Life Behind the Stick

Illustrations by Matt Wood

To survive as a bartender, you need a tolerance for late-night hours, a comfort with strangers, and an affinity for details. Welcome to the days (well, mostly nights) of Ky Belk, 28-year veteran of Denver’s bar scene.

ky-belk-bartending

Photo by Jeff Nelson

On a Monday afternoon at four o’clock, Ky Belk crosses the floor of El Five, Denver’s upscale pan-Mediterranean restaurant in the Lower Highlands, enters the kitchen, and pours himself a cup of coffee. “We have 200 reservations tonight,” he says, carrying the cup to a booth in the back of the restaurant and settling in to chat for a few minutes before the dinner rush begins. “Hopefully the place clears by midnight. That would be nice, but who knows? When we start turning on the lights, sometimes people don’t take the hint.” Pausing for a moment to consider this possibility, he downs the coffee in four large swigs. Twenty-eight years as a professional bartender have more or less immutably altered Belk’s sleep schedule; getting to bed in the early hours of the morning no longer bothers him. Still, he admits, some nights he needs a little extra help making it through.

Since 2013, Belk, who will be 50 this year, has managed the bar at El Five, closing it down at least twice a week, polishing glasses and restocking the liquor shelves long after most of the city has turned in for the night. On weekends, he pours drinks at another Denver hotspot, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, the “gastro-brothel” on 20th Street. “I sleep about five to six hours a night,” he says cheerfully, “from around two in the morning until just after sunrise.” His girlfriend, an emergency room nurse, works the night shift at a local hospital—a similar schedule. “She puts in even longer hours than I do,” says Belk, laughing. “Sometimes she doesn’t get home until seven in the morning. We live opposite the rest of the world. That’s just part of the life. If you want to be a bartender, there’s no getting around it.”

Pull a dozen people off the street, and there’s a good chance that at least a few of them, if not most, will have worked at some bar, somewhere, at some point in their adult lives. There’s an even better chance that none will say they ever intended to make it a career. According to Belk, as recently as 10 years ago in this country, to sling drinks outside of one of the major cultural booze hubs, New York or San Francisco, was to suggest that your life consisted of (at least) two (usually mismatched) parts: the day job and the night gig. “Working my way through blank” was a common refrain.

Today, that characterization—of the bartender as moonlighting hustler—is beginning to change. A respect for cocktail craft, born a few decades ago in Manhattan and the Bay Area, has spread essentially everywhere, dovetailing with a new kind of economy that not only tolerates but even, in some ways, encourages careers in the artisanal sector. Now it’s manageable, financially and socially, to do what Ky Belk has done: to live in a place like Denver and devote oneself to the art of building drinks. Not just for a few energetic, mid-20-something years, but for life.

“To love this job, especially in the long term, you’ve got to love the details,” Belk says, as he prepares El Five’s bar for the night, wiping it down with a rag. “For example, I found this on Etsy.” He grabs a small silver dish from the bar top and turns it over gingerly in the light. “It’s from Morocco. As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I said, ‘We need that for our sugar cubes.’ I obsessed over it until I finally bought it. I tend to fixate on things like that. I guess I always have.”

jigger

Ky Belk was born in 1968, the son of an Air Force helicopter pilot. He grew up, he says, in many different places. (“My dad had a saying. When you can find your way to the bathroom in the dark, it’s time to move again.”) From a young age, he enjoyed making things with his hands. Drawing and model building were favorite childhood hobbies. At 18, he got a job as a dishwasher at a branch of the now-defunct restaurant chain J.B. Winberie’s, in Boulder. The establishment was built inside an old bank, and one afternoon the manager asked Belk if he wanted to help convert the basement vault into a storage room for liquor. “That was my first education in alcohol,” Belk recalls. “I learned the names of hundreds of bottles.”

He moved quickly through a series of service industry jobs—server, doorman, kitchen manager—until finally, at 22, he stepped behind a bar and started pouring drinks. “The first years were a lot of experimenting,” he says. Early on, he invented a trick that he thought would revolutionize bartending. “I came up with a sweetness scale from one to 10. I asked all my customers how sugary they wanted their drinks, to try to standardize things. It failed miserably. Every single person said seven. That’s when I realized how subjective this work is. It’s not a science. It’s a human thing.”

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