Denver is one of the more underrated dining scenes in the country, accompanied by lauded craft beer and distilling booms in the state. With frequent visits there last couple years, I already claim a long list of favorites. This Spring, I spent another nine days in Breckenridge and Denver for ADI’s (American Distilling Institute) Craft Spirits Conference, packing in many a meal and cocktail bar visit in between working the conference, explored in this issue.
As I savored Colorado craft spirits, like the rums of Montanya (my recent interview with their female distiller/owner, Karen Hoskin in Distiller Magazine), the earthy, vanilla oak of Black Canyon Whiskey (made from a custom still), and the delightful Old Tom and gin from Spring 44, I also returned to former favorite cocktail bars like Williams & Graham, and frequented three new cocktail favorites.
SQUEAKY BEAN, Northwest/LoDo neighborhood of Denver
I visited cult Denver favorite The Squeaky Bean in its chic, new location no less than three times this Spring. You can call it “the whole package”, mainly because its seasonally changing menu is exciting, even if not always consistent, and its cocktails, thanks to Bar Manager (aka “Bean Slinger”) Sean Kenyon (Denver’s great barman, also of Williams & Graham), are some of the best in town.
Whether you gather at the large, half circle bar for bites and cocktails next to a shrine of Farrah Fawcett, or dine in the airy space, graced with funky touches like a vintage cigarette machine filled with empty spirits bottles, there are pleasures to be had. Maybe it’s blissfully unique, salty-tart bar food: Snack Attack ($7), a generous bowl of charred lime peanuts accented by crispy chicken skin, shrimp chips, contrasted with a touch of sweet from dates.
But it’s the cocktails ($9-12) that brought me back numerous times. Grouped by cheesy-cool 1980?s movies (Weird Science, Up the Academy, and Rocky III), sections move from light long drinks to experimental preparations. Though boozy, spirituous joys are plentiful (like Dukes of Hazzard tribute, The Uncle Jesse: Old Grand-Dad bourbon, Rothman & Winter Orchard Cherry, Cynar), I was most gratified by vegetal concoctions like Mr. Green Jeans, a spritely blend of new Colorado craft darling Spring 44 Gin, celery, cucumber, given just the right contrast from black pepper and lemon. It’s balanced, green, intoxicating, commandeered by a stalk of celery. Or take beets, in the case of Beet Street, a layered, earthy cocktail of Ocho Plata tequila, basil, sorrel, lemon, sugar, and, yes, beets, frothy and elegant with egg white.
In its new incarnation, the Bean is a sophisticated-cool dining and drinking venue that handles it all with a touch of levity.
OLD MAJOR, Northwest/Highland neighborhood of Denver
Old Major (named after the character from Orwell’s Animal Farm) was merely 6 weeks old when I visited early this Spring… a restaurant and bar to watch. Hipster leanings infuse “farmhouse” cuisine and an in-house butcher program, alongside a globally-savvy wine list, and Denver’s most extensive amaro collection to date. The bill adds up quickly but entrees are generous and the experience hits high notes in service, food, cocktails and wine (like a treat of a bottle of 2009 Franz Hirtzberger Smaragd).
Cocktails, wine and beer are selected from iPad menus, a trend at a handful of restaurants around the country in the past decade, while the Old Major bar stocks heavily on amaro, the kind of selection I commonly see in SF, NY, Chicago, Seattle. My happiest cocktail moment was an off-menu amaro beauty, lush with spice and bitterness, mixing Old Grand-Dad Whiskey, two amari – alpine Braulio and B. Nardini, and house cascara bark bitters and syrup. A pea sprout flower delicately rests atop large chunks of ice for visual effect.
OAK AT FOURTEENTH, Boulder
When in Boulder, one would do well to eat and drink at Oak at Fourteenth, reopening a little over a year and a half ago after a fire.
The cocktails are arguably the best in Boulder (I had lackluster service and cocktails at the locally loved Bitter Bar) in visits past) from Bryan Dayton (GQ’s Most Inspired Bartender in the Country in 2011). Drinks are broken down into low alcohol aperitifs like Eater Does It ($7) – Aperol, Grand Marnier, Kila Cava, OAK Fire Bitters, kumquats and honey, or high alcohol imbibements such as the Alpenglow ($11), a layered bittersweet blend of Anchor Genevieve Genever, Nardini Amaro, lemon, orange and honey.
It doesn’t hurt to finish with a Smoked Sherry cocktail ($11) of musky-sweet Lustau Pedro Ximenez Sherry intermingling with smoky Laphroaig 10 year, brightened by grapefruit, lime, Angostura Bitters.