I went to Denver last week on a press trip with Stranahan's Whiskey, but more on that later.
While I was there I stopped into some bars I heard were great. They were! Then I asked some bartenders if I had been to all the great places, and they said I had not. They were right again! And I'm sure I didn't make it to all the great places in town, but here is the report on where I went.
The pictures are pretty awful, so I guess you'll have to read the words, sorry.
Williams & Graham - Denver's well-known and much-loved speakeasy-style bar from local legend Sean Kenyon. It has all the speakeasy trappings (dark woods, behind-the-bookshelf entry, etc.) but we tried some fresh and bright cocktails as opposed to the classics-only format of many similar bars in other parts of the country. A must-visit.
The Occidental - Next door to Williams & Graham, it's a casual spot with pinball and many televisions, and also the waiting room for next door.
RiNo Yacht Club - Inside a former foundry called The Source that is filled with many businesses, the "yacht club" is more a narrow bar island in the central lobby with barstools on either side and a small section of bench seating. We had one floral-forward stunner (pictured) and a fantastic boozy original with smoked cola syrup.
The bar is owned by Mary Wright and her partner McLain Hedges, who also own the excellent liquor store Proper Pour in the same building. The Source also holds restaurant Acorn that was recommended, but I wasn't able to try it.
Hop Alley - This restaurant serving Chinese kitsch with a hip hop soundtrack was so chock-full-of-hipster I was afraid of getting tangled in artisan knitwear. The bar area doesn't really have enough room to stand without being in the way of servers, and I get the impression the drink program is in transition, but the place looks very fun for small group dinners with friends on the way to, say, a pop-up coffee roasting. Would return.
Finn's Manor - You are in Austin. It is a "food truck pod" and cocktail bar; indoor/outdoor seating, heat lamps, big, clean, fun. I'd probably drink boilermakers here to take advantage of the big spirits selection- it's a place you could enjoy with your mom, your college friends, or a first date (but probably not all at the same time).
Curio - Like Rino Yacht Club, this is a bar with no walls, inside an Eataly-esque venue called the Denver Central Market. I very much enjoyed what I remember of it, which in no way passes for a review.
St. Ellie - A separate bar to Colt & Gray next door, St. Ellie came highly recommended from Denver bartenders. The place is somewhere in appearance between fine dining and an ultra-lounge (not that those exist anymore), with a glowing marbelesque bar top and plush tables in chairs in the room (so I was really quite wary), but with no-standing, a party soundtrack, and understated but very thoughtful cocktails (with the best cocktail allergen labelling I've seen). I don't get it, but I might love it.
Green Russell - A basement bar (seemingly large one but I was there early) associated with a smokehouse restaurant. Very much lead by brown, bitter, and stirred (BBS) drinks. I had a huge plate of friend pickles, and I paired it with a Suze-gin drink like a boss.
The Cruise Room - An amazing Art Deco bar and the first to open after Prohibition, designed by the person who did the Queen Mary (thus the name). The room is in the shape of a wine bottle, filled with red lighting and original wall panels (except for the ones celebrating Hitler and Mussolini that were replaced when it became clear they weren't good guys after all). Cocktails are not great (stick to Martinis) but uber history buff bartender and sexiness of the room make it worth seeing.
Ophelia's Electric Soapbox - The upstairs bar surface is made of pinball machine tops and the downstairs bar is filled with Jagermeister minis- spectacular. This two-level live music venue features supperclub-style seating and a high-volume cocktail-on-draft system. The design of the venue celebrates its history as a former brothel. It's built for volume but next time I'd make a table reservation and go for an event so I could hang out there longer.
Mercantile - The anchor restaurant in Union Station (I stayed at The Crawford right at the station and it is great) is sort of a cafe and restaurant and bar depending on where you sit. One night I came in for drinks and was impressed with the complexity of the menu (given that the crowd will be many tourists in addition to locals).
Overall: Wow. Denver is a great drinking city. When can I go back?