Integrated marketplaces are all the rage in Denver. The Source, Stanley Marketplace and the soon-to-open Zeppelin Station all play to the desire to simultaneously eat, drink and shop in stylish and varied fashion. RiNo’s own Denver Central Market has all the essentials — addictive ice cream, perfectly-marbled charcuterie, chocolate displayed like expensive jewelry and of course the bustling bar — Curio. Opened by husband-wife duo Stephen Julia & Katsumi Yuso Ruiz and industry hotshot Stuart Jensen in September 2017, the spot has taken drastic strides in its short but busy tenure. Having grown its collection from an opening count of about 100, to over 400 bottles of top-notch spirits, the bar has quickly established itself as one of the neighborhood’s premium drinking locales.
Since opening, the ever-ambitious trio have made many modifications to their menu, but their newest revamp is by far the most exciting. The bar is now home to four spirits aged in barrels hand-selected by the group — each one developed through an exclusive relationship with the producer. Featuring Arette Tequila, Avua Cachaca, Bluecoat Gin and Eagle Rare Bourbon, each with an exclusive barrel finish — the lineup is formidable indeed. The selected spirits are all good in their own right — a reflection of Jensen’s 17 years in the restaurant game — but each bottle benefits greatly from the aging process. Particularly in the case of the gin — the floral flavors take on an entirely new dimension with the addition of the wood.
Each liquor was thoughtfully placed in a different barrel that would accentuate and modify the existing flavor for greater complexity and a more refined taste. The Arrette was aged for 10 months in French oak — while some tequilas are aged in bourbon barrels, the oak imparts something of a grapefruit aroma and the agave shines, not being masked by the heavy whiskey residuals. The cachaca was aged in Sauterne wine cask barrels, giving the sweet rum-like beverage notes of honey, stone fruits and orange blossoms. The gin was aged for three months in charred, brand new American oak barrels. The aging imparts some of the same characteristics that can be found in whiskey, but the spirit’s short time in the barrel still allows the botanicals to shine. In the Eagle Rare’s case, the special quality comes from its single barrel origin. Their regular whiskey is a blend from multiple barrels with drastically different flavor profiles. Curio’s special edition’s flavor is sweet with milk chocolate and cherry notes — the difference from the original is remarkable.
The new menu, printed over glossy images of some of RiNo’s more notable murals, features five revamped house cocktails, four of which highlight Curio’s barrels. All ringing in at $12, the drinks are a great way to enjoy the complex flavor of the spirits — though we highly recommend trying them straight for the full experience. The Might as Well Get Juiced is the French oak aged Arette reposado tequila, blood orange, lemon and Campari. Despite the strength of the citrus and the Campari, the flavor of the oak still resonates brilliantly. The Pete’s cup is French oak aged Avua cachaca, cucumber, lime, honey and orange flower water. The menu describes it as “cool, crisp, crushable” — it is not wrong.
The fifth cocktail on the menu is the El Aspen. It is Los Potrillos mezcal, Leopold’s Three Pins, honey thyme-sage syrup and lemon. Despite not being exclusive to them, the mezcal is courtesy of the city’s authority on all things agave, Brian Rossi. The brand clearly represents his sophisticated palate and is a perfect addition to the floral concoction.
Since opening Jensen and Ruiz have noticed an appreciable change in the way customers have been drinking — a shift they bashfully take partial responsibility for. People are “ordering a spritz like it’s a rum and coke,” joked Jensen, regarding the drastic modification in approach. The trio’s desire to provide the comfort of a neighborhood bar with the sophistication of an upscale cocktail lounge is evidently coming to fruition.
All photography courtesy of Curio Bar.