Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
“1975 was the year my wife was born. It was the nascence of the punk rock era,” says Sean Kenyon. “A couple of things that were really important to me: my wife and I we’ve been together for 13 years, and the music shaped a lot of my life.”
Owner of Denver’s Williams & Graham, Occidental and American Bonded, winner of Tales of the Cocktail’s American Bartender of the Year (2014) and Best American Cocktail Bar (2015), Kenyon is the king of Denver’s cocktail scene. Yet his Heering anniversary cocktail draws inspiration less from the classics and more from his 70s childhood, much of it spent running around his dad’s bars.
It’s a take on the Alabama Slammer, a typical 70s bastardisation of Tiki. “My father and grandfather were bartenders and I grew up in their bars, and that drink is something that I remember being written on a list on the wall,” Kenyon says. “They were called ‘Idiot Drinks’. They were drinks for people who were just trying to get drunk.”
The original Alabama Slammer contained Southern Comfort, amaretto, brandy and orange juice. Kenyon’s version swaps out whiskey for Southern Comfort, acidulates the orange juice and adds a colourful Cherry Heering float. “Cherry and amaretto to me that is a classic combination,” he says. “Almonds and cherries go very well together – things like slivered almonds on a cherry pie – so I wanted to keep that element of it but lose the peach.”
Although he grew up idolising bartenders and hanging out in bars, it was punk rock that was Kenyon’s first love. He left New Jersey for Texas with his punk band under the mistaken impression they had a slot at the South by Southwest festival. After the band fell apart, he carried on gigging and bartending on the side. “I realised right then, around 1992-1993, that I did two things: one was playing in a band, one was bartending, and one I actually made money at, and it wasn’t the musician part,” he recalls. “So I decided to concentrate on bartending.”
Despite coming from a family with bartenders on both sides, Kenyon’s relations were less than impressed with his choice of career. Even his father, who recently retired after 46 years behind the bar, found it hard to accept. “My father was never really fully accepting of me being a bartender as a career until Williams & Graham started to get some press and he started to read about it,” he says. “He saw where the industry was going because in the 70s, 80s and 90s nobody thought of bartending as a viable career, not in the United States.”
If there’s one thing Kenyon has inherited both from his father and his maternal grandfather, it’s hospitality. “My dad took care of his patrons like they were his family,” he recalls. “A lot of people who didn’t have anywhere to go came over to our family’s house on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He taught me how to treat your guests and create a community among the people who come to your bars.”
The absence of hospitality is something that disappointed Kenyon when he first started touring the country checking out cocktail bars around 2005. “The science of what they were doing behind the bar was amazing, and what was happening in the glass also was revolutionary,” he says. “But at that time you had scientists, bookworms that were reviving old recipes and were more concerned about the curl of their moustache or what kind of cap or bowtie they had on or their arm girders than actually relating to the guests, and it seemed to me antithetical to what a bartender is.”
Hospitality is, naturally, a focus at all three of Kenyon’s bars, although it took him close to two decades to progress from career bartender to bar owner. In fact, by the time he met with his business partner, Todd Colehour, he’d turned down 18 opportunities to open bars. “I didn’t feel they were right,” he recalls. “I was comfortable working for other people – I had none of the risk and a lot of the reward.”
And, like so much else in his career, that first, ground-breaking bar wouldn’t have happened without persuasion from his wife, Bijou Angeli, an artist and graphic designer who’s currently defying an MS diagnosis by training in kickboxing and working to qualify as a personal trainer. “My wife is the engine for me,” Kenyon says. “She’s the one that makes it all work. If it wasn’t for her, none of this would be worth it… My marriage is the biggest priority of my life.”
Alaba Maslam Mer
Glass: Hurricane glass, tiki mug or pint glass.
Method: Shake all ingredients (except Cherry herring) together. Float Cherry Heering.
2oz Woody Creek Rye Whiskey
0.5oz Cherry Heering
0.25oz Luxardo Amaretto
1oz Acidulated orange juice