Allison Widdecombe is the familiar and welcoming smile gracefully slinging drinks between the wooden bar and low-lit bookshelves of Williams and Graham in Denver’s LoHi community. Williams and Graham is a neighborhood bar and a well-stocked playground where a few of Denver’s talented bartenders showcase their creativity every night of the week.
Those lucky enough to enjoy a cocktail or two created by the hands of Widdecombe know that her style exhibits surprising elements of creativity, balance and palate-awakening combinations. Behind the bar Widdecombe operates with an ease you would expect from a Pacific island native. Always relaxed, always genuine, always smiling – she seems to get as much joy from creating cocktails as we do from drinking them.
Born in Homer, Alaska, raised in rural Ka’u, Hawaii – a beautiful, isolated district on the Big Island, Widdecombe experienced a fairly untraditional upbringing. She attended a sugarcane plantation school and lived about three hours from anything commercial. Ka’u is home to the largest active volcano in the world, has the highest unemployment rates in all of the Hawaiian Islands and is loved for its undeveloped landscapes. Growing up in these remote conditions enabled Widdecombe to acquire many survival skills including making her own clothing and hunting and dressing dinner.
Over the past year, Widdecombe completed a degree in fashion design at Emily Griffith, and competed in bartending competitions across the country put on by Don Julio, Tequila Ocho, Four Roses and Bombay Sapphire to name a few. Winning the Bombay Sapphire event granted her the title of “Most Imaginative Bartender” along the Front Range by GQ Magazine, and she went on to represent Denver in the United States Bartenders Guild Bartender’s Summit in Las Vegas. Along with other employees from Williams and Graham, Widdecombe recently traveled to Cognac, France for some in-depth staff education where the group was able to sip cognac from the 1800s and visit Martel, Corvoisier, and Pierre Ferrand.
Widdecombe decided to move to Denver when she got heads after flipping a coin between Chicago and the Mile High City. After living and traveling around Europe and moving back to Hawaii, she flew to San Francisco, bought a car and ended up in Colorado. In Denver, she had few brief bartending gigs then found herself a home at Williams and Graham close to a year ago.
In addition to bartending, Widdecombe owns Urban Pacific, a jewelry company that highlights her metal-smiting talents. Inspired by the tropical and urban landscapes she has called home, Urban Pacific features juxtaposed elements of leather, stones and reclaimed material and expresses themes from punk to whimsical.
Constantly inspired recipe creation, in both cocktails and culinary, is Widdecombe’s current passion. In 2014 she hopes to compete at the Diageo World Class, Viva Sangrita, Bols and Bombay Sapphire events. In addition to infiltrating the competition scene, Widdecombe intends to increase her beverage knowledge by beginning the sommelier track, studying under the BAR 5 program in September and plans to spend a good deal of time over the next year blind tasting.
What was your first gig in Denver?
I first worked for Troy Guard [TAG Burger] then at Punch Bowl Social. Punch Bowl Social was a crazy, totally different style of bartending than I’ve ever done before. I sat in that main club-well in the circle bar and just pumped out drinks. Really good experience – I’d never do it again, but it was really cool to do that volume.
What do you love about the beverage scene in the Mile High City, and how have you witnessed it evolve?
There is so much opportunity in Denver as a small city/big town; it’s not established the way a lot of those big ‘dad’ cities are – like Chicago and London. Its fate isn’t sealed. There is so much possibility and so many young people moving here. I think Denver has a lot of interest and a lot of talent.
Who do you admire in our beverage community for their creativity?
The list of whom I admire in Denver is too long to name names. I really love the community as a whole – it’s a fun place with a lot of amazing people.
You’re one of the top female bartenders in the country working for a nationally recognized cocktail program – how did you initially get into the trade?
I started getting interested in bartending in New York around 2000, but I was working as a cocktail waitress. I was interested in learning about food, and interested and intimidated by alcohol. In London I was working at a high-end sushi bar called Zuma, and it had a really fancy bar program that was tropical-based, trendy Japanese. I had worked in a juice shop in high school in Hawaii, so I kind of understood that tropical juice idea. I started bar backing and learning there. They had a master sommelier and also a sake sommelier. We took classes and learned about Japanese food and alcohol and culture every week. I started bartending at Zuma and got more into it – that was probably six or seven years ago.
Any favorite local cocktail events?
The Sangrita event was so fun; the location, the whole thing. GQ was really cool too; really fucking packed with techno music at the Four Seasons. [From these competitions] I had some magazine articles; I was on a radio show. It was weird, I made my drink on the air at like eight in the morning, and they were like, ‘hmm, that tastes great,’ it was crazy, the whole experience.
What trends have you seen at competitions across the nation recently?
What was really interesting to me in both the Sangrita and GQ competitions was how different the styles were from each coast or each area. It’s kind of funny to see the different trends across the country, but I feel like there are so many things going on – whether you want to focus on ice or molecular craziness or even just go back to traditional basics like clean simple drinks, that’s kind of moving forward too.
How does crafting cocktails fit in with your other creative ventures?
It’s totally creative. I definitely get a creative feel from making up recipes. I prefer it to anything else that I’ve done in the past, medium-wise – in the same way as cooking at home and making recipes. I love writing recipes and making flavors go together in a fun way.
What are some of your other creative outlets?
I make Kim chi, sauerkraut, kombucha – I do a lot of cooking, it’s probably what I do the most. Also, metal-smiting, I’m still doing it, but not as much right now, but it is a fun side thing. I love getting out my torch. In May, I finished a fashion design degree. I’ve thought about making custom bar aprons – whenever I wear the couple I have made for work, so many people ask me about them. I have only vaguely considered making the aprons though. I have nothing in the works yet.
What ingredients have been showing up in the drinks you craft lately?
I’ve been tending towards a lot of Cardamaro, Liquor Strega, and I always use a lot of Montenegro, I’ve been using a lot of Smith and Cross, but it depends on what people are looking for. I really enjoy looking at people like a riddle when they tell me what their tastes are. I’ll use whatever sounds like it would work for them. I do definitely like a lot of obscure things like dry sherry, I like using a lot of different port wines – they are a great little modifier and they are great by themselves too.
What have you picked up from working at Williams and Graham under Sean Kenyon?
I have grown a lot at Williams and Graham. Having the opportunity to play with such a variety of ingredients is huge and playing around with them is really awesome. I really like the way [Kenyon] approaches hospitality. He is really good with guests – he is very straightforward and hospitable. He is very respectful. It’s really cool to work with him behind the bar, everything he does, and every move he makes is so calculated. He is calm, obviously very well practiced and it shows.