For legendary local bartender Lisa Johnson, Repeal Day (December 5) is a date that’s forever burned into her brain. Why? She spent 25 years pouring drinks at the Cruise Room, one of Denver’s oldest bars, which opened the day after Prohibition ended in 1933. While there’s no doubt bar veteran Johnson has stirred martinis for thousands of Denverites during her tenure there, she’s recently moved on to the Village Cork in Platt Park.
Yes, you read that correctly: One of the city’s most experienced and hospitable bartenders is working at a wine bistro. While the Cork has always been a top-notch vino destination, owner Lisa Lapp has added a full liquor license after remodeling last summer, meaning patrons can now enjoy one of Johnson’s impressive old fashioneds or Sazeracs alongside a seasonal meal. We caught up with Johnson to talk about the evolution of drinking culture and her handcrafted, local-first approach to the Cork’s cocktail program.
5280: Craft cocktail culture has gone mainstream over the past few years. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed over the decades you’ve tended bar, and how did you approach creating the new cocktail program at the Village Cork?
LJ: I think the Denver clientele has become more conscious of the environment. They’re concerned not only about what they put on their table but what they put in their bodies; they want the clothes that they wear to be American-made. I think the days of Cape Cods, car bombs, and mind erasers are gone. There’s no more rum and Cokes, not a lot of sodas that go across the bar here. People actually want something that’s going to be unique and good for them. People sip now, people don’t slam—they actually want to taste the alcohol and savor. People appreciate a well crafted cocktail. They’re more refined, mature drinkers. It’s absolutely wonderful what has happened with the boutique distilleries. I think that’s what has really fueled this whole craft cocktail thing. Now we have the ingredients to make things that are really kind of fun and people are more inclined to order something that’s going to be a little more unique.
Obviously I do classics, just because I’ve been doing it a long, long time. But we do have a seasonal cocktail program. Every season we change it up. We’ve been making our own bitters, we’re doing our own simple syrups, everything is done according to what’s in season. I’m in the middle of making a woodland bitters. I’ve used some applewood from my home, smoked and charred it. It’s got a whole bunch of things: pecans, walnuts, allspice, cloves. It’s going to be perfect for winter, something with bourbon. You know, Lisa Lapp’s concept is farm-to-table, organic, buy from your neighbors, so we basically try to do the same thing. So even when we chose our alcohols, a lot of them are Colorado made. Leopold Bros., Breckenridge Distillery…even the Proximus tequila has a Colorado connection because it’s owned by Aaron Forman of Table 6.
Bonus: If you haven’t been to the Village Cork lately, it’s time to plan your visit. Settle into the newly remodeled dining room and enjoy one of Johnson’s specialty cocktails.