Food & Drink

The Denver Bartenders You Absolutely Need to Know

Published On 11/02/2016 Published On 11/02/2016
Green Russell
Green Russell | Ryan Fitzgerald

As we round out another year, it’s safe to say that Denver’s cocktail scene has never been stronger. While we’ve been major players in the beer game for decades, we’ve finally solidified ourselves as a well-rounded drinking city. Need evidence? Pop into one of the dozens of cocktail-driven joints that have opened in the last year or so. Behind a great bar, however, is a passionate, driven individual who balances knowledge and craft with hospitality and approachability. Anyone can make a Negroni; it takes a professional to master it. So let us raise a glass and celebrate Denver's top 'tenders of 2016.

Courtesy of Haylee Ortiz

Haylee Ortiz

Mister Tuna

Address and Info

Five Points

Like many on this list, Haylee Ortiz has deep experience in the Denver bar scene. A current board member of the Colorado Bartenders' Guild, Ortiz has racked up awards for her work behind the bar at some of the area’s finest establishments, including OAK at Fourteenth, Session Kitchen, and Baur’s. At the latter two, she served as bar manager. These days, you can find Ortiz at Mister Tuna, Troy Guard’s latest and greatest restaurant and bar. Not only does the cocktail menu at the Hawaiian-influenced concept challenge and excite, it emphasizes service. And Ortiz plays her part, as exemplified in her “black book,” where she keeps guests’ favorite drinks for return reference.

When did you start bartending?

Haylee Ortiz: I started as a server and have always been obsessed with the flavors, textures, and nuances of a great bar program. I tried to move into bartending several times before I ended up in a floor management position, and then segued into kitchen management. I really loved that -- I found a niche cooking and meat cutting but I missed direct guest interaction and felt the pull to be back out front. Bartending is a good marriage of both. I still manage, consult, and love to cook, but I don't think I could ever stop being a bartender.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Ortiz: My guests and my team. It's almost unfair to call bartending a "job." It's too much fun! I love taking care of people, sharing part of myself and sharing my beverage knowledge. It’s my passion.

What's your favorite drink to mix up?

Ortiz: Ha! What’s your favorite drink to drink? That’s my favorite drink to make.

It's your last meal. What are you drinking?

Ortiz: I hope I'm eating moose steaks in a log cabin, in a hot tub while sipping some unicorn Scotch from a bottle covered in dust with friends in a snowstorm with a great roaring fire going. Or maybe we are sitting in a haunted library and that scene from Ghostbusters is happening (the Scotch part doesn't change though).

Courtesy of Merlin Mitchell

Merlin Mitchell

Green Russell

Address and Info

Larimer Square

To call Merlin Mitchell a wizard is no understatement. Originally from Tallahassee, Florida, Mitchell attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he earned his mechanical engineering degree and took up bartending. Since relocating to Denver in 2014, he has worked at exactly one location -- the Green Russell, Frank Bonanno’s chef-driven bar in Larimer Square.

After nearly two years behind the bar there, Mitchell took over as bar manager in August. Since then, he has carried the proverbial torch of the reputable speakeasy. Need evidence? Pop in for a taste of the recently updated fall menu and have Mitchell and his team point you in the direction of your new favorite cocktail.

When did you start bartending?

Merlin Mitchell: After finishing engineering school. I was unemployed and drinking at my local pub (called Sanctuary) and they had me doing handyman maintenance around the place. That led to barbacking and after about two years of that I transitioned to bartending. So ultimately I got into it by accident.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Mitchell: Having the opportunity to change someone's mind about a spirit or what's possible behind the bar.

What's your favorite drink to mix up?

Mitchell: A Mai Tai. They're delicious, beautiful, and have enough history to allow me to satisfy my inner geek.

It's your last meal. What are you drinking?

Mitchell: Aged rhum from Martinique.

Carl Zoch

Jack Bethel

The Nickel

Address and Info

LoDo

Although he spent half of this year managing the bar program at Downtown’s Squeaky Bean -- which has racked up accolades for its cocktail program -- Jack Bethel currently works at as the assistant food and beverage operations manager for the Hotel Teatro and adjoining Nickel restaurant. And while many guests became familiar with Bethel’s endlessly creative mind and gregarious disposition while sitting in a barstool at the Bean, his next step makes complete sense. At the core of his philosophy he believes that there is “a drink for every disposition,” and he fearlessly leads his Teatro team to excel in all things hospitality. While Bethel’s concoctions have always utilized the most cutting-edge of culinary techniques and fluid sciences, his emphasis on the final product includes stripping away all pretense and presenting an approachable -- and delicious -- beverage for your consumption.

When did you start bartending?

Jack Bethel: In college. I needed some fast cash, and the local dive needed a pair of hands. We didn't have pour spouts or jiggers, and I don't think anybody (including myself) had ever heard of Angostura. We slung domestic beers, and a heck of a lot of Black Velvet and Kessler's.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Bethel: The feeling of looking over a clean and empty restaurant at the end of the night, and knowing that we made people happy. I turn the lights off and sit there in the perfect silence for a moment.

What's your favorite drink to mix up?

Bethel: The one the guest enjoys best. I like fun flavors and unexpected combinations, but that doesn't mean my guest always does. I also like crude humor, so anytime we can work that in, it's a plus.

It's your last meal. What are you drinking?

Bethel: It's my last meal? Dang, where did I screw up? I guess I'll have a Smith & Cross daiquiri. And a High Life. And a glass of amontillado. Is that cheating?

Adam Larkey

Chad Michael George

The Way Back

Address and Info

Highland Park

Chad Michael George is no stranger to the Denver bar scene, or to accolades. George has worked in the industry for more than 17 years, and cut his teeth in town at the legendary Williams & Graham. This year, however, has arguably been his biggest year to date, between the opening of his own bar and his mention as one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Mixologists.” Inarguably one of Denver’s preeminent talents, George’s skill and passion is manifested in The Way Back, his stylish, sexy bar and restaurant that opened in March. The Highland haunt, which is co-owned by Kade Gianinetti (of Method Coffee Roasters) and Jared Schwartz (of American Grind food truck), epitomizes the Denver food and beverage scene as of late. Much like George himself, The Way Back pays close attention to hospitality. Or in other words, the little things that make going out enjoyable in the first place.

When did you start bartending?

Chad Michael George: I was the assistant GM & wine director at a lovely place in St. Louis called Monarch. Our bar manager, Ted Kilgore, is someone I often compare to the encyclopedic David Wondrich when it comes to spirits and cocktail history and production. I became obsessed with absorbing as much knowledge as he could bestow on me. I had bartended in the past, but this was a whole new level.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

George: Giving someone an experience they'll never forget. My job is to give each person the experience they're looking for. When guests leave The Way Back, there's no greater compliment than the genuine excitement and happiness I get to see on our guests' faces nightly.

What's your favorite drink to mix up?

George: Seriously, it's the drink that's going to wow you. There isn't one specific drink that is simply more fun to make. It is way more about putting a drink in front of you that you're truly going to enjoy. If I'm making a drink for me, it's a Vieux Carre or a Rittenhouse Old Fashioned.

It's your last meal. What are you drinking?

George: Something old and red from either Rioja or Châteauneuf-du-Pape or some really old oloroso sherry.

Stuart Jensen

Curio

Address and Info

RiNo

By now, the Stuart Jensen story is well-known around town. After working in kitchens throughout the area -- notably, the high-profile ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro and TAG -- he transitioned to work behind the bar. After working as a bartender at Green Russell, he became the bar manager at Mercantile Dining & Provision (when it opened in early 2015), a position he held until just a few months ago. These days, Jensen is a partner at Curio, the bar inside the newly opened Denver Central Market. While Jensen initially started as a consultant, in October 2016 it was announced he would become the bar’s third owner, in addition to the husband-and-wife team Katsumi Yuso Ruiz and Stephen Julia. Curio serves as the central hub of the communal area of the market -- and Jensen is superbly qualified to play the role of greeter.

When did you start bartending?

Stuart Jensen: I had been working in kitchens for about eight years. I decided that I wanted to learn a little about the front of the house because I thought that it would make me a better chef and (someday) restaurant owner.  A friend set me up with a barback position at Green Russell and I was immediately hooked. Shortly thereafter they gave me the opportunity to become a full-time bartender. I quit my kitchen job and I've been doing it ever since.  

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Jensen: All of the regulars and friends that I've gained. There have been so many amazing friendships and opportunities that have begun with a simple conversation over the bar top.  

What's your favorite drink to mix up?

Jensen: This is always a tough question because I really just want to make people something that they like, and for the most part it's all the same to me. That said, I really like when people come in and ask for modern classics.  If someone orders a Trinidad Sour or a Paper Plane, it usually means that we've hung out at the same bar at some point or that we have mutual friends somewhere.

It's your last meal. What are you drinking?

Jensen: A lot of Champagne, hopefully some Burgundy, whatever beers are left over in my cellar, and most importantly, a bottle of bourbon to pass around with my friends afterwards.

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Trenton Reed is a full-time copywriter, a freelance food writer, and was once the disposable insert found in picture frames in the greater Milwaukee area.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Mister Tuna 3033 Brighton Blvd, Denver, CO 80216 (Five Points)

RiNo’s Mister Tuna is an American restaurant, specifically inspired by Hawaiian-style wood-fire grilling. With favorites like the King Crab with local apple, brown butter, and black lava salt, Chef Troy Guard’s menu includes raw bar, appetizer, and entrée options that emphasize produce, cheeses, and meats. The 3,500-square-foot space is lined with garage doors on one side and a large, open kitchen on the other, with a bar stretching the length of the room. The beverage program includes six beers on tap and a series of meticulously crafted cocktails for your sipping pleasure.

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2. Green Russell 1422 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80202 (Lodo)

Only accessible via a secret door through a small pie shop, Larimer Square's Green Russell serves some of the best cocktails in Denver in a cool, speakeasy-like locale. This moody, elegant establishment has been serving up Prohibition-era cocktails since 2011. Named after Colorado gold miner William Green Russell, the joint is rooted in old-school sensibilities, but still appeals to the modern palate with its selection of made to order libations.

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3. The Nickel 1100 Fourteenth St, Denver, CO 80202

A rooftop hive and in-house pickling service elevate The Nickel's American menu to finely tuned standards. Prices are relatively high but barrel-aged cocktails, Colorado craft beers, and posh snacks like crispy quail and boiled peanuts justify the fancy experience. Most of the dishes are made on a wood-fired grill, which like the menu itself, changes seasonally: cherry wood might be fueling your lamb ribs one month, and peach wood the next.

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4. The Way Back 4132 W 38th Ave, Denver, CO 80212 (Highland)

Highlighting the regional cuisine and flavors of Colorado, this Berkeley area resto and bar is a hip and friendly neighborhood favorite with the bonafides to back it up. Led by a trio of industry vets -- Chad Michael George, Kade Gianinetti, and Jared Schwartz -- whose resumes include stints at cocktail havens Williams & Graham and Linger, The Way Back's sure to impress with its selection of eclectic yet satisfying takes on Midwestern and American flavors.

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5. CURIO Central Market, 2669 Larimer Street, Denver, CO 80205

First on your list at the Denver Central Market in RiNo should be Curio Bar, a social drinking spot with a central location in the communal marketplace. Curio serves simple, yet tasteful, cocktails in a friendly, bright, and open atmosphere, complete with light wooden tables and copper dishware. Drinks are made with freshly squeezed juices and farm fresh fruits and herbs, which is only fitting, as the brains behind the project are Katsumi Yuso Ruiz and Stephen Julia, who also own Green Seed, the produce shop at The Central Market.

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