Proper Cocktail: Denver’s Occidental
By: Biju Thomas; Images: Avery Stumm | From issue 107
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If you’ve spent any time at all in Colorado then you know there is no way you can miss the general sense of health, fitness, being active and balancing your work goals against your need to play outside, work out, find new mountains to climb and waters to raft. These images have become iconic and somewhat stereotypical, but that’s only because they are very true. Rosy-cheeked runners on sub-zero days; countless dogs on leashes dragging their walkers behind them; the eternal blueness of every sky; an abundance of light and air—there is simply no shortage of daily reminders to be our better selves.
Colorado has the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and countless mountains for skiing, hiking and mountain biking. It saw America’s original stage race, the Coors Classic, and the country’s first all-women’s multiday road race, the Colorado Classic. And just the names of our towns can spark instant images of crisp nights, endless adventure and escape: Leadville, Durango, Boulder, Vail, Aspen, Steamboat and on and on…
The list of outdoor activities and ventures can be intoxicating, it can also blind you to the idea that Denver, Boulder and surroundings are just great places to live. There is also an abundance of great places to eat, drink, gather and play—all the while being looked after by some of the best talent in any industry.
I’d like to take you on a tour of my hometown, to a few places and people who have shaped the city, touched the culture and fueled the stories we tell visitors and friends who are passing through. Take for instance this little bar called Occidental, which is tucked in next to another Denver gem called Williams & Graham. Both are the handiwork of managing partner and co-founder Sean Kenyon. Voted best bartender in America in 2014, his first bar, Williams & Graham, made the shortlist for the 50 best bars in the world in 2015.
While we have all become accustomed to the fury and energy of young “insta-famous” bartenders and chefs creating magic with a little help from production, Sean is the calm, adult hand making you a gorgeous drink that you didn’t plan to like, because it wasn’t an old fashioned and it didn’t have foam or smoked wood chips. If it’s theatrics you want and moody, bearded fellas lighting orange zest as the spray floats past your nose, then you are also at the right place. The team at Occidental can deftly handle both requests.
As with most interesting people and places, if you didn’t know to look you would just blast by as you drove down the street toward the brighter lights of the city.
So, this fall we spent an afternoon with Sean Kenyon, in Denver’s Lower Highland neighborhood talking about “our neighborhood” where so many of our friends and co-workers went on to launch brilliant careers in food, beverage, design, real estate, art and so much more. Where an old dojo becomes one of the best cocktail bars in the world, disguised as a book shop. When that hidden door opens like a first page to a warm chapter of unfolding dreams, of dim-lit velvet and wood, perfectly balanced flavors and the light—oh, the moody light that lets you know you have arrived in a special place. While, yes, numerous bars and lounges can follow recipes from bar books, and raucous bartenders and all the rest can seem as if they are looking into your soul, there is something to be said for the deft hand of a wizened old bartender, the touch of an artist who looks like a house painter. We’ve all been there; we’ve all been surprised and delighted by the knowledge of how much we didn’t know before that first sip.
A SPECIAL COCKTAIL
Sean Kenyon has made a name in the cocktail world by mastering the old favorites and by creating new classics. On our visit to Occidental, he shows us a drink that is simply perfect with no alcohol added; but it can easily handle your favorite vodka or bourbon. This drink starts with the firm backbone of strong-brewed Earl Grey tea, sweetness from a “reverse” simple syrup made of fresh green apple juice and monk fruit crystals, a bright touch of fresh mint and an exotic note from half a passionfruit. Shake with ice, strain and pour neat or over the rocks. If you don’t want the entire fruit, then simply go with a few scoops of seeds in each glass and a lime round. occidentalbar.com
This is one of the many drinks that have emerged from the “Bar Lab” that Sean and his team have built. Where the entire staff get to create and share ideas for cocktails which are then brutally and lovingly critiqued and perfected by the team before putting on the menu. Here’s one of their holiday favorites created by Taylor Nicholson for The Occidental Bar.
THE PASSIONATE EARL
• 2oz Woody Creek rye (optional)
• 4oz strong-brewed Earl Grey tea (1 bag to 4oz water)
• 2oz Granny Smith juice
• 0.5oz of 1:1 Monk fruit syrup
• 0.25oz Lime juice
• Handful of mint
• 1/2 Passionfruit
• Lime disc
• Preparation: shake with ice
• Glass: Pint glass
• Garnish with the remaining half of the passionfruit