How Sean Kenyon Runs Williams & Graham, Best American Cocktail Bar
Bartending is something of a family tradition among the men in the Kenyon family. Born in suburban New Jersey, both Sean Kenyon’s grandfather and father owned bars, but his dad not-so-secretly hoped that he might choose a different career path. Fast-forward 30-some years: Kenyon was awarded American Bartender of the Year by the Spirited Awards in 2014, his first bar Williams & Graham was awarded Best American Bar by the Spirited Awards in 2015, and he just opened a successful second bar right next door. Now a world-class bartender who runs world-class bars, it doesn’t seem like he will be changing careers anytime soon.
Because of this success, Kenyon is in high demand, attending industry events, teaching classes and consulting at bars around the world. Luckily, we were able to catch up with him in between trips and ask about his success and future endeavors.
How did you become a bartender?
My grandfather owned bars. My dad owned bars. I grew up in the industry. I was an introvert and didn’t have many friends and when I saw how much people liked the guys behind the bar, I wanted to be that. Being behind the bar and hosting people seemed like so much fun.
So then how did you end up in Denver?
I started working in the kitchen at my dad’s bar and then worked at a bar at the Garden State Plaza in New Jersey. In 1990/1991, I moved to Austin to play in a band at South by Southwest. SXSW used to be a place to get signed; it was a lot different then.
Around 2000, I started working for a company that owned a couple bars around the U.S. and they moved me to Denver to manage a bar there. In 2004-2005, that company went under, so I worked at Steuben’s for a few years. I’d been offered to open bars several times over the last 15-20 years, but I kept saying no until my now-partner approached me about Williams & Graham. It was the 18th time someone had asked, and my wife told me I should probably go for it. He wanted a serious cocktail bar, and I wanted a neighborhood bar, so we combined those two ideas.
How did you choose the themes or directions that you did for Williams & Graham, and the new bar, Occidental?
Occidental just opened a couple months ago, and I really wanted a neighborhood bar. It’s the bar I wanted to open 4 years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t at the time. I don’t think it would have had the success without Williams & Graham. Without Williams & Graham, the Occidental wouldn’t have been able to exist.
The Occidental is the complete mirror opposite, literally, of Williams & Graham, except for the hospitality. There are windows and skylights and loud music. At Occidental, the bar is on the left and the booze is on the right. At Williams & Graham, the bar is on the right and the booths are on the left. There are TVs in the Occidental where there aren’t TVs in Williams & Graham. I didn’t want there to be any confusion between the two, and knew it had to be well designed.
How are the drinks different at the Occidental than Williams & Graham?
At Occidental, there are no more than four ingredients in any cocktail. The drinks are easy to read on the menu and easy to make. It’s more of a DIY vibe — we make the syrups and the bartenders are free-pouring rather than jiggering.
Williams & Graham has more classically inspired cocktails and there’s no limit on ingredients.
You talk a lot about this concept of a neighborhood bar. What does that mean to you?
A neighborhood bar meets the needs of the demographic, of the people who work and live there. It’s a place where they have a drink before they go out or after they go out as a nightcap. A place where bartenders know people – that’s really important. The bartenders know the difference between the regulars and the first timers.
I want people to identify with it and say ‘that’s my bar’. Even if it’s just for a drink of water, it’s a place where everyone feels welcome.
What makes a good bar?
A great bar always makes people feel comfortable, as comfortable as you are in your own living room or at your best friend’s house. It sounds cheesy, but people still want that “Cheers” experience. They want to be recognized by their face or drink, and that starts with a great bartender.
It’s also important that they don’t have to think too much and get to enjoy themselves. We have hooks at the bar, USB/outlets, different cell phone chargers. Having to know the rules make people confused and confusion makes people angry.
You’ve mentioned the importance of a good bartender a couple times in our conversation, so what do you look for when hiring a bartender?
They genuinely care about the people in front of them. The tip doesn’t mean anything to them; the smile on people’s faces is what’s important to them. It’s not as easy as throwing nice people in a nice place, it’s teaching them hospitality.
When I interview people, I take them to a coffee shop or a bar and see how they interact with the people around them. Do they look them in the eye? Say hello, knowing it’s a person in front of them, not a coffee vending machine?
Considering that it takes more than putting a nice person in a nice place, what advice would you give to a bartender who is just starting out?
Find your outlet and learn everything you can. Find a mentor and sacrifice yourself. Early in my career, I did a lot of free work. I learned a lot from both good and bad experiences, so be open to learning.
Every bottle has a story behind it. Learn about the bottles behind you and the people in front of you. Give people eye contact and really acknowledge them.
Ask Sean Kenyon what makes a great cocktail, and he'll tell you it's all about balance. In the case of La Señorita Fresha, a cocktail made at his bar Williams & Graham, it's a matter of complementing the tequila with the refreshing flavors of strawberry and lime.
And my last question is, what makes a good cocktail?
It’s about meeting the guest’s needs. Part of it is what’s in the glass and part of it is what’s outside the glass. The taste of the cocktail is everything that happens from the minute you walk in — the anticipation, your experience with the hostess and the bartender. From the minute the drink is made until you leave affects the memory of the drink. It’s not all about what’s in the glass.
But balance is important. Most people want to get ‘hooked up’ and get more alcohol in their glass, but more alcohol is going to unbalance a drink. It has to be the right amount of sweet/tart/sour, shaken or stirred just right, and the aeration is important.
Anybody can follow directions and make a good cocktail, but it’s the rest that makes a great cocktail.