This article is part of our Best Bars 2015 feature. Find the official 5280 list of the city’s best watering holes, trending cocktail ingredients, essays on the makings of a good bar, drinking alone, and more at 5280.com/bestbars2015.
In October 2014, LoHi hotspot Williams & Graham was named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, becoming the first Denver watering hole to make the list. We caught up with Sean Kenyon, Williams & Graham’s co-owner and lead barman, to chat about his past, future, and the bar’s secrets of success.
What have you learned in three years of being a bar owner?
In leadership, there’s a big learning curve. When I first started managing in my 20s, I was an asshole. The first time I was made a bar manager, my dad said, “Now that you have the authority, it would be a shame to use it.” Effective leaders lead without having to make demands. People just know that when you phrase something like a suggestion, that’s how it should be done. I don’t need to make ultimatums or demands as a leader, because we all have a mutual respect at Williams & Graham.
What sets W&G apart from other cocktail bars?
My father’s and grandfather’s bars were in northern New Jersey. You know, neighborhood bars, shot-and-beer bars—that’s where I grew up. I try to bring that same sensibility to my bars. I was traveling before I owned a bar, while I worked at Steuben’s, and the cocktail bars I would go to were so stuffy. They felt like libraries with cocktails. I swore to myself that when we opened a bar, it was not going to be that.
What’s trending right now in the bar and cocktail community?
Aromatic liqueurs have really hit their peak. It’s funny because I was in a bar recently, and there were a couple of guests talking about what amaros were behind the bar. The guests are so educated now that they’re asking about digestives. And places that overdo them, it’s like a young chef trying to impress you with all his dishes being so obscure. He is trying too hard. If you put too many aromatics into a cocktail, then none of the individual elements come through. So now, a lot of places are trending back to the beauty and simplicity of three- or four-ingredient drinks.
You’re opening a new bar this spring, the Occidental. What aspect of the new spot are you most excited about?
It will be a neighborhood bar much like my father’s and grandfather’s bars, right next to Williams & Graham. What sets it apart is that we will take a cocktail bar sensibility and translate it to a neighborhood bar setting. You know, hospitable and knowledgeable bartenders, fresh juices, homemade syrups, good ice, etc.
Top pick for a celebrity or fictional character bartender: Go.
My perfect bartenders would be John Winger (Bill Murray’s character in Stripes) and John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi’s character in Animal House). Both were leaders, hilarious, the life of the party, and when things went sideways, they found resourceful and unique ways to be successful.
What are you going to do when you retire?
I want to open a bar in Italy. What sparked the idea is that there are a lot of train strikes there. They’ll pull over and just say, “We are on strike.” When my wife and I were there, we stopped in a city called Alassio, in the Italian Riviera. We walked down to the beach, and there were a bunch of little cafes and bars, and there were men and women hanging out in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. That’s just what they’re doing. That seems like paradise to me. I just need to get a little better at Italian.
To read more from Sean Kenyon, check out 5280’s Best Bars 2015.