In its first year, La Biblioteca has already established itself as Denver’s tequila hub, touting over 300 different varietals, and is now home to Denver’s “Most Imaginative Bartender.” Ben Carrington, head bartender at this cavernous downtown cantina, took home the crown at this year’s competition with “The Recluse,” a cocktail made with Bombay Sapphire gin, smoked hibiscus syrup and sparkling pear cider. Despite loving tequila and being intrigued by Mezcal (Carrington believes this to be the next big spirit), Carrington chose gin for the subtleties in flavor. Denver Off the Wagon recently caught up with Carrington to learn more about this up-and-coming mixologist, who works for Apple on the side.
When did you start bartending?
I started bartending right after college – so like 2006. I was a bouncer, a bar back, a cook. I did all the jobs. I was a bar manager for a while. I went to Ohio State University so there are a lot of bars on campus.
What got you interested in bartending?
I used to throw crazy parties in college and everybody used to say that you should get a job throwing events and bartending and stuff like that. And one day a friend of mine actually offered me a job bartending, and I took it. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
What do you love about bartending?
It’s different. It’s a great way to interact with people. It’s the service industry. But as a bartender, you do have a little bit more control over your situation. You’re kind of up-front, point and center. I’m a glutton for punishment. I’m a glutton to be able to try new things and do stuff. Bartending gives you a lot of options. I moved out of here without a job. Got a job bartending because I have that skill set. It allows me to go and do things like that. And it’s definitely opposite of my day job. I work for Apple. You got that yin and yang of opposites.
What’s special about your bar?
La Biblioteca is special because it’s the largest Tequila bar (I think) in the country. We’re also one of the top 20 tequila bars in the country. I’m pretty sure we’re the biggest one, and nobody’s debated it. Usually if you say that, someone will debate it if they have something bigger. So that’s really cool. And we’re in the middle of downtown Denver. It’s easily accessible, and it’s not too hoity toity or anything like that. Anyone can come in, hang out and try a ton of stuff that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.
What’s your favorite spirit?
Good question. I like neat spirits a lot. I drink a lot of gin. Old Tom Gin and different varieties because they have so many different characteristics in it.
How about tequila?
If you’re going to ask me what my favorite tequila is – which is definitely one of my favorite spirits – I would probably say there’s one by maker Unos Dos Tres. They have an anejo called Diablito. If you ask anyone who’s come to the bar and comes in on a regular basis and talks to me, they know that’s my favorite tequila maybe of all time. I got a chance to meet the maker of that a few months back, and he was a really nice guy and he makes amazing tequila. I’m also a huge fan Tequila Ocho because they do it like wine, where it has different levels of color and different vintages.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
Favorite cocktail is a good gin and tonic. Something really easy. Something really simple. Nothing that has more than 2 or 3 parts to it.
What is your favorite drink to make?
I don’t want to say this out loud because I don’t want people ordering it all the time. But my favorite drink to make is probably Ramos Gin Fizz. I do a tequila version of it that I really like. I just think it’s fun because I like working with egg and making egg foams. If you ask me to make one in the middle of service, we might not be friends. If it’s a slow night, sure let’s go.
Can you tell us about the Recluse that earned you the title of Most Creative Bartender?
The Recluse is a gin drink. One of the things that I really like about Tequila is that you find subtle notes in Tequila, and you pull them out and focus on them. I feel the same thing can be done with gin because it has so many different florals, varietals, flavors and textures in it drink wise. What I tried to do was focus on pulling one thing out and pairing it with something I like. In my particular case, I went with the fennel because there’s coriander. There’s a hint of lime for citrus, which is a common gin thing. Then I added smoke with a smoked tea. I kind of mellowed it out with a little bit of pear cider. It was a play to try and get you focused on one aspect of the gin that you might not think of on a regular basis. Coriander can kind of hide behind other things, especially when you’ve got a lot of anise and different roots. With a lot of people, the first thing they hit in gin is that juniper, and that’s what they always think about. So trying to get people to focus on another aspect of the gin was my goal.
Can you tell us an unusual fact about yourself?
I like to travel. I walked to Mexico once. I’ve also walked to Canada. And those are the only two countries that I’ve ever been to outside the United States.
When can we find you behind the bar?
Usually, it’s Wednesday through Saturday.