One of the great advantages of writing this blog is the network of friends and acquaintances around the US that provide me with great intelligence about where to drink when I travel. I am almost never steered wrong, and am sometimes steered oh so very right. One of the latter tips sent me to Williams & Graham in Denver, Colorado. I recently managed to carve out time for a second visit to W&G, and I was just as pleased with it as I was the first time. If you have the opportunity, you need to add this superb craft bar to your itinerary, whether you live in Denver, or merely visit.
Williams & Graham is a speakeasy-style bar, and I want to take a paragraph or two to discuss what that means for the few who don’t know, and what it can mean to the drinking experience, for those who haven’t thought much about it. The term speakeasy goes back to American Prohibition, and was used to describe the hidden, illegal bars where all levels of society could still get a drink during our long, national nightmare. While today we all think of Prohibition speakeasies as something out of the Great Gatsby, chances are most were dirty, smelly pits, serving hideously dangerous bathtub gin. Legends aside, I’d say the chief historical contribution of the speakeasy is that was there that the idea of respectable women being allowed in bars was born. Thank you Carrie Nation, though I doubt that outcome was your plan.
The modern speakeasy obviously goes for the Hollywood legend side of the coin. To be a “speakeasy” these days, the sine qua non is some sort of hidden, unmarked entrance. Sometimes it is a phone booth inside another business, sometimes a plain metal freight door that opens onto a dark alley, or sometimes even a nearly invisible freight door in a wooden construction wall. I’ve even seen a speakeasy hidden inside another bar. At a superficial level, it makes the customer feel cool and in the know, just by virtue of finding the place. Williams & Graham goes the extra mile. The entrance is a tiny corner “book store”. They don’t actually sell books, sadly, but the cash register is actually the hostess stand. When they are ready to let you into the actual bar, an entire bookcase is swung wide, and you are ushered in. Taken by themselves, the hidden entrance aspect of speakeasies are a gimmick that can become tiresome, even to the staff. I have seen many speakeasies where they let the mask slip after being open for a while. Not so at W&G, and I am glad. There is a huge secondary benefit to the speakeasy model of entrance: control. A good speakeasy is never crowded. That entrance, in addition to being hidden, is also controlled. If the bar is full, you don’t get in. If you are in, you have room to breathe, and to get the best service the staff can provide. Like several speakeasies I’ve been to, Williams & Graham takes reservations. If this review inspires you to go, make one. You will need it.
I suppose that the hidden entrance is all you need for a bar to be a speakeasy, but the atmosphere in most all I’ve been to is some form of early twentieth century theme. And drink menus are almost universally some manner of craft cocktail-centric offering. Williams & Graham is right in what I’d call the sweet spot for this vibe. The decor is dark wood in early 20th century design of the sort you could easily imagine being used in a wealthy club in the day. There is a ring of cozy booths and tables surrounding the center of the action. That center is a huge bar with a sea of interesting bottles on display, and a ton of comfortable seating. If you are going alone, or as a couple, I would recommend making your reservation at the bar.
While technically a full-service restaurant, Williams & Graham is clearly a bar that serves good food, not a restaurant that serves great drinks. The first two pages of the menu are an interesting selection of appetizers, small and large plates, and desserts. Portions are intelligent, and most of the tableware is low footprint. This means that you can eat comfortably at the bar and not spread all over your neighbors’ personal space. I had the deviled eggs (an elegant and delicious traditional version) and the rabbit. I haven’t had bunny in ages, but this was also good. As a disclaimer, I was three drinks in by the time I got the rabbit, so my memory of the subtle nuances of the dish is… hazy.
Enough of all this food and decor stuff! This is a cocktail blog.
How were the drinks?
So very, very good.
The first two pages of the menu were food; many, many more were drink. There were about 14 different house originals, which vary seasonally. After that, every two pages were a listing of the spirits available by category, each with five or so classic offerings featuring that spirit. It is an ideally constructed craft cocktail bar menu, in my opinion: Good food, extensive spirit offerings, a nice survey of the Cocktail Canon, and some sparkling examples of the in-house creativity that I think places cocktails over beer and wine in the booze pantheon.
I had five(!) drinks during my visit, all of which came from the page above. As part of my note-taking, I documented them all on Instagram.
I wont discuss them in detail, because they are likely all gone by now. But I do want to make an important point about the originals at W&G during this visit, and during the one two years ago. I normally get a sinking feeling when I see a large number of house cocktails on a menu. Creating a new cocktail that is good enough to justify selling night after night for months on end is hard. Even the best bartenders have a batting average about equal to a Hall of Fame hitter. Trying to come up with enough hits to populate a house originals section of this size is a herculean task. The bigger the menu, the more “foul balls” you will likely encounter that really should not have made the cut.
Every single drink I have had in two Uber-enabled evenings of drinking at Williams & Graham has been a solid recipe. Not every one was perfectly to my taste, and that would be bad for a commercial menu intending broad appeal anyway. But each and every one repeatable. The word that kept coming to mind with each and every drink I had at Williams & Graham was “restraint”. Not one drink I tried let whatever featured ingredient that made the drink interesting take over and scream, “Lookit me! I’ve got [whatever] in me!” I love a drink that explores some obscure commercial ingredient, or a lovingly crafted housemade syrup or tincture or bitter. But all too many times, the drink’s creator errs by over-emphasizing the featured item, just to make sure the drinker can pick it out. The best unique cocktail ingredients, in my humble opinion, are quiet in their presence, and thunderous in their absence. The bartenders of W&G seem to have mastered this delicate orchestration.
The other element of bar craft that they have perfected is service. Both in efficiency of production, and in interaction with the customer, they absolutely nail it. On my first visit, I was so in love with the customer service that I didn’t really understand what made it so good. My second visit, I was watching and analyzing—albeit through a five drink filter.
The production of so many drinks for such a large, always crowded room is a beautifully choreographed ballet. Most of the people working behind the bar are not actually making drinks. One or two are concentrating on superb craftsmanship, another is bar backing, and the rest are taking orders, serving food and the drinks produced by the first person(s), and chatting with customers. Everyone is relaxed in their role. And regularly, without any fanfare, they shift roles. The mixers relax and chat with customers, and the guy you’ve been talking to disappears into a mixological fugue.
Elements of the service are very cool as well. When you are first seated at the bar, you are greeted immediately by one of the bartenders, who will present you with a carafe of water, a menu, a small cocktail “amuse bouche”, and an introduction to him or herself. Within a few minutes, every other member of staff behind the bar will also take a moment to introduce themselves, and get your name. An unholy number of them will remember it. That small amuse bouche (usually a sour of some sort) means you have a drink immediately, so even if they take a bit to get your first order, you don’t notice it.
Oh, drink the water. Or you will feel like I did the next morning.
Go to Williams and Graham at your first opportunity, if you have not been already. Keep your eyes open, and you will see a fantastic show.