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Denver Speakeasies Capitalize on 21st Century Thirst for Nostalgia

Bartender Adam Hodak makes a cocktail at the Green Russell in LoDo.

The bar at the Green Russell in LoDo.

A bartender at Williams and Graham creates a cocktail.

The bar at Williams and Graham in The Highlands.

Denver speakeasy-style bars Williams & Graham and the Green Russell, are growing like gangbusters as they awaken this beer city’s inner Great Gatsby.
When Sean Kenyon says Williams & Graham is growing like “gangbusters,” it’s hard not to envision Al Capone smuggling alcohol to young beauties and tough guys. 

But this is 2012, not the 1920s, and while many might consider Williams & Graham, which is on Tejon Street in the Highlands, an old-time speakeasy with its bookstore facade and a secret entrance to a dark, sultry bar that is reminiscent of a long gone era, there’s no doubt this is a legit -- not to mention legal -- business.

“For year one, we’re already doing year three numbers,” says Kenyon, co-owner and bartender. “That is unexpectedly high numbers, about 50 percent more than we projected. It’s a successful concept that is working great for us.”

First opened in November 2011, the bar seats about 60 comfortably. While reservations aren’t required, there have been wait times up to three and half hours. In fact, business is going so well that Kenyon says they are looking into expanding into the second story of the former apartment building. 

Kenyon says Lo-Hi was the only place to open the speakeasy because the area has a nice balance of commercial and residential buildings and is popular among its 25-to-45-year-old demographic. 

“We like the idea of the intimacy of it,” he says. “It’s a novel entrance and way to get in the place. We don’t advertise, you can’t tell it’s a bar from the outside. We actually do nothing to let people know it’s there. It’s all from word of mouth.” 

The bar at Williams and Graham in The Highlands.The Real Deal  
A bar that’s success depends on secrecy may sound counterintuitive, but according to Christine Sismondo, author of "America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” this is right in line with the original speakeasies. 

The phrase “speakeasy” gained momentum during the 1920s and early 1930s as a reference to secret clubs where illegal alcohol was sold during prohibition.

Still, as with so many various historical events, modern society has a tendency to glamorize the era. Sismondo says that while there were some high-end speakeasies in places like Manhattan, for the most part, speakeasies were as enchanting as a dirt floor.  

“I think people are in love with the idea of forbidden fruit and love the idea that people drink more during prohibition in gorgeous venues,” she says. “However, most of these speakeasies were not decked out when it came to the décor. People were not willing to invest in place that could shut down in six months so many speakeasies -- for the most part -- were pretty disgusting.”

Recycled Reality
That sobering reality didn’t stop Milk & Honey from pioneering the U.S. speakeasy movement in early 2000, with its referral-only cocktail lounge located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In modern day speakeasies, trendy drinks such as cosmos and appletinis are a faux pas, the bars have a hidden location or fake storefront, crowds are kept to a minimum and cell phones are discouraged and sometimes even banned.

“We do want to have that feeling of being in prohibition, which is why we ask clientele to not use their cell phones, but instead engage in conversation with those they came with,” says Adam Hodak, head of the cocktail program at the Green Russell.

To enter the Green Russell, customers must head to Larimer Square where they pass through a tiny pie-shop. A password isn’t required to enter the low-lit spot with prohibition-era décor, but reservations are.  

Even though Williams & Graham shies away from trendy drinks – bartenders instead favor S.B.N.T.S with Spring 44 Honey Vodka, Laird's Applejack, Leopold Bros Cranberry Liqueur and Angostura bitters or a Blackberry Sage Smash with Williams & Graham Select Single Barrel Knob Creek, fresh blackberries, sage, lemon and sugar -- Kenyon says Williams & Graham doesn’t exactly have any rules. 

“I’m actually incredibly anti-rules,” he says. “Besides, speakeasies in the 20s didn’t really have rules. Once you entered, all bets were off. This is more about the art of getting in the place and after that feeling free to let loose.” 

Future of the Hidden DoorThe bar at the Green Russell in LoDo.
Hodak says Denver was receptive to speakeasies (a classification he’s not entirely comfortable with) because it was looking for something fresh, a place to get good, quality cocktails. 

“I would say we opened a cocktail lounge, and it’s more of a homage to a speakeasy,” he says. “We play to the idea of speakeasy where we have a private feel and don’t allow standing room, but we just wanted to create a nice place for people to have a drink.” 

Hodak says the Green Russell is up about 40 percent from last year and credits his bartending staff for setting it apart from the rest of Denver’s bar scene. The Green Russell’s original cocktails and ambiance have taken off. Hodak said he’s preparing to add more bartenders to his eight-bartender staff. 

“It’s really just a great place that gets busier all the time and we do what we can to accommodate and make the guests happy,” Hodak says. “It’s not pretentious. For us, it’s about making nice cocktails with fresh ingredients.” 

With both Williams & Graham and the Green Russell making its mark on the Denver bar scene by recapturing the temperance movement, it’s natural to wonder if more speakeasy-type bars are on the horizon. 

“I don’t think anymore speakeasies will open here,” Kenyon says. “The places that are open are doing well and any place that tries to follow the lead in the next couple years is just behind the trend.” 

Sismondo says with any new trend in the bar scene, there’s always the risk of it getting old fast.  

“I know some people have called it ‘speakcheesy’ and there is worry with some there’s too much of it in the country,” she says. “But what I see is that it’s still growing and there’s a real market for people who want a slightly better cocktail. People are appreciating brown liquor more than they used to and I think this will all stick around.”

But other Denver speakeasies such as Prohibition at 504 E. Colfax Ave. and Gin & Sin Speakeasy at 3862 High St. are doing well and a new one, Gatsby, is opening at 1527 Wazee St. So, while it's not everyone's cup of gin, speakeasies continue making an impression on the Denver bar scene. 

Read more articles by Heather Caliendo.

Heather is a Denver-based journalist and Confluence contributor. 
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