We’re spoiled. It’s pretty easy to find a good drink in Chicago, so when we travel, we are used to tempering our expectations.
Not so, however, on our recent jaunt to Denver where we stumbled across Williams & Graham. The newly opened spot in the Highlands neighborhood seems to introduce new territory to the beer-drinking Mile High City, but it sates that quality cocktail niche we find blissfully ubiquitous here. The look is unabashedly 1920’s prohibition — dark, secretive and bookish — while the hospitality is over-the-top Midwestern.
The the front of house is a tiny faux bookshop where you exchange the usual “Can I please see your ID?” pleasantries. Nonchalantly, however, the host is noting names and passing sly notes, so that when the bookshelf opens — Agatha Christie style — and you are ushered down the back passage, it comes as a great surprise to be greeted by name by another host you’ve yet to meet. Inside, a backlit bar and low wattage vintage lamps give off a soft glow, but the dark wood and high, deep booths suck the light back up. For those standing and sipping, a well-stocked bookcase runs through the center of the room to serve as a countertop.
These books aren’t for sale. Do you see the “secret” passage? (Source)
OK. Classy ambiance is a check, but how are the drinks? Bang on!
Williams & Graham’s menu is deep. There are more than a dozen pages, individual spirits are listed and categorized hierarchically, and full paragraph introductions penned by mixology celebrities top each page. We’ve come to learn that more is not necessarily better, and here the menu probably comes off as too much for all but the biggest cocktail nerds. Most, however, will — and should — stop on the first page highlighting originals.
The cocktail tome. (Source)
For our first round, the Lady picked the Blackberry Sage — a slightly savory “smash” made with Single Barrel Knob Creek — and the fellow picked the Smoking Frenchman — a light Cognac and Domaine de Canton mix with a rinse of Talisker Scotch; both demonstrated that these guys aren’t just playing classy, but actually owning it.
Suitably impressed, the Lady felt comfortable to riff. When Steve, our server, returned, she asked for something delicious with Hendrick’s Gin — a request he did not bobble. “A little tart? How do you feel about absinthe?” Steve’s pick — a Corpse Reviver #2 — was a brilliant choice marrying the softer, cucumber Hendrick’s with Lillet Blanc, Cointreau and lemon wrapped in an absinthe rinse. It’s a drink the Fellow has championed before, but the Hendrick’s swap for what would typically be a harder gin was an impressive coup that tacked the drink right to the Lady’s heart.
The two-handed double hard shake… the Fellow approves. (Source)
Williams & Graham serves a small menu of food as well to sop up the stiff drinks. The pulled duck confit sandwich had pleasantly vinegary pickled peppers and the croque madame melded cheese, egg and bread into one wholly unforgettable package that the Lady hardly paused long enough from enjoying to praise. These plates were hand-delivered by founder and co-owner Todd Coehour, who apologized for what he considered an unduly wait. (Ten minutes more than we expected, maybe? Nothing to complain about, for sure.) But to make doubly sure we held no hard feelings, he gifted us with an order of warm bacon beignets. The delicious, savory dessert demonstrated a genuine desire to please and showed how remarkably in-touch Coehour is with the goings-on of his guests.
When done right, cocktail craft is fun and welcoming. It is unshielded nerdiness brought to you by passionate people sharing what they love. Williams & Graham strikes that chord well and brings the guest in, delighting in the experience right along side them.