Talk to distillers and bartenders in and around Denver, and the neighboring city of Boulder (which has five distilleries and 20 breweries for 100,000 people), and the same name keeps coming up again and again: Sean Kenyon of the Williams and Graham speakeasy-style cocktail bar in Denver’s newly-fashionable Highlands district.
It isn’t only the typical two-hour wait for a table that tells you people are right (fortunately we’d booked ahead), but also the fact that in 2014 Kenyon was named American Bartender of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. He beat out competition from bartenders in New York, San Francisco, and Houston.
“My father and grandfather were both bartenders in New Jersey,” he says, a surprisingly softly-spoken figure with a fine array of tattoos that suit his job behind the bar as well as they did his former career as a bass guitarist in a punk band.
“In fact,” he continues, “when I won Bartender of the Year in New Orleans, my dad said: ‘Congratulations. You’re famous for 300 people.’ It kind of keeps your feet on the ground.”
Although he’s been behind the stick for 30 years, Kenyon hadn’t stepped into the role of owner until he started Williams and Graham, which he opened just over three years ago. “I turned down 18 opportunities to open bars before this one came along, as none of them seemed right,” he recalls. “At least, that’s what I told myself. Eventually my wife said to me, ‘Are you going to open your own bar or not?’”
At the time, the cocktail revolution had only touched the east and west coasts. “When I opened Williams and Graham, cocktail bars were new to Denver,” notes Kenyon.
“There was one but the manager’s attitude there was ‘Give them a drink and get out of the way.’ It’s amazing how fast the scene has changed. When the culinary rises, the mixology rises. I know of at least four cocktail bars that are opening in the next three months. I’m rooting for them all. Things are happening in so-called secondary cities like Denver. I know guys from LA and New York who are looking for space here in Denver.”
The space Kenyon found was not at first sight very promising. ‘When I walked into the building,” he claims, “I walked right out again. My partner said ‘Let’s give it another look’, and we started to see the potential. It was built in 1906 and was a pharmacy. The tin ceiling is original. There’s still a sign on the wall saying ‘Drugs’. We decided to leave that there. We found some fascinating old newspapers in the ceilings, dating from 1906-1919. We did a lot of work. And when we opened, this Highlands area was totally untested. We didn’t know what we were getting into. We also didn’t agree on the type of bar it was going to be. I wanted a neighborhood bar, he wanted a serious mixology Speakeasy bar, so we got together.”
One look at the cocktail list, which changes quarterly and to which all the bartenders contribute, tells you this is innovative mixology, although Kenyon hates that word. “The term mixologist depresses me,” he insists.
“We’ve been bartenders since the 1700s. If I won the award for anything then I base it on hospitality, which we’ve always been known for. If you have a good drink and a great bartender, you’ll be back. I’ve been doing this 30 years now. Ten years ago everyone was so focused on making a different drink. It was a cold experience. It was important to focus on the drink for awhile. We needed that. But now we have to bring the hospitality back. We call people guests, not customers. ‘Customers’ implies cash. It’s important to me that half our guests are from the local neighborhood and are regulars.”
It was Kenyon’s punk band which brought him to Denver in the first place. From New York, they went to Austin for the South by Southwest Music Festival, and liked it so much they all wanted to stay there. Eventually the band split and Kenyon drifted from Austin to Denver, which he fell in love with and where he has lived ever since.
“I love Denver,” he says, with genuine passion. “The most important words in my [Tales of the Cocktail] award for me were Denver, Colorado.”