Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham on being American Bartender of the Year
His motorcycle broke down last week on a road trip from Denver to Louisiana, but Sean Kenyon kept moving. He shipped the bike home from Memphis, hopped in a car and pushed on. He was headed to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, an annual five-day convention that draws top mixologists from all over the country. And at the event, Kenyon was awarded the title American Bartender of the Year, a first for Denver. We caught up with Kenyon at Williams & Graham, his craft cocktail bar in LoHi, where we talked about what the award means for bartending, what it means for Denver, and what's next for him.
Kevin Galaba Sean Kenyon relaxes at Williams & Graham, after being named America's Best Bartender.
See also: Williams & Graham and Sean Kenyon both finalists for Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
"It feels good to be home, especially because I travel so much," Kenyon says, sinking into one of the cozy tables in his charming speakeasy. He looks tired, but happy. He's had a busy summer: tending bar at prestigious industry events in Aspen, teaching cocktail classes in Russia and then attending Tales of The Cocktail. "I've spent a lot of time behind other peoples' bars in the last month," Kenyon adds. "It's nice to be home."
Sean Kenyon: "The most important words on the plate are 'Denver, Colorado.'
We're sitting in a small room at Williams & Graham, a room that was twice as big last week, before the bar closed for a few days so that half of that room could be turned into a hallway that will lead guests to a new bar next door, The Occidental. "We lost five seats," Kenyon says of the project, "but in the end, we're gaining eighty-something."
Closing the place also allowed most of the Williams & Graham staff to attend Tales of the Cocktail; the bar was also a finalist in two other categories.
In February Kenyon, like hundreds of bartenders across America, submitted applications to Tales of the Cocktail to be considered for the title of American Bartender of the Year. In June, those hundreds were whittled down to ten candidates, and then to four finalists, with the winner to be announced at an awards ceremony during the convention. The final four represented some of America's top mixological talent: Kenyon, Jeff Bell (PDT, New York), Marcovaldo Dionysus (Smuggler's Cove, San Francisco) and Bobby Heugel (Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston).
Judging the competition was a panel of 75 bartenders, bar owners and hospitality-industry professionals, all hand-picked from locations around the country by Tales of the Cocktail event organizers.
The judges looked at a composite of qualities in each of the four finalists to determine the winner. "They wanted somebody who represents the world of bartenders well," Kenyon explains. "That's what they were really looking for in the award -- the bartender's affect on the community, how they are behind their own bar, that kind of thing."
Kenyon says he's good friends with the three other finalists, having met them at competitions and conventions over the years. "We felt like any of us could be standing up there at the end," he adds. "We were all rooting for each other. It was fun."
But while Kenyon won the distinction of being American Bartender of the Year, that wasn't the award he was really hoping to win. As the awards ceremony drew near to the end, Kenyon's preferred prizes -- Best Bar Team and Best Cocktail Bar -- had already been claimed.
Keep reading for more about the awards...