Going 10 Rounds With Top Bartender Ky Belk
The bar director of El Five in Denver, Colorado, tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “Drinking a pint of stout for me, with my bar team that I worked with that night, is kind of a ritual—celebrating the teamwork at the end of service and coming down from all the hectic energy of the night.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? ““You Never Even Called Me by My Name” by David Allan Coe.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “Definitely. And probably for the same reason most other people go to bars: I like bartenders.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “I was introduced to the classic Irish Coffee at an Irish pub called The James in Boulder back in 1989. They sold them for $1 whenever it was snowing. It was probably my first ‘cocktail.’”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan. I find new things in that book—sometimes between the lines—every time I go back to it.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “A tart, cold Margarita with a bowl of guacamole and chips is pretty great, but perfection is a super briny, coastal single malt Scotch, like Talisker, with an icy plate of fresh-shucked oysters.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “The Femme Fatale at El Five. It’s a beautiful drink with a simple, classic sort of build and lots of complexity below the surface. Gin, lavender-infused St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, briny manzanilla sherry, citric acid, and oil expressed from a grapefruit peel.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “Anthony Bourdain. He represented so much of what I love about people that work in restaurants, and in his sudden death he represented so many of the pitfalls in our industry as well, which is probably even more important to recognize.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “Mezcal and a fruity sour, like a Berliner Weisse or a lime Gose.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I have a small branding iron with a lightning bolt on it—about an inch long. I’ll heat it up and brand citrus peels with it for a drink garnish. It’s a personal touch and a unique moment of ‘bar theater’ for the guest.”
Ky Belk is the bar director of El Five in Denver, Colorado.
Interview has been condensed and edited.