The Denver Passport took over my life this summer. Between May 22 and September 7, this little blue book offered 2-for-1 drink deals at 64 Denver bars, and I hit every single one of them. By late August, my quest for stamps ruled every outing. Dates, guests in town, time to kill, or articles to write: Anything was an excuse to hit another bar (or two or three).
And now I have bragging rights. According to the program’s organizers, the average Passport gets about 12 stamps. Only 3 to 5 percent check off the whole book. My liver is very proud of my accomplishment.
The Passport program started in Denver in 2013 and has since expanded to Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, as well as six other cities nationwide. The summer Passport costs $20, is released mid-May, and sells out fast. Organizers cap Denver’s books to a run of 5,000 in order to avoid overloading the bars.
Now that I’ve raised a glass from Baker to Ballpark, I’ve learned a lot about Denver’s diverse bar scene. Here is a recap of my favorite deals of the summer, and the situations they’re perfect for:
For Starting Your Saturday Right
My ideal summer Saturday started at Uptown’s Argyll Whisky Beer. After all, a whiskey cocktail isn’t too heavy when you’re pairing it with a pub-style brunch. Across the street, the Denver Bicycle Cafe has an exceptional rotating tap of Colorado craft brews. (Note: The cafe only serves coffee until 5 p.m.) There’s no doubt I spent more this summer than I would have without a Passport to encourage me, but I also walked away from bars like this one with only a $4 tab. (The Passport Program recommends patrons tip for both drinks.)
For Drinking Alone
If you’re planning to get some work done or drowse in a good book, I would suggest La Biblioteca de Tequila in Riverfront Park or Lost Highway Brewing Company in Capitol Hill, the best bars to go to alone. Both are open seating and great for people-watching.
For Bar Crawls
This summer, I planned three bar crawls around Passport deals: in Highland, on South Broadway, and in RiNo. Lessons learned: Never go to bars more than a mile apart, and always have multiple food choices available en route, which was harder than expected in RiNo after 10 p.m.
Highland offered the best options for a bar crawl, by far. I started at my favorite Passport bar in the area, Jezebel’s Southern Bistro and Bar. Unlike some of the other Passport deals, which seemed to offer the least-ordered cocktail on their menu, both Jezebel drinks—Hard Honey Lemonade and Southern Mule—were amazing. Add guacamole at Lola Mexican Fish House and Little Man Ice Cream (half-price milkshakes were included in the Passport as a bonus coupon), and you’ve got yourself the perfect, discounted day. While you’re in the area, Highland Tap & Burger deserves a stop. The bar is known for its beer list, but their Passport deal was for cocktails. The bartender made me a terrific Moscow Mule, which slowly evolved into my drink of the summer—I ordered it at every bar where I was given the option. For the Passport, bars can choose their own deals, which range from specific cocktails (the MCA Cafe only offered their Classique) to seasonal cocktails (Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey), to house beers (Lowdown Brewery + Kitchen) and “Passport holder’s choice” (SIE FilmCenter).
“We tell them, we’re going to deliver a lot of people to your bar,” says PJ Hoberman, co-founder of the Passport program and co-owner of event production company Imbibe. “It’s your job to convince them to stay with just one or two glasses.”
For a Date
Tom’s Urban in Larimer Square is surprisingly a great first date spot. I had my first excellent Moscow Mule of the summer there, plus it has an open floor plan and relaxed vibe that makes it ideal for casual drinks. On a second date, I’d go with the happy hour cheeseburger at Lower48 Kitchen in LoDo. Their Passport special was a unique and delicious off-menu cocktail made with strawberry habanero rum, a good sign that their bartender is as brilliant as their chef. (Bonus: Get dessert. It’s worth it.)
If the relationship is going well and you progress to date three (and beyond), plan an outing to Jefferson Park. Amass has an unpretentious vibe and small but selective bar that includes canned cocktails from Mile High Spirits (the only canned cocktails I willingly drink) and unusual draft beer. And if things are going really well, Sarto (also in Jefferson Park) is perfect for a pricey date. The staff there let me taste four wines in the process of choosing my free Passport glass.
For the Music
I had my best cocktail of the summer at Syntax Physic Opera—their spin on an old fashioned. The small South Broadway venue has enough cred in the music world to pull in acts like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (their August 26 concert sold out in 38 minutes), plus they offer jazz and open mic nights weekly. Their restroom also has a floor made of pennies, and after all the drinking I’ve been doing, I do enjoy a unique view in the loo.
Next up, I visited Nocturne in RiNo, which is not only known for its great jazz and a stellar appetizer menu, but also for the stellar service. This is also the best Passport bar to break up in. The lights go down during the show, and our waitress kept the cocktails coming. (I also appreciated the sympathetic pat on the back when leaving.)
For Going Outside Your Comfort Zone
I’ve never seen the Cheeky Monk on Colfax busy, but the bar offers a huge selection of beer (their Passport deal was cocktails, but I would skip them next time) and the best Reuben slider I’ve ever had. While most of the Passport bars cluster (thus the ease to establish bar crawls), there are a few outliers like Station 26 Brewing Co. in Park Hill and Inga’s Alpine Lounge on the edge of Glendale (the patio here made it worth the drive). Hoberman says the Passport bars are specifically chosen for their range. Organizers look for a mix of breweries, wineries, cideries, and distilleries, as well as atmospheres ranging from swanky to divey.
“They have to be local spots, not massive chains, and most of all, they’re places we’d take our friends if they were in town visiting,” he says.
I finished my Passport in overtime on the Tuesday after Labor Day, when the Passport deals expired. Two of my remaining bars were closed on Monday, but Mike Wright Gallery and Lower48 Kitchen graciously stamped me the day after. Both are active on social media and responded to my tweets.
The Passport was a great way to experience summer in Denver, but now I’m not quite sure how to pick a bar for a night out. Good thing the Passport’s “Winter Warmer” is due for release in January. Until then, it’s looks like I’m drinking for no reason.