Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got the bar that won Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
NAME: Williams & Graham
MUSIC: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Led Zeppelin, Black Keys; you can listen to the bar’s blues-based soundtrack on its public Pandora station, “Unrefined Ruffians 03”
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Blackberry Sage Smash: private-stock bourbon, blackberries, lemon, sage, sugar
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): A glass of an unusual spirit like Kweichow Moutai, a Chinese, fermented-sorghum alcohol that tastes like blue cheese
Williams & Graham co-owner and head bartender Sean Kenyon avoids calling his bar a speakeasy. Instead, he refers to it as a cocktail lounge that operates as a neighborhood bar. “My bartenders can tell you the name of every single person in there,” he says. “They create a relationship with each person. There’s got to be a level of trust if you’re serving people cocktails made with ingredients that they’ve never heard of before.”
While the bar legally can accommodate 80 people, they never allow more than 65 at a time, giving each person plenty of room. If there isn’t space at the bar when you inquire at the bookstore, put your name on the list and walk around the Lower Highlands neighborhood, where you can shop at a nearby dispensary or eat dinner. When a space opens up, they’ll call you. Williams & Graham takes reservations on a few nights a week, but for the most part, the wait to get a seat is usually between one and three hours. “If I walked up to a bar and they told me there was a two-hour wait, I’d be like hell no, I’ll see you another night,” Kenyon says, laughing. “But here’s the thing: I would rather someone get frustrated by a wait outside—because once they get inside we can wow them and fix that—than have them come inside and be disappointed.”
That’s another difference between Williams & Graham and other craft cocktail bars: Instead of just slapping a complicated menu in front of you and letting your squirm, the bartenders pour you an aperitivo to sip while they walk you through the menu, explaining how the cocktails are made and what’s in them. “We want to make people comfortable and avoid confusion,” he says. “When people get confused, they get upset. The drink is only 10 percent of the equation. Everything that happens from the minute you walk in the front door to the minute you get your drink affects the anticipation of the cocktail. And anything that happens after you drink it affects the memory of it.”
The bar has four menus, of 14 cocktails each, that rotate with the seasons. Kenyon says his regulars work their way through an entire seasonal menu in three nights. Then they start working their way through the bar’s extensive collection of rare and weird spirits that Kenyon has collected from his travels around the world, like Isawa, a Japanese whiskey that’s produced by a beer brewery for only one month per year. But in true Williams & Graham fashion, it also stocks recognizable brands like Tanqueray. “If we only carried esoteric stuff, people wouldn’t know what to grab onto,“ he says. "But if they see quality products that they already know, they think OK I can have faith in the rest of their selection.”
Like what you drank downstairs? The bookstore stocks cocktail recipe and history books such as Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean, plus books written by notoriously drunken authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You can even buy tools like jiggers and barspoons to help you recreate the drinks at home. But more importantly, help that poor bookstore turn a profit.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep