You enter this speakeasy-style Denver cocktail bar from the street, into a dark, quiet and musty book store. The hostess slips a piece of paper through a secret compartment to the other side, and the bookcase swings open allowing the sounds and smells of the bar to drift through. As you step into the bar and the bookcase closes behind you, your eyes take a few moments to adjust to the dim lights that flicker with the turn of the generator. The room is buzzing with the sounds of drinks clinking, customers chatting and the impeccably dressed waiters maneuvering their way through the crowd serving their hand crafted cocktails.
Williams & Graham is co-owned by Sean Kenyon. Both the bar and the bartender were nominated for a 2013 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award. It’s one of those places that embraces the speakeasy mentality – secret entrance, dedication to craft cocktails – but unlike some bars in the category, it places as much, if not more, of an emphasis on hospitality.
My husband and I visited Williams & Graham on a Friday night, without reservations (they only allow reservations on 20 percent of their tables). It was standing room only when we arrived, but we quickly got seated at the bar, which is always my favorite seat in the house. There you can talk with the staff or just watch as they hand carve ice and craft hundreds of drinks from memory.
I was ready to order one of my go-to drinks at Williams & Graham – the Blackberry Sage Smash (composed of Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon, fresh blackberries, sage, lemon and sugar) – until I eyed the recently-released summer menu. I instead opted for the 4 Leos, a cocktail made exclusively from local Leopold Bros Distillery ingredients: Leopold Bros Small Batch Whiskey, Leopold Bros Navy Strength Gin, Leopold Bros American Orange Liqueur and Leopold Bros Fernet. I was curious to see how the barkeeps would combine this interesting mélange of ingredients into one cohesive drink.
The 4 Leos starts off sweet with some orange liqueur and whiskey notes, but then turns more bitter, finishing with the dark, herbal fernet. It was quite tasty and went down surprisingly easily for a spirit-forward cocktail with such bold ingredients.
My husband, on the other hand, went the tequila route and opted for the El Ocho Rosado, which was made with tequila, Lillet Rose, Manzanilla Sherry and lemon bitters. It was just what he was looking for – not too sweet, not too bitter, and just the right accents to complement the tequila without overpowering the spirit.
While I’ve only been to Willams & Graham a handful of times, I’ve never left disappointed. If nothing on the menu catches your eye, just tell the bartender what spirits you like and what you’re in the mood for. In a few minutes you’ll have a unique concoction presented before you based on your preferences. It’s tough to go wrong here.
Beyond the cocktails, Williams & Graham has customer service down to a science. From the moment you hand your ID to the hostess in the library, the entire staff addresses you by your first name. They shake your hand and treat you as new friends rather than merely patrons of their establishment. It goes a long way. A reputation for great drinks is what brought us into the bar in the first place, but that kind of service is what keeps us coming back.
Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon St
Denver, CO 80211
Photo: Adam Larkey