During a recent visit to Denver, Colorado, when my friend suggested we check out this ‘great new cocktail bar down LoHi’, I was a bit wary. Personally, cocktail bars hold the trepidation of either being populated with pretentious hipsters or a gaggle of raucous chavs — socially I don’t do well on either end of that spectrum. However, Williams & Graham Booksellers, has none of the above. In fact, I stand corrected on every preconception I ever held about cocktail bars.
As we enter, the first thing that strikes me is how minuscule Williams & Graham bookstore is. The dimly lit corner shop is covered with bookshelves, wall-to-ceiling, and behind the heavy dark wood counter lingers a suspiciously lonesome ‘bookseller’… not a cocktail shaker or Martini glass in sight. The lady who recommended the place instructed us to ‘let the guy behind the counter know that you want to speak to a man about a book.’
That’s exactly what we do. The ‘bookseller’ scribbles our names down on an old-style catalogue card, opens a drawer and files it away. Seconds later, a section of the towering bookcases give way to a secret door and a very friendly (dare I say ‘sexy’) hostess whisks us down into a dark, narrow passage…
Once inside the bar area — Wild-West 1920s-themed, with plush, shiny red and brown leather chairs and booths, dark wood furniture and quirky relics from the Prohibition era — my friend and I give each other a knowing look: we’re in for a memorable evening.
The atmosphere is relaxed, comfortable and friendly, and the fact that there is almost no overhead lighting gives the large single space an air of mystery and anticipation. Cosy booths, silhouetted by a free-standing bookshelf, lines one of the walls, providing an ideal space to chill out and catch up… or share a few secrets. The pièce de résistance is the chunky wall-length wood panel bar, formidably dominating the room with its masculinity (dare I say ‘very butch!’).
The bar itself is a well-stocked beast. The shimmering bottles of classic and rare spirits from all over the world lining the bar shelves, coupled with the rugged, bow-tied and bearded Mixologists (barmen) make the unmistakable statement that this is a place where drinking in style is the name of the game. No questions asked.
We get seated at the bar (prime location!) where our barman, Joe, introduces himself. He makes a point of taking our names and when it comes down to business, he explains the cocktail menu in the finest detail — striking a delicate balance between skilful flirting and perky professionalism. I don’t know if it is Joe’s darn handsome good looks or because my friend is sincerely fascinated by his profound knowledge and passion for mixology, either way, looking at her, she is obviously in Prohibition Heaven.
The cocktail menu is extensive (not in volume but in its eclectic list of ingredients), enticing and deliberately lacking pretence. The cocktails themselves are bright, fresh and bold, whether they’re classic revivals or something daring, rustic and modern. Don’t leave without trying the Blackberry Sage Smash — Williams & Graham Select Single Barrel Knob Creek, fresh blackberries, sage, lemon, & sugar— and the Long Way Down, with Smith & Cross navy strength rum, Appleton 12 year rum, Velvet Falernum, W&G orgeat, Allspice dram, fresh lime juice, Angostura bitters & mint.
If cocktails are not your ‘thing’, you’ll be pleased to know that they also boast a careful selection of Agave Spirits, Gin, Cognac, Brandy & Eau de Vie, American Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Vodka, Irish, Canadian & Japanese Whiskey, Beer & Wine. So, there’s no reason to sit around feeling high and dry.
If I had to score Williams & Graham Booksellers, I’ll give them a 12 (out of 10). It’s easy to fall in love with the surprise entry. In fact, they’ve nailed the hidden entrance scenario. The ambience is great and the service impeccable. In a world where ordering a drink could be an agonizing dilemma, Joe made it exciting with his relaxed, intelligent and elegant manner. He made eye contact with us even when he wasn’t serving us and best of all, he remembered our names — pronounced flawlessly, which is an accomplishment by itself because ‘Nicolette’ and ‘Francois’ don’t sit all that well on the Yankee tongue. Needless to say, this very personal approach made a lasting impression.
The one thing that still is a work in progress (not that it influenced my score) is the food menu. Since their speciality is ‘fine drinking’, it’s obvious why the cocktail menu outshines the food selection both in breadth and depth. In all fairness, we didn’t order food on this occasion (we had dinner reservations elsewhere), so I’m not really at liberty to comment in detail. However, I am interested to see if they’re going to explore their full potential as a sought-after dining establishment. It will be a lovely addition to what they already have on offer, but it certainly is not a necessity.
Williams & Graham opened mid-2011 and since then the owners, Sean Kenyon and Todd Colehour, have been on a mission to make a lasting impression… if not also to change the face of Denver’s cocktail culture. In September 2012, Food & Wine magazine named them one of the Top 10 Best New Bars in the US, both Kenyon and Colehour were nominated, in March 2013, for best American Bartender of the Year and Best American Bar of the Year, respectively, by Tales of the Cocktail and in February 2013, the bar was announced as one of the semi-finalists for the James Beard Foundation awards in the Outstanding Bar Program category.
Kenyon and Colehour do know how to mix things in perfect measure, which is why they dance effortlessly between homely old-world and retro-chick with their ‘speakeasy’ joint. Williams & Graham’s overall personality stuck with me long after I’ve exited through the back door — which is the only way to leave this place. When I think back about my evening there, I still feel like I’ve done something naughty, but delicious… and that’s always a real treat.
Address: Corner of West 32nd Avenue and Tejon Street, Denver, Colorado.
Phone: (303) 997-8886
Visitors Tip: Since Williams & Graham is already popular among locals, it gets packed over weekends. It’s not your typical show-up-have-a-drink-and-leave joint and it’s best to make reservations because you can end up on the waiting list for 10min–2hrs. However, once you are seated, you won’t be rushed to leave, so it’s worth the wait.
Note of interest: A ‘speakeasy‘ — also called a ‘blind pig’ or ‘blind tiger’ — used to be an establishment that illegally sold alcohol and they were particularly prominent in the US during the Prohibition era, 1920–1933. During Prohibition, the sale, manufacturing, and transportation (bootlegging) of alcoholic beverages were illegal throughout the US. They were called ‘speakeasies’ because patrons spoke quietly about these places in public, or when inside them, so as not to alert the police or neighbours of their location.
The name is said to have originated with saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the late 1800’s in the McKeesport neighbourhood on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Even though police and agents of the Bureau of Prohibition often raided these underground drinking holes and arrested their owners and patrons, they were extremely popular and profitable and continued to flourish… Proving that you cannot keep a good thing down.
Images: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes, various internet sources – no copyright infringement intended
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes
Vieo: 5280.com exclusive – vimeo