Retrograde shakes up Prohibition-era classic with a futuristic twist
By Kim Fuller
Photos: Courtsey of Retrograde
Nearly 100 years ago, booze was banned in the United States. More than just a buzz-kill, the Prohibition era lasted in Colorado from 1920 until its statewide repeal in 1933.
Illegal alcohol sales were still made, of course, at now-historic spots like 740 Front in Louisville. Established in 1904, this saloon holds the oldest ongoing tavern license in the state. Other secret liquor-selling locations were established all over the country and throughout Colorado.
Today, this out-of-site bar motif is still called a speakeasy. Instead of the original reference of an illicit establishment, the modern description generally refers to a slightly secret and often memorable place. The speakeasies that are popping up all over the state all have a coveted quality, with locations and overall atmospheres that lean away from the obvious and more toward an air of intrigue.
Retrograde is one of Denver’s newest discreet watering holes, started by Josh Gertzen and Gerry Kim in 2016. Gertzen says the whole goal of these spots during Prohibition was to escape from the world for a period of time, but while this mid-century modern space is like a hideaway, he says he hopes this is a way to actually tune-in during the modern digital age when we tend to tune-out.
“The experience of sitting at a computer is virtual,” explains Gertzen, who was a software engineer before starting the bar. “We wanted to create something tangible that people could hold and experience.”
And it was ice cream that was actually the initial inspiration, not alcohol.
Gertzen and Kim attended ice cream school at Penn State – the oldest ice cream program in the world. They opened a shop called Frozen Matter early in 2016 with their own on-site pasteurizer to truly make their frozen treats from scratch. They source organic dairy from a local co-op and create fun flavors that are always changing, like Lavender Salted Caramel, Mighty Mint Chip and Orange Is The New Black Toffee.
Understandably, the pair wanted to add alcohol to some of their recipes to create more adult-friendly flavors. They knew they would need a liquor license, and the creative wheels kept turning.
It was Kim who sparked the idea to have something hidden behind the more PG experience up front, and that’s exactly what they created with Retrograde. Walk through the freezer door and find yourself in a darker space, inspired from a more sci-fi like dystopia feel. It’s what Gertzen calls a “Star Wars cantina experience.”
So this isn’t your 1920s speakeasy with wood grain accents, but more vintage 1950s meets a modern space age. The 14-seat bar is made from custom-designed poured concrete that’s meant to look like the night sky, with all the flecks and dust that create a unique sparkle. Look closely and you’ll see that bigger sparkles are positioned to form the 12 signs of the zodiac all the way around the bar.
Like the original speakeasies, though, Retrograde is completely concealed, dark and without windows. Go in there and you’ll likely lose track of time, especially after a few of their cocktails like the Event Horizon, made with Brennivin Aquavit, lime, honey, juniper and vanilla, or the Deep Space Nine, with Zaya rum, averna, benedictine and orange bitters.
“We really work on having a very balanced cocktail menu, and one that is very progressively cutting edge,” says Gertzen. “True prohibition-era cocktails are oftentimes so stiff that the modern drinker really won’t enjoy them. Some of our cocktails may call back to classics, but for the most part we are about paving our own path on that.”
Kim Fuller is a freelance writer based in Vail. Read more of her work at KimFullerInk.com.