Denver might be best known for weed and craft beer, but it’s also home to some of the best cocktails that’ll ever cross your lips. From sturdy classics to inspired originals, a devoted drinker will find a lot to love in the Mile High City, as I recently experienced for myself first-hand. I posted up at two bars a night over three nights in late May, including tiki dives, space-themed speakeasies, and even a refined room (or two) of taste and distinction. Some were fine for a couple of drinks, others could easily become a regular haunt if I ever relocated. (And if you’ve never been to Denver, well, your first trip might make you think seriously about moving there.) All of them offered something unique and memorable, though. If you’re ever in Denver, here are six bars worth checking out.
This nationally known tiki bar serves up the classics you expect in a fairly elegant environment. Its bar and main dining room are lined with bamboo, with a print of Polynesian-themed art hanging on one wall, and without a lot of the kitschier elements often found at tiki bars. Two patios let you enjoy its food and drink outside, and are your best bet for a walk-up if you can’t get a reservation (which are highly recommended for the dining room). I was able to snag a table along with my wife, and can confirm that Adrift makes a highly enjoyable Mai Tai. It specializes in the standards, with Zombies, Hurricanes, Singapore Slings, and more, although usually not quite as sweet as you’ll find at most tiki bars. They also make a tiki-fied take on the old fashioned, mixing bourbon with rum, coconut liqueur, espresso liqueur, and bitters; it’s a dark, rich, intoxicating drink with a tropical flair from the coconut. A full kitchen also serves delicious fare like spam musubi and pork belly banh mi.
Yes, New York’s famous Death & Co. has a Denver outpost, based in the lobby of the Ramble Hotel. The first of two satellite locations, Denver’s Death & Co. brings the imaginative cocktails the original is known for to the West. The Alabaster is a rum- and falernum-based concoction without the sizable sweetness or ABV of a tiki drink; with aloe vera, lime, cucumber, and mint, it’s like a light, refreshing drink you’d have at a spa, only with a slight tropical twist. The Electric City mixes bourbon, brandy, lemon, pineapple, and China’s “fragrant plant” pandan for a sweet, herbal drink with a strong bourbon kick. The cocktail list is long and exciting, and the bartenders are nice and chatty (at least on a slow afternoon), but the vibe is a bit impersonal; it’s not merely in the Ramble’s lobby, it basically is the lobby, and although the bartenders never said or did anything to give me this impression, I still felt like I should probably move on and out of the way of other guests rather quickly. Death and Co. is ideal for a quick drink at the end of the work day, and is no doubt popular for special occasions. (It does have a full menu, although it was only serving snacks while I was there, so I can’t speak on the food.)
The Electric Cure was the first of two tiki bars I went to in Denver, and I can honestly say I’ve never been to another place like it. It prides itself on being a Satanic tiki bar, and although that’s a bit tongue in cheek, they do have an “unholy” communion ceremony on Friday and Saturday nights, and negative reviews from angry Christians (and at least one anti-masker) adorn the exterior. Inside feels less like some demonic lair than a Spencer’s Gifts, though, with pop culture bric-a-brac all over the walls and a collection of sex toys hidden about the bar area. It’s a small dive with a unique gimmick that maybe tries a little too hard, but the staff (which included a couple of trainees when I was there) are extremely nice and make up some great drinks, so The Electric Cure succeeds at the most important parts of being a bar. It also has a surprisingly lengthy cocktail list, with the expected standards alongside tweaked versions with goofy new names; I had the house version of a 3 Dots and a Dash, renamed to 3 Ghouls 1 Cup. Every first-timer needs to order a Satan’s Satanic Satanists; this sweet, spicy combo of rum, ginger, allspice dram, lemon and pineapple comes in a hefty and adorable Baphomet tiki mug with flames shooting out of its top.
The most interesting thing about Retrograde is how you get to it. Inside the ice cream store Frozen Matter Uptown is a giant freezer door. Next to the door is a light switch. Flip that switch and within a few moments a Retrograde employee will open the freezer door and take your info. When your seat is ready, you’ll walk through that door and into the bar, a small, dimly lit room with a slight space theme. Bottles adorn a bar that looks like it could’ve been in the Jetsons’ apartment, and the menu is full of drinks with names that sound like ‘80s arcade games or Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies—Laserblast, Space Ninjas, Galaxy Lords, and the like. Despite the cool setting and nominal theme, Retrograde is a little characterless. It’s basically a small, gray room with one cool fixture and bartenders who are punching the clock. The drinks, thankfully, are great, with the Vegas in Space—a fruity mix with rum, pineapple rum, peach liqueur, and honey—a particular stand-out. Come for the entrance and the drinks, but don’t expect to hang out for very long.
Milly’s just your typical thoroughly modern woman of the 1920s—living life to its fullest around the globe, palling around with artists and writers and taking many lovers along the way. She also doesn’t really exist, but you can still read the story of her life in the drink menu at Room for Milly. This beautifully appointed bar looks like a fancy 1920s sitting room, with gorgeous wallpaper and ornate furniture, and the cocktail list is filled with distinctive takes on the classics, with each drink prompting a different special memory from Milly. Yes, it’s a theme bar, but the theme is basically just “classy,” so don’t fret if you get annoyed by Disney-style hijinks. My Dearest Pike, a rum old fashioned named after one of Milly’s love affairs, was my drink of choice, but I can also highly recommend the Fuel Stop, a marginally more traditional old fashioned with bourbon, cranberry liqueur, and cedar wood smoked rosemary. Room for Milly is genuinely elegant, but without the fussiness that word might make you expect.
Here’s a real case of saving the best for last. Yacht Club can’t match some of the other spots on this list for decor or theming, but it is one of the warmest, homiest, and most welcoming bars I’ve ever stepped into. Sure, it helps that the owner actually used to live in my home town of Atlanta, but I already felt like a regular before we even made that connection. Based in the trendy RiNo neighborhood—it stands for River North Art District, and not for what Fox News calls any Republican left of Marjorie Taylor Greene—Yacht Club was the clear favorite of other bartenders in Denver; I asked every bartender who served me where they liked to drink, and all but one immediately recommended this small bar on Williams Street. Within its unassuming confines I had two of the best drinks I tasted all week. The Lipton Cup mixes bourbon, rum and madeira with apricot, lemon and mint for a stiff and heady shock with just enough sweetness. The Birdman, meanwhile, features black rum, sherries, Campari, pineapple, lime and salt, for an odd but delicious twist on the negroni. Their drink list is full of similarly inspired creations, along with a solid selection of wine, non-alcoholic cocktails, and classic beers, including High Life for only $3.50. And when you get hungry you can order up a hot dog, or even get one as part of the daily special the Old Number 7-11—a Jack and Coke with a dog. Yacht Club is a local favorite for a reason, and the bar I’m most likely to return to whenever I’m back in Denver.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.