The 35 Best Bars in Denver

From dive bars to chic cocktail lounges, we drank our way through the Mile High City to find the best places to imbibe.

February 2012


Olivéa Food meets drink on this Uptown restaurant’s cocktail list with chef-inspired sips made with seasonal stalwarts (beets, cranberries, citrus fruits, and hearty herbs in the winter). The drinks are food-friendly, meaning you won’t burn out your palate with hard liquor—something not every cocktail can boast. Olivéa’s offerings are ever-changing, but we’re forever waiting for summer when ingredients like carrots and tomatoes are featured. 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-5050, olivearestaurant.com 

Drink this: Begin with the Ophelia, an herby tincture of gin, lemon, and rosemary. Move on to the Dante for a mix of beet purée, Herradura, citrus, and jalapeño-infused agave. Then call a cab to take you home.

5280.com Exclusive Mix It: How to Make Olivéa's Ophelia at home. 

Williams & Graham It was only a matter of time before the craft cocktail movement led to the rise of speakeasy-inspired bars. Williams & Graham—the second Prohibition-style bar to open in Denver—plays the role perfectly. There’s the sleepy bookstore front, the shop clerk who writes down your name on a piece of paper, passes it through a crack in the wall, and—perhaps—grants you access to the clandestine bar behind the bookcase. Once inside, the scene is set with old-school tunes and handcrafted sips. 3160 Tejon St., 303-997-8886, williamsandgraham.com

Drink this: Order the Vieux Carré, co-owner Sean Kenyon’s favorite after-shift cocktail.

5280.com Exclusive Mix it: How to Make Williams & Graham's Vieux Carré at home.

Green Russell Below Larimer Square’s bright lights is a dark, secluded entrance to what feels like a secret hideout: Green Russell, a Frank Bonnano project with a cocktail list crafted by Adam Hodak (the mastermind behind Osteria Marco’s bar). This subterranean space—and the heady drinking experience—is Hodak’s baby. He makes what he can from scratch, including grenadine, aquavit, seven types of bitters, four kinds of sours, five sodas, three tonics, eight syrups, five cellos, and more than a dozen infusions of rum, gin, bourbon, and vodka. Whew. That’s not to mention the ice, which is frozen in several sizes and shapes so it melts at a pace fitting for the cocktail. 1422 Larimer St., 303-893-6505, greenrussell.com

Drink this: The drinks are pricey, so order a sipper, like a Sazerac (rye, bitters, sugar cube, and flamed lemon peel served in an absinthe-rinsed glass).

5280.com Exclusive Mix it: How to Make the Barrel Aged Martinez from Steuben's at home.

Steuben’s Is Steuben’s a restaurant or a bar? Honestly, we don’t care as long as they serve fried chicken and mix some of the best cocktails in town. Under Sean Kenyon’s direction for four and a half years (he’s now at Williams & Graham), Steuben’s became the hottest cocktail bar in town. When Kenyon left, we worried the menu would become stagnant and deteriorate to mediocrity. We couldn’t have been more wrong. What makes Steuben’s a cocktail destination—year after year—is its ability to keep improving. 523 E. 17th Ave., 303-830-1001, steubens.com

Drink this: A recent addition to the menu, the Martinez is an aged cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth, Leopold Brothers maraschino liquor, and bitters.

5280.com Exclusive  Mix it: How to Make the Barrel Aged Martinez from Steuben's at home.

Interstate Kitchen & Bar Whenever we’re out for cocktails, we ask one thing: Please serve us the best drink on your menu. It’s a simple request, but it tends to freak mixologists out. They want to know what we like; we want them to serve what they are most proud of. Fortunately, the bartender at Interstate didn’t blink an eye when we asked him on a recent visit: He served us a traditional Sazerac, and then a Standard Etiquette, a modern cocktail. It was a lesson in mixology, which makes Interstate more than just a damn good watering hole. It’s an experience. Bonus points for the hipster reading a book at the bar. 901 W. 10th Ave., 720-479-8829, interstaterestaurant.com

Drink this: Sip on the Standard Etiquette, a blend of whiskey, grapefruit juice, and honey.

5280.com Exclusive  Mix it: How to Make Interstate's Standard Etiquette at home.


SCIENCE: Cold Case 

The most important part of a drink just might be the ice.

When I started drinking spirits in earnest years ago, a gentleman much wiser than me said that the perfect martini consisted of three things: ice, ice, and more ice. That may have been overstating things a bit, but, nonetheless, any knowing bartender (and imbiber, no less) is aware of the importance of ice when it comes to cocktails. Stir your Manhattan if you want that smooth mouthfeel and wish to avoid the “bruising” of ingredients; shake your martini if you like things a little lighter and don’t mind those little shards of ice in your glass. And use big, square ice cubes (never freeze tap water; use boiled or filtered water) when you make your old-fashioned at home. (At certain local bars, like Green Russell, bartenders chip chunks of ice off giant blocks.) The larger surface area means the ice melts more slowly. The result: The ice will cool your beverage while neither messing with its flavor nor, perhaps just as importantly, diluting the alcohol. —Geoff Van Dyke