Grabbing a stool at an airport bar generally means selecting an overpriced, watered-down cocktail or a short pour of wine from a sticky laminated menu. A new crop of airport bars is changing that, none more so than Root Down in Denver International Airport.
The Denver airport is one of the best places to grab a drink during a long layover or delay in general. New Belgium Brewing has a hub in the airport, and Vino Volo serves up fine wine with cheese plates. Few bars match up to Root Down in Concourse C, though.
The first thing you’ll notice at Root Down is the custom glass-topped bar top jetting out from the wall. Look through the glass and you’ll see individual compartments fitted with open suitcases adorned with clothing, jewelry, accessories and other curios from different eras. The vignettes are designed to be a snapshot in time to communicate the imaginary story of a traveler who used that luggage.
“It completely elevates the bar experience… communicates in a deeper level and somehow elicits an emotional response to go deeper into the human experience all the while being sociable,” says Justin Cucci, the owner of Edible Beats, the hospitality group that runs Root Down.
While you’re wondering where your bartop’s passenger may have been headed and why, order a drink from one of the knowledgeable and friendly bartenders, most of whom graduated from sophisticated cocktail programs in Denver before joining the airport team. The menu features classic drinks like the Negroni and Sazerac, as well as contemporary ones like Beet Down (gin, Aperol, beets, lemon, and mint), Pepper Blossom (vodka, St-Germain, jalapeño, grapefruit, lemon, and basil) and Don Draper, a citrus-infused riff on an Old Fashioned. Twenty-two taps spotlight Colorado’s vibrant beer scene while the food menu tempts with harissa carrot and quinoa salad, bento boxes, Colorado lamb sliders, and blackberry sesame duck wings.
Cucci says Root Down’s ultimate goal was to engage solo travelers at the bar and maybe stir them to start a conversation with groups of travelers about their respective journeys. Ky Belk, who was the opening bar manager of Edible Beats for two years, says, “It was always the intent that Root Down DIA be a great restaurant and bar that just happens to be located in an airport, not just a great airport bar, [and] I think we’ve achieved that.”
Root Down isn’t alone in that regard. Airport bars around the US are upping their game. Here are some of the other airport bars in the US that will make a long layover a pleasant experience.
High West Distillery & Saloon, Salt Lake City International Airport, Terminal 2, Concourse E
Okay, we admit it, the airport outpost of the Utah craft spirit producer isn’t quite as fun to visit as its flagship location at Park City Mountain Resort, which is the world’s first ski-in, ski-out distillery. Still, you can build your own whiskey flight from High West’s selection, including Campfire High Reserve (a blend of Scotch, bourbon, and rye), A Midwinter Night’s Dram (rye finished in French oak Port barrels), and American Prairie Bourbon (the proceeds from which go toward helping its namesake reserve). There’s also a selection of handcrafted cocktails, including an Old and New Fashioned, and Saloon Bites like the bison and black Angus burger and pretzels with whiskey beer cheese.
Book & Bourbon Southern Kitchen, Louisville International Airport, Main Terminal
If you flew into Louisville, chances are you came to sample the bourbon. Whether you need a little something to quench your thirst right when you touch down or you already miss the native corn-based whiskey before you even leave, you’ll love perusing the list of more than 85 bourbons. The list at Book and Bourbon Southern Kitchen includes rare labels like Pappy van Winkle and Jefferson’s Presidential Select. Sit on a stool next to walls adorned with barrel heads from iconic brands and sip one while enjoying a buttermilk chicken sandwich. As for the “book” part of the moniker? The bar’s menu touts tasting notes, a primer on distillation and aging, while library cards let imbibers brush up on whiskey cocktails at home.
Cask & Larder, Orlando International Airport, Southwest Airlines, Gates 100 to 129
A 6,000-square-foot space on Airside 2 with a 220-seat dining room, grab-and-go market, and two bar areas gives travelers lots of room to spread out. Though the bar’s name may make you think it skews heavy on whiskey, the menu really has something for everyone. There are Gotham Project wines on tap, proprietary drafts, and fresh cocktails like the Gin & Jam and a Moscow Mule riff made with lemonade. A Shot and a Wash section of the menu serves up an ounce of a spirit with a half pint of beer while Stubborn sodas are cane-sugar-based zero proof options. Use any or all of the above to wash down a Southern-inspired menu of conch hush puppies, shrimp and grits, and pimento cheese.