Welcome to our brand new series, Hello Denver My Name is… where we profile different people in Denver you probably don’t know, but should. Get ready to meet painters, dancers, comedians, musicians, designers and just generally fascinating people that help make Denver awesome.
Laid back — this is not a word typically used to describe the elegant craft cocktail lounges and elevated bars that have begun to pop-up across our city and furthermore, the nation. Laid back, however, is one reason why Nocturne’s Topher Hartfield loves making drinks in Denver. He believes that bartenders in the Mile High City are doing what they do for the love of sharing their craft, rather than being the first or even the best. He believes that what sets our local bartenders apart is their genuine desire to replace pretention with authenticity. And with new bars opening every month we figure there’s never been a better time to get behind the bar and get to know the man behind the drink.
Denver, Meet Topher.
–303 Magazine: When did you begin bartending?
Topher Hartfield: When I first moved out here I couldn’t get a job to save my life. I was freaking out quite a bit actually. Eventually, I ended up Winter Park Lodge and didn’t like that, that place was a little toxic. Then I got into Devil’s Thumb in Tabernash, that’s where I started learning. I actually started learning about wine first because I got hired at The Ranch House Restaurant, which was their swankier spot and I kind of studied wine before I got into bartending and started learning about origins and things like that. It was really interesting. When I started bartending I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what proper ice was. The one thing I did figure out though was balance. There were certain things about flavor profiles and things that work together and just making something taste great.
303: So are you a Denver native or did you move to Denver after school?
TH: I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas originally. My grandparents were from Puerto Rico. My Dad is from Jersey, which is funny because I hate the heat. I came out here, September of 2010 with one of my good friends and ended up calling him up later down the road and I said, your cousin told me that you’re moving to Denver. How about a roommate? Apparently, he was in the middle of signing a lease for a one bedroom and said yeah, what are you looking for? I was like, whatever you find, man, I’ll move in. You just let me know. I’ll make it work. So he basically stopped what he was doing and we ended up finding a place to live.
303: Do you remember your first experience in a bar?
TH: I do remember one of the first ones was probably in Mexico, because El Paso was right across the border and I remember going over there to a couple of places, one was called the Tequila Derby, we called it the dirty derby, you could just cross the border and get a drink.
303: And what about the first cocktail you ever made?
TH: I do remember the first cocktail I ever mixed, which wasn’t a cocktail, but it was an abomination of just pure alcohol. My neighbor was a year older than I was. I was really young. We were really, really young. It was like freshman or sophomore in high school. So I’d be at home by myself after school and apparently for some dumb reason, the booze was knee height. So I poured a bunch of stuff into into a cup and I’m pretty sure it was just vodka, rum and gin because it was like completely clear in the glass. No juice, nothing. And I remember opening the door when my friends showed up and I go to take a sip and I’m just like, oh god, it just burned.
303: Do you remember the first cocktail you ever made where you thought, wow, I can actually do this professionally?
TH: Interestingly enough, it was actually at a place in Fort Collins. I wasn’t bartending. It was a Greek restaurant and we made baklava. We had this syrup that was like honey spice and it had cinnamon and sugar and brown sugar. It had all these wonderful [flavors] and I remember making a baklava martini that was just sugarcoated sugar and it was basically like vanilla vodka, that syrup and then I took balaclava and I crushed it up on the rim. I ended up making it for somebody and then made it again and then started making it just for fun for people and I was getting a kick out of it, they loved it.
303: What appeals to you most about bartending and why have you chosen to stay in the industry?
TH: The interaction with people. It has to do with the experience of the guests. And when I went to Devil’s Thumb, that’s when I kind of started learning about the artistry behind it. You know, somebody just asked me for a Manhattan and I made them a version that was horrible. Really. It was kind of similar to the regular Manhattan with like a quarter ounce of cherry juice in it and they just loved it. They were like, yours is the only Manhattan I can enjoy. And I was like cool, so it was little tweaks like that. That’s what excites me the most, tailoring drinks towards people’s preferences and flavor profiles.
303: And why do you like making drinks in Denver?
TH: It’s so laid back. Really. I think that people here are doing it for the love of being able to share rather than actually trying to be the first one or trying to be the best one. They’re not trying to be this or that. It’s a laid back. That being said my biggest frustrations are the way that people treat each other. There are a lot of opinionated people and a lot of them are right but a lot of them are wrong. It’s like there’s just so much negativity sometimes that happens and it just makes you wonder where it stops.
303: What surprised you most about the Denver cocktail scene now and where it’s headed?
TH: It’s growing and I’m impressed that people are educated on both sides. The guest side as well as the service side. We have hospitality professionals that are very down to earth for the most part. Most people are like super chill and they have conversations with people. Granted that’s not everybody, but for the most part. I’ve really been happy with all the people I’ve met. I am afraid of it getting too big and beccoming that snotty, overpriced crap. But I don’t think that will happen, I think that a lot of it’s going to get back to better, well priced drinks and people understanding appropriate pricing both on the guest side as well as on the establishment side.
303: Have your travels impacted the way you bartend? The way you see drinks?
TH: Definitely. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate cocktails in comparison to food and wine. And some of these drinks are our babies. People think it’s easy. They think anybody can make a drink, it’s not rocket science, but doing it right and making something that you love is like creating a piece of art. Like finding a glass where you’re just like, this is awesome, I love this and then you do something to make it yours. I have an excessive amount of glassware because I collect it. I am a huge fan of glassware and the serving vessels, I think they’re equally as important as the drink and I think you can really kind of capture a lot of flavors visually as well as you can on the pallet.
303: Do you plan to stay in Denver? And if so will you stay with Nocturne?
TH: I’m not sure. I’m trying to get my girl out here right now but either way I’m happy here. Nocturne is a social place. We want people talking, we want it to be respectful, but we want people to interact. We want the energy and that doesn’t revolve just around listening to the music and clapping. It revolves around what’s happening at the table, whether it’s the guest, the interaction with the server of the food, the drinks, the lighting, what the sound sounds like. It’s a huge component for us.
303: This last question comes from our last interviewee, Latasha Dunston: Would you rather be super funny or wicked smart?
TH: Super funny, because poop jokes are what make the world go round!
All photos by Brittni Bell Photo.