On the lower level of Aspen’s popular boutique hotel The Little Nell, a typical hallway has tall shelves holding books from writers as varied as Charles Dickens and Jonathan Franzen. But those in the know don’t come here to borrow reading material for relaxing at the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel’s pool — they visit for a secret speakeasy, one of the coolest new spots in town.
One of the bookshelves swings open to reveal a hidden bar dubbed The Board Room. Step first into a small, dimly lit anteroom covered in cherry-red drapes; posters that say, “Public notice: These premises have been closed for one year by order of the United States marshall’s [sic] office for violation of the national Prohibition law”; and an apropos work by Pop artist Andy Warhol: an oversized bill from New York City’s Regency Wine & Liquor for two bottles of scotch and a bottle of vodka tallying $16.25.
You must utter the secret password here to proceed to the inviting main room, where R&B beats pump out of the Klipsch 5.1 sound system and a roaring fire cheekily plays on an 88-inch flat-screen TV. There are other mood enhancers as well: Edison bulbs dangle over a red pool table, sofas encourage you to lounge and a stocked bar awaits.
The speakeasy offers a VIP experience: it’s a private space that accommodates up to 20 people. Formerly a meeting room, The Little Nell converted it into a hidden bar in time for a Super Bowl party in February.
“It was in response to COVID,” general manager Jonathan Fillman says. “People wanted a space to hang out. COVID was a really tough year, and the thing that made COVID fun was innovation. This was one of the biggest innovations at The Nell last year.”
Fillman came up with the idea of a safe speakeasy when the pandemic prompted the closure of the wine cellar. (Located in the bowels of the Aspen hotel, the cellar “didn’t have the right air circulation,” he says; since COVID restrictions have eased, it recently reopened after a new air filtration system was installed this summer.) The popular venue held tastings from its 20,000-bottle collection amid wood walls marked with the signatures of prior guests as hip-hop played in the background
“We still wanted to give people a private space to drink wine, and so one of our sommeliers said, ‘Hey can we just put some wine in the board room?’ and then the lightbulb went off,” Fillman says. “I was like, ‘Let’s transform the board room into a proper wine cellar, but let’s do it in a really cool way.’”
Eight weeks later, The Board Room debuted. A speakeasy rental comes with a bartender, who can make frothy gin fizzes on the fun Tanqueray Imperial Shaker machine — one of only two in Colorado — that operates by a hand crank. Plus, it includes access to The Little Nell’s excellent wine list (the program has won the Wine Spectator Grand Award every year since 1997) and a curated selection of bourbons, scotches and tequilas.
There’s also a special speakeasy menu featuring kampachi crudo; wagyu tartare with polenta chips; truffle fries; burrata, caviar and citrus; caviar tacos; and charcuterie. A custom cover converts the pool table into a dining table, allowing for a versatile space (the LED lighting can be adjusted to multiple hues as well).
The Board Room has hosted wine tastings, bachelorette and bachelor parties, family reunions, birthday celebrations and corporate meetings. Steps from Aspen’s Silver Queen Gondola, it would be a convenient après-ski soirée. But it doesn’t only cater to special events. “A lot of people come in and say, ‘We just want to shoot pool and we just want to have good drinks,’” he says. “They’re literally just enjoying community. It’s really what it comes down to.”
Fostering community is something the 92-room luxury hotel does well, creating wine-centric social hubs that attract locals and guests. Aside from the speakeasy and the cellar, The Little Nell also launched The Wine Bar in December. The art-deco-influenced space tells you what to expect with a white neon “Wine & Vinyl” sign (as does the display of Dom bottles below it) next to the DJ booth. DJs spin records daily in the bar overlooking the pool and garden. And while you take in the rich, superior sounds from the cushy gray couches, imbibe in 35 different wines by the glass and 16 on tap.