Williams & Graham is a small bar with big accolades. Located in Denver’s Lower Highlands neighborhood, Sean Kenyon’s tavern was named Best American Cocktail Bar in 2015. This award followed Kenyon’s own 2014 win for Best American Bartender––both courtesy of Tales of the Cocktail, largely considered to be one of the most influential events in the modern mixology world.
Much attention has resulted, especially from the coasts, where some may be some surprise to see a former cow town beat out spots in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles––cities that have dominated the awards in recent years.
As someone who has lived in both New York City and Denver during the past decade, I wanted to take a closer look at why people from across the country are lining up for a drink at this unassuming spot in central Colorado. On a recent visit, after a short wait in a small anteroom (we arrived early; the average wait tops two hours), my friends and I are escorted through the bar’s faux-bookcase door to our seats.
With a grandfather who owned five bars in New Jersey and a father who owned four, Kenyon understands ambiance in his very bones. The dim lighting at Williams & Graham warms things to just the right temperature, barely reaching the red walls and stamped-tin ceilings. It’s the glow of streetlamps in the middle of the night.
Once seated, we’re greeted by a friendly server, and our first cocktails arrive in good time. My photographer friend ordered a Vieux Carré. Her companion went with a Blackberry Sage Smash.
“When I want the world to slow down around me,” says Kenyon, “I have a Vieux Carré. It has just the right amount of bitterness and sweetness. With cocktails, it’s all about balance. I could say it a million times. If it’s too aromatic or too strong, too sweet or too bitter––it’s boring.”
I ordered a Sidecar, a drink I intended to use to assess the bar team’s craft and the soul of the entire place. Chef Thomas Keller suggests that you can judge a bistro on the quality of its Crème Caramel. To me, a Sidecar could be a similar litmus test––a subtle classic which hinges on achieving the kind of precise harmony that elevates simplicity to elegance.
Like many classic cocktails, the Sidecar has a few different origin stories. One of them says the drink was invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris in the 1920s, by an American soldier who liked to ride in motorcycle sidecars. Regardless of inception, the recipe is a simple one––part brandy, part orange liqueur, part lemon juice––with the ideal proportions debated and varying according to the ingredients. For instance, if employing triple-sec, a bit more may be required. If it’s Cointreau, it might need less, depending, of course, on the quality of the brandy and maybe a general opinion of, say, the French.
Kenyon’s team makes the Sidecar with Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac, Grand Marnier and fresh lemon juice. Shaken and served in a coupe, the sweet and acid sing, transforming the heady complexity of the Cognac into a terrifically refreshing cocktail. Just as important is the ability to execute the drink flawlessly over and over during a busy night (a challenge that the term “mixologist” fails to capture; a full bar lacks the serenity of a chemistry lab).
“It’s much more difficult to make a complex cocktail with four ingredients than with 14 ingredients,” says Kenyon, whose portrait, defined by his dark black hair, beard and glasses, should be done in charcoal pencil.
“For a while, the bar scene was about rediscovering the classics. Then the goals became inventiveness––what you could do with weird, esoteric ingredients. Then we swung back to elegance, unadorned,” Kenyon says.
Entering Williams & Graham is like encountering someone with a big heart, a bright mind and a strong sense of purpose. Someone that makes you feel at ease––and therein lies the magic of the place. There’s something essential about Williams & Graham that makes it so appealing. It’s not a cold or carefully crafted minimalism; it’s more like the warmth and confidence of something stripped to what matters.
This, in a nutshell, is my take on Kenyon’s program at Williams & Graham. Kenyon says the mantra he and his staff believe in is one of beauty and simplicity. That’s easy rhetoric, but in reality is hard to achieve in the restaurant industry. Yet from the cocktails to the door-to-door hospitality, Kenyon and his team walk the walk.
Williams & Graham Blackberry Sage Smash
4 medium sized sage leaves
4 medium sized blackberries
2 ounces Knob Creek Bourbon
1/4 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Shake and serve over ice, garnished with fresh sage leaf and blackberry.
…Or you might like:
Williams & Graham Vieux Carré
1 ounce Russell’s Reserve 6 year Rye
1 ounce Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac
1 ounce Carpano Antica Vermouth
1 bar spoon of Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Peychauds Bitters
Stir and serve over ice, garnished with lemon zest.
A mix of classics and originals, the drinks Kenyon’s team choose tend to be interesting, sophisticated cocktails built on the same balance that makes a successful Sidecar. And the atmosphere at Williams & Graham is just as mature, pleasant and welcoming. Patrons are seated cozily at barstools and in small booths, and the mix of sounds – talk, laughter, clinking ice, shaken drinks––has a musical quality that’s difficult to orchestrate.
The key to Williams & Graham’s success, however, is ancient. It’s the kind of genuine hospitality that only comes alive through people who understand the art of providing it. “The root of hospitality is politeness and respect. As my father once told me, ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about,’ so if we can get a sullen guest to crack a smile, that’s great,” says Kenyon.
Kenyon talks about creating a family, not hiring a staff, and I believe him. Having been in the service industry and felt that camaraderie when it works, it’s easy to sense the bond among the team members at Williams & Graham.
“When your staff has chemistry, the guests feel that; we bring them into it. It’s what I’m most proud of,” Kenyon adds. “Our family has the older child, the middle children, the younger kids, the mother hen, et cetera. Getting the right mix is not easy, but it’s everything.”
Each year, the Williams & Graham crew takes a trip together to places like Scotland and Spain, sampling Scotch and Sherry from the source. They also hold an annual confessional, where the staff is asked to talk about what’s working and what’s not without fear of repercussions.
“It’s painful and enlightening all at the same time,” says Kenyon. “We come out of that and create a plan to try to fix things. And we learn more about our family every year.”
This commitment to honesty and introspection – to each other – no doubt helps keep Williams & Graham from becoming stale or complement. It keep the vibe right and the standards high, which in turn keeps the awards and national crowds coming to Denver.
Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon St, Denver, CO 80211