When he was in first grade, Sean Kenyon’s teacher asked his class what they all wanted to be when they grew up. Amid the common answers — policeman, fireman, superhero — Kenyon uttered the unusual response of bartender.
"My teacher was perplexed and called my parents into a conference," laughs the barman, who now co-owns Williams & Graham, a bookstore speakeasy in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood, and also runs the beverage program at the nearby Squeaky Bean. "But how can you blame a kid when his father and grandfather are bartenders?"
Kenyon, a Paterson, N.J., native, literally was raised in his dad’s bar. After school, he and his brother would walk there, and he loved everything from watching the rhythm of the bartenders to meeting the patrons. "On holidays, we had people from the bar over for dinner because they had nowhere else to go," he recalls
At 12, Kenyon started washing dishes at his father’s joint; two years later he was bar-backing. Following that, Kenyon worked at — where else? — a New Jersey mall bar. "It was insane, cranking out ‘80s drinks like Alabama Slammers. But that’s where I learned to do it all at high speed." His volume drink-making skills were further honed at an Austin, Texas, strip club.
He was then lured farther west to Denver for a job overseeing the operations of a billiards bar group. But he really hit his stride as the bar manager of Steuben’s restaurant, which offered "the city’s first real dedicated cocktail menu that I knew of using fresh juices."
Then in the fall of 2011, Williams & Graham opened, and ever since, the elegant but relaxed establishment has been known for its stellar service and tasty concoctions, like The Tokyo Dagger (Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Whisky, Bonal Gentiane-Quina, Lustau Pedro Ximenez San Emilio Sherry).
Beyond the "house libations" — dreamed up by the staff in a collaborative mixology lab setting — you can choose from a range of classic cocktails and spirits showcased in its impressive 13-page menu. “Williams & Graham is the culmination of everything I’ve known and done in this industry," says Kenyon.
For his efforts, the establishment was a semi-finalist this year for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Bar Program Award, and he’s up for the Tales of the Cocktail American Bartender of the Year Award, which is going to be announced this weekend.
I’m sure Kenyon’s 6-year-old self is pretty proud.
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.
This story was originally published at Raising the Bar: Sean Kenyon. For more stories like this join Liquor.com and drink better. Plus, for a limited time get How to Cocktail in 2013, a cocktail recipe book — free! Join now.