Take one look at Denver’s evolving skyline and it would seem that everyone wants a piece of this city. At the height of the summer last year, 28 tower cranes rose above the downtown area, many of them for high-rise apartment buildings. It was clear evidence that the city is still playing catch-up with a population boom that saw more than 100,000 new residents move in between 2010 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For the beverage alcohol industry in Denver, these changes have led to a more discriminating and international clientele. While Denver remains one of America’s most devoted beer cities, the options have expanded, thanks in no small part to talented professionals—like the following five—who have cultivated a more dynamic beverage scene for an ever more curious population.
The Sake Savant
Nick Touch has been one of Denver’s most respected spirits professionals for years. In 2017 he opened The Family Jones, a distillery and bar in the Highlands neighborhood. Cecelia Jones (no relation to the distillery) of Uncle, a bar and ramen shop in the Highlands, is a Denver star on the rise, says Touch. “Uncle is a tiny little spot,” he says, “so with the space that she has there, the bar program could be nonexistent. But she nails it.” In addition to the food-friendly cocktail and wine menu she’s created, Touch appreciates Jones’s taste and passion for the sakes on her list. “Cecelia,” he says, “has brought sake in Denver to a level of higher education and a level of higher enjoyment.”
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For Jones, her path to sake connoisseurship feels like a full-circle return to her childhood. Her parents, who are Buddhists, frequently took her to Japan when she was a child to visit the Taiseki-ji temple in the foothills of Mount Fuji. After becoming a professional dancer in New York City and Denver, she eventually turned to hospitality, where she was drawn to Uncle and the work of Chef Tommy Lee, whose authentic approach she admired. But despite childhood familiarity with Japan, she had some adult catching up to do. “Being asked to take over the beverage program [at Uncle],” she says, “meant I had to get to know sake.” After two years in her current position, she will now oversee a second Uncle—a larger location in the West Washington Park neighborhood.
Among sake’s many virtues, Jones especially celebrates its versatility, saying, “You can have it with cheese, you can have it with prime rib, you can have it with a fatty bowl of ramen. Sake hits all those marks with ease.” But her latest mission is to expose many of her diners to their first taste of Japanese wine, something the expanded beverage program at the second Uncle will allow her to do more of. As someone who was born and raised in Denver—and seen its emergence as an international city in a matter of a few short years—Jones thinks the city’s diners are now game to try anything. “Denver has created a space where we are accepting these disruptive and wonderful cultural revolutions,” she says. “That’s a big deal and I want to be a part of it.”
The Modern Traditionalist
As the regional manager for Wilson Daniels, and now the company’s national director of education, William Davis has witnessed the evolution of Colorado’s beverage business firsthand. Through it all, one venerable restaurant has stood out for its steadiness—Barolo Grill—and, says Davis, the restaurant’s sommelier and assistant wine buyer, Erin Lindstone, is one of the city’s most promising young talents. Davis points to the fact that this Denver fine-dining icon, which has always been firmly rooted in the cuisine and wine of Italy’s Piedmont, is branching out. “Erin has that Barolo DNA when it comes to service and respecting tradition,” he says, “but she’s able to talk about the wider world of wine in a thoughtful way.”
Lindstone has worked with Barolo Grill owner and wine director Ryan Fletter to update the 26-year-old restaurant’s wine program. Her efforts to modernize the wine menu helped the restaurant—which includes a cellar of more than 2,100 wines—attain the Grand Award from Wine Spectator in 2018. “Ryan and I were strategizing how to not scare people away with all these great wines we’re cellaring,” says Lindstone, adding that part of their strategy was to develop a curated selection of Coravin pours by the glass for older vintages. “We’re so lucky,” she says, “to have this crazy library of wine that has been built over 26 years.” Lindstone says the Coravin program has been an effective way to highlight great wines that were otherwise getting lost on the list. She and Fletter also devote a page of the menu to the most impressive wines they discover during the annual trip to Italy made by the full restaurant staff.
While it might seem like a burden for the restaurant to bear the name of one of the world’s greatest wine appellations, Lindstone sees it as an opportunity to showcase the broader spectrum of Italian wine, both in terms of quality and value. Much of this approach, she says, starts with Barolo’s Piedmontese neighbors. “I’ve been buying a lot of the Alto Piemonte,” she says, “especially Lessona, which has this Burgundian finesse to it, but at its core it’s still Nebbiolo.” Denverites have become increasingly savvy about Italian wines, notes Lindstone. She believes the city’s adventurous but laidback attitude matches well with the universe of Italian wine. “It’s really fun to see the evolution of our recurring guests,” she says. “They’re always looking for something different.”
The Mood Maker
As the wine director of Denver’s popular upscale Italian restaurant Tavernetta, Carlin Karr has a unique perspective on the city’s up-and-comers. That’s because Tavernetta, and especially its sister restaurant in Boulder, Frasca Food and Wine, have been cultivators of the highest levels of beverage talent. Karr, who worked with Allison Anderson at Frasca for five years, immediately noticed her “obsession with the guest experience.” Now Anderson is overseeing the beverage program and hospitality at two of Denver’s most buzzed-about restaurants—Beckon and Call. “Allison has a quiet warmth behind the bar that is so rare and special,” says Karr, adding that her ability to make lasting personal connections with guests helps to set the vibe for both restaurants.
Anderson explains that forming such bonds with guests isn’t about service as much as it is about nurturing and caring for others. “To make anything for someone else—that’s a very intimate experience,” she says. “I want to give you something that you love, and I want to talk to you about it.” She finds that this work philosophy opens the door to playfulness for her guests, something that she and her staff take full advantage of at Call, where they put paper umbrellas in cocktails, serve Aperol spritzes in fishbowl margarita glasses, and embellish drinks with oversized but meticulously made garnishes.
Anderson has also emerged as one of Colorado’s foremost experts on mezcal. She is so fond of mezcal that she says it’s her spirit animal. “Or, I guess, it’s my spirit spirit,” she says, laughing. “It has such a deep history, and anytime you can taste a well-made mezcal, you go there [to its place of origin]. I’ve had mezcal that brought tears to my eyes because it was so familiar and because it brought me right back to Mexico.” Because of its versatility, Anderson uses mezcal in many of her cocktails, and of course—as a devoted nurturer of the guest experience—she finds great reward in introducing different mezcals to her guests.
The Mixed-Culture Pioneer
Long before Denverites were geeking out on mezcal or discussing the terroir of Alto Piemonte, they were drinking beer. An incubator for beer brands large and small, the city and its surrounding communities have been—and will continue to be—beer obsessed. Jason zumBrunnen’s Ratio Beerworks has emerged as one of the city’s most popular breweries in recent years, and he points to Trve Brewing Company’s Zach Coleman as one of the Denver drinks industry’s most prominent up-and-comers. “What’s noteworthy about Zach is that he is truly a talented brewer,” says zumBrunnen. “But he is very humble about his accomplishments and skills. In an industry that can have over-the-top personalities, it’s refreshing to find a brewer who cares deeply about the craft, but with a quiet confidence.”
ZumBrunnen cites Coleman’s ability to brew beers with subtle complexity as the perfect fit for this moment in Denver’s brewing culture. “The fact that Zach has helped develop a mixed-culture [sour-beer] program at a traditional brewery is, of course, a testament to [Trve’s] whole team,” he says, “but it’s only really possible because the beers and blends are consistently great.”
Coleman—who came to Denver from north Texas eight years ago—has found his footing in the city by adopting atypical yeasts and bacteria in his brewing. “We’ve always made clean beer at Trve [such as pale ale, pilsner, and stout], but now we’ve got a pretty big push on the mixed-culture sour-beer side of things.” The experiments have paid off for fans of Trve Brewing, who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the ingenuity of the beers. “Colorado is kind of an oddball as far as the beer scene goes,” Coleman says. “It has never had its roots in one style in particular, such as West Coast IPA or what’s going on along the East Coast. We’ve benefited from being an oddball in the beer scene because we’ve had [a] mix of everything. So drinkers here seem to be open to that.”
The Neighborly Newcomer
For the last 10 years, advanced sommelier Kendra Anderson has helped educate Denver’s diners (and her dedicated Instagram followers) on developing wine trends and captivating food pairings. She recently dived into the hospitality scene herself when she opened Bar Helix in October 2017, which has become a staple of the city’s trendy RiNo neighborhood. But when she needs to unwind with a drink herself, she turns to Citizen Rail in the Kimpton Hotel Born, in large part because of the service of its assistant general manager, Paige Dana. “It’s my Cheers bar,” Anderson says, adding that Dana embodies the essence of a true hospitality pro by balancing staff leadership with engaging guest contact. “Seeing a young woman excelling as Paige does,” Anderson says, “sets an important, tangible precedent [for] aspiring female wine professionals—they, too, can earn similar leadership positions with a prestigious company like Kimpton.”
Dana moved to the Mile High City in 2016 but has been with Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants for more than four years, with stints in Grand Cayman, Nashville, and at the acclaimed Brabo in Washington, D.C. “It was pretty exciting to move out to Denver and open a property from scratch—and write a wine list from scratch,” she says of the transition. “Denver is an exciting community of growth … I don’t get that old-school, we’ve-been-doing-it-this-way-forever attitude, which is why I love it here.”
Few parts of the city have seen as dramatic a change as LoDo, the neighborhood where Citizen Rail is located—with a handful of brand-new high-rises and the nearby renovated Union Station (a once-neglected railroad facility that now serves as the city’s transit hub). Given this crossroads, Dana has to create a welcoming atmosphere for a diverse clientele, including hip locals, weary commuters, and hotel guests. “People are looking for that city neighborhood feeling,” she says. “They want to walk to the market and walk to their local bar. We really want to promote that feeling of being at home.” One way in which Dana and her team—including bartender Chris Burmeister, who Dana calls a mad genius—tap into the neighborhood’s unique spirit is by cultivating a beverage program that emphasizes Pacific Northwest wines, an extensive whiskey selection, and unexpected cocktails. “Our favorite happy-hour pairing is a glass of rosé with a shot of mezcal,” she says, “which is shockingly delicious.”
Kevin Day is a wine writer and photographer based in Colorado and the founder of the wine website Opening a Bottle. He is an Italian Wine Scholar with Highest Honors and a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @openingabottle.