St. Louis-born Chad Michael George has been keeping busy the last few years. He oversees the drink menu and staff at Denver’s celebrated The Way Back restaurant and bar and is a partner in the restaurant and consulting group, Join or Die Concepts, which owns The Way Back.
But his extracurricular activity is pretty impressive in the food and drink worlds across the board. He’s president of the independent restaurant network EatDenver, treasurer of the Colorado Bartenders Guild and partner in the sustainable, organic burger joint, American Grind. Besides being a certified sommelier, he was former bartender and bar manager at two Denver greats: Williams & Graham and Linger.
In his spare time, Chad takes advantage of the Colorado lifestyle as an avid golfer and skier, going further afield for scuba diving. Here, in his own words, he fills us in on his background, how he decides what brands to stock in his bars and what is exciting him most in craft spirits now.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in a St. Louis suburb about 30 miles west called Lake St. Louis. I moved to the city in my 20s and didn’t leave the area until 2012, when I made the move to Denver.
What led you to the drink world?
I worked in restaurants as a kid, through high school and college, on and off. After college, I worked for corporate banks for years and spent a lot of time on the West Coast for work, which led to weekends in Wine Country. That love of wine turned into an opportunity to work for a couple of friends that owned one of the best restaurants in St. Louis at the time [Monarch, RIP 2012] and had one of the few [local] Advanced Sommeliers on their payroll.
I made the massive leap of faith from a well-paying corporate gig to be a restaurant GM with the main goal being to learn from one of the best wine guys in town. In the end, I had the pleasure of working with Ted Kilgore, our bar manager. He’s an encyclopedia of cocktail and spirits knowledge. I quickly transitioned from self-study and passing my first two Court of Master Sommelier levels to focusing on cocktails and spirits with Ted. He’s an amazing mentor and friend.
The personal aspect of making a drink versus opening a bottle of wine for someone really pulled at my extroverted and outgoing personality. The engagement involved and the endorphins of watching them take that first sip and getting that “Wow!” reaction is irreplaceable.
How does living in Denver influence your bar style and operations?
For years, I’ve read food writers and critics talk about the lack of quality service in [Denver]. I can’t say that I disagreed on a macro scale. We take a lot of pride in giving a truly hospitable experience to all of our guests. We think our spot [The Way Back] is special and we’re very focused from a food and drink perspective on responsible, thoughtful and local sourcing. We teach our staff to speak with a “humble intelligence” about our ethos.
Being part of an explosive dining and drinking scene, we aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but we want to make sure every guest that walks in has the experience they are looking for. Being in Denver also means, in my oft-disagreed-with opinion, you need to put some real thought into all aspects of the program: beer, wine, spirits and cocktails. I take a lot of pride in having a thoughtful list in all of the major segments.
Denver seems to travel in large groups and I like to have something for everyone that walks in the door. We’re known for our cocktails, but we also have a following in the beer and wine segments because they know we will always have fresh and well-curated choices.
What is your philosophy on deciding what brands/bottles to stock and invest in?
I definitely believe in giving your guests what they want. There are some brands I don’t carry because of ideological differences, but we carry the staples for the most part. When it comes to featuring brands in the well or on the cocktail menu, the best Colorado and regional spirits take priority. If I can make the pricing work, I will feature a quality local product over a national brand every time.
Being local doesn’t mean you get a free pass, though. Our focus on local doesn’t mean we do so at the sacrifice of quality. I also work a lot with larger brands that just do it right. Tequila Ocho, Absolut Elyx and Rhum Clement are great examples. They have all been featured on my menus for years.
In the end, it comes down to a few questions. If I can answer “yes” to these questions, I’ll put it on the bar:
Is it worth the price?
Is it marketed/packaged without any deceptive practices?
Does the company take care of their employees?
Will people drink it and/or can I convince them to drink it?
How do you and your team educate customers on new and quality spirits?
Putting [brand] names on the cocktail menu always helps. It often inspires conversation. Beyond that, our entire staff is educated in spirits, not just the bartenders. Having staff that is truly “bought in” on what we are doing, on the experience we are giving, means they want to know everything we can teach them. They’re sponges for knowledge and that positive energy transfers to the guests as well.
Guests are much more likely to ask questions and open up when they get that excited response from whomever they’re talking with. We also do monthly spirits/cocktail classes which are promoted to the public and usually sell out quickly.
What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in quality bars?
Be humble but knowledgeable. Make good stuff. Put it in a nice package (so many people seem to miss the boat here). Understand that a “no” doesn’t mean your stuff isn’t good. There might just not be a good fit or physically room for more products right now, so come back around at a later time. At the same time, read the situation. It’s tough for a lot of owners or buyers to really be honest if they don’t like something.
What are some small-batch brands that are exciting you right now?
In Colorado, Deerhammer, Leopold Bros., Woody Creek and The Family Jones are putting out some great products. Deerhammer is making really great and surprisingly affordable whiskey out of Buena Vista. They also make one of the most interesting and tasty gins I’ve had — and the gin market is so crowded these days.
I’m also a huge fan of everything that J. Rieger in Kansas City is doing. All of their products are top-notch and priced for cocktail menus.
Besides your bar, what do you think are some “can’t miss” food and drink spots when people are visiting your city?
Food: Tavernetta, Mercantile, Spuntino (most underrated spot in town), Uncle, Cart Driver, El Five, Avanti F&B.
Drinks: Family Jones, Lady Jane, Williams & Graham, Tatarian, B&GC.