Long known as a pioneer in the craft beer movement, Denver is quickly distinguishing itself as one of the country’s top cocktail destinations. Bars such as Williams & Graham and The Cruise Room put the Mile High City on the cocktail map. But recently, there has been an explosion of standout cocktail bars, from elegant speakeasies to a thriving temple of the Negroni. These five new Denver bars are worth an altitude adjustment.
"Japanese style in Denver is lacking, and when you do see it, it's usually very generic," says T.J. Vong, the bar manager of Mizu Izakaya and its on-premise offshoot, Bar Ginza, home to Colorado’s largest collection of Japanese whisky. Vong incorporates an Asian component into each drink, be it ube yogurt, edamame tea syrup and matcha, like in the Umami Zombie; or Japanese gin, edamame-rose orgeat and cacao fruit in the Midnight Sun. Vong also dehydrates fruit garnishes and takes the discarded citrus peels to make oils for the drinks.
There's also the Up in Smoke, a drink featuring a skull bottle filled with smoke and Sensei whiskey, jasmine simple syrup and smoked orange bitters, that you open and pour over ice."We treat the bar like a kitchen, and these are the liquid dishes," says Vong about the $18 beverages. "No one in Denver is doing these types of cocktails, and once I get one person to order one, suddenly everyone wants it."
When sommelier Kendra Anderson opened Bar Helix in October 2017, it garnered a lot of buzz for its party atmosphere and excellent drinks program. Part of the reason? It’s commitment to the Negroni. Bar manager Victoria Errio features a dozen variations on the menu, including the Supersonic, made with gin distilled by The Family Jones a couple of miles away. "I've lived in Denver for 30 years and can honestly say that the bar scene today is more vibrant than it has ever been," says Anderson. "It seems like there's a new spot opening every week, which makes us all have to hustle harder."
The owners of this new space inside The Source hotel wanted to open a spot that spoke to the city’s healthy vibe. Their answer: Isabel. By day, it’s a juice bar that dispenses recovery and hydration kits. By night, it’s a cocktail lounge that leans toward the fresh and produce-driven. If you’re looking for a shot of mezcal paired with pear and lime juice, matcha, avocado and ginger, you’ve found it. Or try the To Be Bitter and Twisted, made with aged cachaça, Cynar, lemon, cucumber and mint.
“This isn’t a cow town anymore,” says co-owner Justin Anderson, who helped open and run Revival Food Hall and La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago. "One cool thing Denver is doing is developing its own culture; it's not riding the coattails of other markets."
One of the best known secrets in Denver's bar scene can be found at B&GC (aka Boys & Girls Club), located behind the Halcyon hotel in Cherry Creek. You enter through an unmarked door, let in only after the golden bell is rung. It might not have the phone booth vibe, but it does speak to underground operations and the mystery of not knowing what a place is exactly before entering. That might sound like a lot of work for a cocktail, but the drinks at B&GC are well worth the effort. The menu teems with meticulously crafted classics, like a pitch-perfect Alaska, made with Aviation gin, Yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters. Or the house-fave Distant Lover, which comprises bourbon, Brancamenta, maple, lemon and Strongwater Riza orange liquorice root bitters.
On a busy street in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, Josh Sevy mans the bar at The Tatarian, a cocktail joint inspired by, of all things, trees. The menu resembles something out of a national park gift shop, with stunning photography and mico profiles of trees—and the cocktails they inspired. A slightly morbid, but tasty, example: the Black Jack, which evokes burning trees in the form of a forest fire and is made of rye, Laphroaig 10-year-old scotch, smoked honey syrup, Nonino grappa, Bénédictine, chocolate bitters and a flamed orange peel.
Before he ran The Tatarian, Sevy opened a swank cocktail joint inside a movie theater in the suburbs. "It was 13 years ago, and people didn't know what Campari and Fernet were," he says, adding that, in short, it wasn't the time to showcase craft cocktails. But now, Denver customers clamor for them.