Yesterday, Food & Wine released its list of the “Best New Mixologists” for 2016. On that list was Denver’s Chad Michael George. George, who cut his teeth at the famed Williams & Graham, is not new to bartending. In fact, George has been working in the industry for more than 17 years, starting with his first bar job in his native St. Louis. But George, whose hands are on almost every project in the city this year—including opening his very own bar, The Way Back, with friends Kade Gianinetti and Jared Schwartz—is bringing something new to the city. From revamping ghost town saloons to crafting the cocktails for Denver’s first restaurant incubator, George is always ready to take on the city’s latest project and elevate it with unbeatable bar programs.
On the night of the announcement, we caught up with George at his sultry Tennyson hideaway, The Way Back, and asked him a series of questions to find out what he’s drinking, his thoughts on Denver’s bar scene and what truly makes a great bartender.
1.What was your first drink?
I’m not sure, but my first DRUNK was five warm Budweisers I stole out of my parent’s garage. It didn’t stay down long.
2. What was the first bar you ever went to? How old were you?
To drink, it was a place called Krieger’s in Chesterfield, MO. My best friends and I had terrible fake IDs but they let us drink there all the time. I was 17 I think.
3. What’s your favorite beer right now?
After work, an ice cold Banquet. They have the coldest Banquet at West End Tap on Tennyson. Otherwise, my favorite beer of the summer is Ratio’s lime gose. I’ve been waiting all year for it and it’s finally here. It’s what AB meant to make when they made the Bud Light Lime-a-Rita.
4. What’s your favorite wine right now?
I got into the hospitality business because of wine, and I’m finally running a wine list again for the first time in over five years. So right now, my favorite wine is all the wines my reps bring in that I’ve never had before. I’m discovering my palate’s true passion all over again.
5. Mixologist, barkeep, bartender or ______ ?
I recognize the need for the media and general public to differentiate your run-of-the-mill bartender from the mixologist, but I hope that goes away. In the end, I’m a bartender that likes to make quality cocktails with quality ingredients. I’m a hospitality professional. I’m a host. I’m concerned with one thing and that is delivering every guest the experience that they are looking for.
6.What’s the most underrated spirit?
That’s a tough one but I’ll say rum/rhum. It is so diverse and misunderstood. I love carrying a diverse array of r(h)ums and convincing whiskey drinkers that they, despite their pre-conceived notions, actually really enjoy a good glass of rum.
7.What’s one thing all cocktails must have? (aside from booze)
Balance. I’ve seen some crazy creative ingredients and techniques but it terribly unbalances cocktails. Without balance, the cocktail shouldn’t make it onto a menu or into a guest’s hands. Creating a balanced cocktail is a skill that so many bartenders in this business are never truly taught.
8.What’s a bartender’s most important tool?
Their energy. That may seem so phony or cheesy, but it is the truth. Your energy and attitude not only affect every guest you interact with, but I truly believe they affect the drinks you’re making as well.
9.What’s a tool most bartenders could do without?
I honestly don’t know. I don’t have any tools behind my bar that don’t serve a purpose.
10. If you were a drink, what would it be?
A Vieux Carré. It’s my favorite. Balanced, boozy, elegant and delicious.
11.What’s your biggest pet peeve as a bartender?
Bartenders who talk about their pet peeves in front of guests. That and messy bartenders.
12.What is the most over ordered or overdone cocktail in Denver?
Moscow Mule. I hate to bad mouth any drink, but this town is more obsessed with it than anywhere else I go. I’m not judging anyone for drinking one, but it’s time to try something new.
13.What does Denver’s cocktail/bar scene have that others don’t?
We have great restaurants that feature quality cocktail programs. Cities of Denver’s size don’t often do that. Every city has a few good cocktail bars now, although maybe not as legendary as some of ours. There are quite a few restaurant groups in this town that understand the value of a quality cocktail program and how integral it is to the dining experience.
14.What does Denver’s cocktail/bar scene lack?
If I told you that, I’d be giving away my future restaurant/bar ideas.
15.What do you order when you go to Williams & Graham?
Either a Vieux Carré or a Rittenhouse old fashioned. It’s usually accompanied by a shot of Tequila Ocho with the W&G family.
16.What’s your favorite bar in Colorado? (The Way Back and Williams & Graham excluded)
Depends. For a cocktail, Ste. Ellie. For a cold beer and a shot of whiskey, West End Tap. For a glass of wine, Bar Dough.
17.What’s your favorite bar outside of Colorado?
The next one. Seriously. I love hitting new spots when I travel. I can’t pick one favorite. If you put a gun to my head, I would say ABV in San Francisco.
18.If you could only drink one bottle of booze for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Maison Surrenne Tonneau #1 Cognac. I have one of less than 300 bottles shipped to America.
19.What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned this year?
1) Be passionate, everyday.
2) Know what you don’t know.
20.What’s the worst advice anyone’s given you?
Forget about your past. There are too many lessons to be learned to forget about my past.
21. Describe what makes a great bartender in three words:
Caring. Efficient. Showmanship.