PHOTOS BY MATT OSIER | ARTICLE BY CHRIS UTTERBACK
It’s no secret that people in Denver love to drink. The explosions of local microbrews, artisan cocktails, and bars of both the classy and dive varieties have become part of the way of life in the city. Now, merry drinkers are packing speakeasy-style bars and lounges to get a taste of when nobody could imbibe, lining up for specialty cocktails near the very same streets that temperance activists marched down in 1914, protesting the evils of Denver’s saloon boom. But the appeal of the speakeasy—the excitement of uttering a password at the door, being taken through a secret entrance, and being transported to the time of bathtub gin and the Charleston—is intoxicating. Little wonder these joints have become some of the hottest spots in town. Frank Bonnano’s Green Russell on Larimer Square and Williams & Graham in the Highlands are leading the charge along with Prohibition on Colfax and art deco wonder The Cruise Room downtown. Walking down the stairs right off of bustling Larimer Square to the charming pie shop below is just the beginning of Colorado’s most striking drinking experience. The shiny and smartly appointed Wednesday’s Pie sells pies and coffee on Wednesdays, but push through
the kitchen door, and you’re in a slick grotto of dapper booths, soft light, and vested, suspendered bartenders. Green Russell has an almost Disneyland-esque attention to detail, from the brickwork in the back to the fresh herbs growing behind the bar, waiting to be muddled. Russell’s main attraction is their specialty drink menu, where tenders craft cocktails from top-shelf spirits and house-made bitters for the steep price of $12 each. Since its opening, Russell has attracted gripes about its prices and gossip about trouble in the kitchen. But the house potato chips with pulled pork ($12) were satisfying, and the Groggy Sailor, with Sailor Jerry, Chartreuse, chamomile-honey syrup, and a block of lemon ice, was pronounced both delicious and effective. Prohibition is also making its mark with signature drinks and an interesting atmosphere. Take a seat at the bar—100-year-old mahogany from some long gone saloon—and order Liquid Swords ($9). That’s rye whiskey, Cherry Heering, Drambuie, and bitters. And, unlike other gin joints, Prohibition is open for brunch on Sundays. Williams & Graham opened quietly in 2011, but once 5280 put it on its cover as one of “Denver’s Best Bars,” a seat at W&G became the most sought-after spot in town.
So, go before seven on a weekday or at least call ahead. W&G’s lobby is an unassuming bookshop, piled high with cocktail manuals and tomes by the likes of Studs Terkel that are actually for sale. But the real draw here is the ornate bar where co-owner Sean Kenyon and his team toss around flaming concoctions and revive old standards like the Gin Fizz ($9). Executive chef David Bumgardner is also reimagining the tastes of the Roaring Twenties with his menu, featuring a “deconstructed” Waldorf salad, and a dinner of wild boar bacon ($16). The boar was crisp on the outside, but flavorful and almost rare in the middle. Fruity but effortlessly smooth was the verdict on the Tokyo dagger cocktail ($10), with Japanese whiskey, sherry, and liqueur, and the Bloody Mary ($8) was rich with a sizable wasabi bite. W&G’s theme is well executed, but the quiet music and good food make it superb for just a drink and dinner. “Once you get in here, it’s just a neighborhood bar,” Kenyon related over the counter. “That’s what we wanted to do.” You won’t need a password for any of these bars, but you will need the same spirit of adventure your greatgrandparents had when they knocked on that secret door.
The Cruise Room 1600 17th St. (Oxford Hotel) (303) 825-1107 Williams & Graham 3160 Tejon St. (303) 997-8886 Green Russell 1422 Larimer St. (303) 893-6505 Prohibition Colfax Ave. & Pennsylvania St. (303) 832-4840