I recently had the good fortune to travel to Colorado, my first-ever trip to the Centennial State. I spent some time in Estes Park, a resort-like town about 70 miles northwest of Denver that serves as the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’ve never been, take it from me – the scenery there is absolutely breathtaking.
Wherever you are, and whichever way you turn, the majestic peaks of the Rockies are on your immediate horizon. And when you’re exploring the mountains themselves, either by car or on foot, the experience is truly fulfilling. My very soul felt somehow renewed by gazing at the stunning vistas and breathing that crisp Rocky Mountain air.
It would far exceed my writing or photography skills to faithfully convey the essence of that experience, so I’ll stick with what I’m reasonably good at. After a few days in Estes Park, I traveled to Denver. Now, Colorado is a beer state, widely known and renowned for its concentration of breweries. But its capital city also boasts a pretty impressive cocktail scene. A growing number of Denver bars have won national acclaim for their innovative approaches to mixology. One, Williams & Graham, was even named Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.
With so many choices and so little time, I relied on a friend’s advice and opted to check out Green Russell, a subterranean, speakeasy-style bar in the heart of historic Larimer Square. As with many modern speakeasies, finding Green Russell means knowing where to look. At first, the bar appears to be clearly marked, with a sign above a flight of stairs leading below ground level. You walk in, see a pretty conventional-looking bar to your right, and think, “Well that wasn’t so hard to find.” But not so fast! That’s the bar of Russell’s Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant.
So, if you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the place, you’ll awkwardly amble over to the hostess and say, “Yeah, I’m looking for the bar? Uh, not that bar, but I guess there’s another, uh...bar…” at which point she’ll mercifully put an end to your blather and ask you for your name and the number of people in your party. After a few minutes (10 minutes in my case, since the bar hadn’t opened yet, which only added to the awkwardness; and I’ll tell you, nothing makes you feel more like an alcoholic than standing outside a bar by yourself, waiting for it to open), someone leads you beyond a pair of service doors that give you the impression of sneaking into the kitchen of a bakery. Past the doors is no bakery, though, but a dark room that looks like a partially finished basement with a fancy bar set up in it. In other words, like a speakeasy.
But unlike so many bars that try to capture the look and feel of a 20s-era illicit watering hole, Green Russell’s speakeasy character has genuine historical roots – the space actually did serve as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It certainly looks the part, with its rough-hewn stone walls, wooden posts, dim lighting, and vintage fixtures.
But as the bartender explained to me, Green Russell calls itself a pre-Prohibition bar, focusing on classic drinks and techniques that were in vogue before the so-called Noble Experiment. Think fresh, house-made ingredients and hand-chipped ice.
Further, the emphasis here is less on secrecy and more about fostering a comfortable drinking experience, with the cocktail appropriately at the center. The small space can be busy, but not jam-packed – you’re admitted to the bar only when your whole party can be seated. Enjoy talking on your phone while you’re at a bar? There’s a phone booth for that. And if you truly don’t know how to comport yourself in a modern cocktail lounge, there’s a sign at the door offering a few helpful suggestions.
Overall, Green Russell is built around the experience of enjoying a well-crafted cocktail, and my own experience was outstanding. Maybe it’s because I was there early on a weeknight, or because I was alone, but I got such individualized attention that my bartender, Heather, seemed more like a guide – offering suggestions, answering questions, and making conversation.
At the heart of this “chef-driven cocktail joint” is a dynamic, highly contemporary beverage program that features a dozen seasonal offerings, several barrel-aged cocktails, and a “bartender’s choice” option, if you’re willing to put your faith in your bartender. (Note: The drinks in this story were part of Green Russell’s summer menu; I assume the fall offerings are what you’ll find now.)
At Heather’s suggestion, I began with the Castle Black, inspired by the ancient, beleaguered center of defense against supernatural predators in the Game of Thrones series. This vibrant drink combined two brands of 10-year-old scotch – Glen Grant and Laphroaig – along with Amaro Lucano, black pepper, and citrus bitters. The pepper served to intensify the smokiness of the scotch, and despite the gloomy name, the citrus gave the drink an overall sense of brightness.
Normally at this point I’d explore the menu a little further, but since Heather’s first recommendation was so good, I opted for the bartender’s choice. I expressed a preference for bourbon, and she responded with a creative variation on a Manhattan. Combining Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon, Amaro CioCiaro, maraschino liqueur, and angostura bitters, the drink had a bold, deep sweetness with distinct orange notes from the amaro. The maraschino liqueur added a little dryness and bitterness.
Since I’m a sucker for good gin and bad puns, my next choice was the Mousse with the Fir, a mix of St. George’s excellent Terroir gin, Pampelmousse grapefruit liqueur, black pepper, lemon, and mint. This sour, invigorating cocktail had a complex but well-balanced blend of herbs and botanicals, with just a hint of sweetness. (I appreciated the clever name but was unhappily stuck with that “boots with the fur” song in my head for the remainder of the weekend.)
Green Russell’s food program largely comprises bar snacks that are equal parts inventive, upscale, and playful, such as candied spiced nuts, brisket sliders, and pigs in a blanket. The emphasis is on shareable dishes, but most are substantial enough to serve as full serving. I went with the delicious charred octopus, served with hush puppies, smoked aioli, and a spicy chorizo salsa verde.
For my final drink of the evening, I again deferred to Heather’s judgment. Deciding that I needed a rum drink to complete the equation, Heather consulted some of her personal notes before whipping up a doozy. Made with Appleton dark rum, silver rum, maraschino liqueur, and Cocchi Americano vermouth, this potent cocktail balanced strong sweet and herbal notes, ending with a surprisingly smooth finish that lingered on the palate. It was a thoughtful combination of ingredients and a satisfying (if boozy) conclusion to the evening.
It’s easy to get carried away with the speakeasy theme, and some bars allow novelty to trump substance. The ones that get it right, like Green Russell, use the motif as a means to elevate the cocktail experience. The focus here is on creative drinks and a talented, attentive bar staff – not passwords and gimmickry. And if that means standing outside those nondescript kitchen doors for a little while, chances are your patience will be rewarded.
Address: 1422 Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado
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