tucked behind the kitchen door of a pie shop. An experienced restaurateur who now counts 10 venues — including Mizuna and Osteria Marco — Bonanno channeled the vibe of Milk & Honey, New York City’s pioneer referral-only bar. There was never a referral policy at the Larimer Square spot. Reservations were required, but now are just recommended. Over the last six years, the bar loosened some of its original rigid rules, but maintained its commitment to excellence in craft cocktails.

“The speakeasy itself has developed its own genre in cocktails in recent years,” bartender Sean Kenyon, co-owner of Williams & Graham said. “The modern day one is a cocktail bar with a false front. There is nothing besides the false front that is different than a regular craft cocktail bar,” he added.

Kenyon’s Williams & Graham, which garnered countless national accolades, is concealed behind a bookcase at 33rd and Tejon. Not yet five years old, the LoHi institution was named Best American Bar at the Spirited Awards last year. This annual Oscars of spirits ceremony also bestowed the title of American Bartender of the Year onto Kenyon in 2014.

“My plan was to open a neighborhood bar with great cocktails, not a speakeasy,” the third-generation barman said. When my partner Todd Colehour first approached me with the speakeasy project, there were none in Denver and the very idea of them was new to this part of the country. What we agreed to do was a speakeasy-style bar that had the friendliness and hospitality of a neighborhood bar.”

Once you get past the book-filled foyer at Williams & Graham and are ushered to your seat, a bartender shakes your hand and learns your name. Before even tasting your drink, you realize that this place is about hospitality and that Kenyon actually fulfilled his plan of opening a neighborhood bar with great drinks. “We serve people, not food and booze,” the bartender said.

It is all about people, too, for Brandon Wise, beverage director for Sage Hospitality. “Cocktail bars have really grown and seen this new Golden Age because they lend themselves to conversation and socialization,” he explained.

Wise, who leads the charge at B&GC, believes that “we go out to engage, to experience things outside of the norm, to have a multi-sensory experience.” To up that experience, Wise sprinkles Proustian clues at every turn. Some of those come from the names of the signature cocktails — throwbacks to old Denver, literary references to the lost post-World War I generation, and odes to ’60s popular shows.

But if we told you what they were, we’d take away the quest of figuring it out. And it is that quest that makes speakeasies attractive in the first place.

Andra Zeppelin, Denver Post


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