What Would You Do With a Year Off?

Your "What I Did Over Summer Vacation" essay pales in comparison to this Denver bartender's.

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Shiny brown wooden surface with various glass shapes and words
There are no dirty dishes here, only used glassware (much classier). / Courtesy James Menkal

The hospitality industry is full of multifaceted, talented, adaptable individuals. We’ve certainly proven that over the last ten months and with the challenges this year has brought, the importance of creative pursuits that sustain us outside of our day-to-day work is more crucial than ever. In this series, we highlight people who stand out not only for their contributions to our industry, but also for the passion projects that fuel them creatively.

James Menkal, bartender at Denver’s Williams & Graham, has found his perfect intersection of industry and creativity in woodworking. He has taken his forced time off in the past year to not only build a mobile cocktail bar out of an old two-horse trailer, but also produce a ton of cocktail-inspired woodworking with a focus on engraving. 

“My bartending career is my inspiration,” Menkal says; he built out that mobile bar with an eye towards the eventual return of events. (See it in action on whiskeyhitch.com.)  “Also, I can’t just sit around and do nothing. Once I have an idea for a project, no matter the size or workload, my brain won’t shut off until it’s done. It’s kind of annoying sometimes, and doesn’t always lead to a successful outcome. I fail a lot. But I get fucking stoked when it does work out.”

Triangular wooden sign with engraving in the shape of Ouija board planchette and words, "Many Moons Apothecary."
Menkal turns his wordworking talents to spirits both otherwordly and potable. / Courtesy James Menkal

Menkal engraves smaller wood pieces with a laser engraver at a buddy’s Arvada shop. He has created a few pieces thus far, including a whiskey hutch and bar cart, with plans to dive into more in the new year. He says he never thought of himself as someone who would get into fabricating or building, but he loves the creative and artistic aspects of both bartending and woodworking, and they satisfy his need to work with his hands. 

“This free time has awakened something in me that I didn’t know was there,” he admits. “I bought some tools to do basic work on the trailer, and am now buying more. I guess I like tools now. Also…I love trips to Home Depot. It’s time consuming, and….the less free time I have, the better. If I have nothing to do, my depression takes hold and shit gets dark. Being busy for me is a good thing, especially if it’s because I love doing it.”

While Menkal has turned his attention to these ventures, it is not because he is transitioning out of the industry, but rather because he doesn’t want to leave it. He hopes to find a way to work within our new parameters and still keep those connections. 

Wooden bar cart with wheels and "Used Glassware" engraved on the side.
James Menkal made this bar cart as a companion piece to a whiskey hutch. / Courtesy James Menkal

“I think it’s important for anyone to have an outlet, whether it’s drawing, writing, painting, chainsaw ice sculptures, etc. You need to have a way to express yourself. You’re going to create some total garbage at first and that’s OK. It’s totally fine to just jump into something without really knowing what you’re doing. In fact, I feel like that’s the best way to learn. But you’ll really never know how much you’ll like it until you try. So go out there and fuck some shit up!”

Check out his Instagram, @whiskey_businessman, to see his most up-to-date projects.

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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