Q&A with John Henley on Luring You Back to Bars

john henley

Name: John Henley

Assistant General Manager

Kimpton Aertson Hotel, Nashville

What’s it like where you are right now?

Nashville has been affected just like other markets from the events in the last year, but we’re seeing a pretty steady and quick return to life as normal. Or as much as can be expected.

The city still has some measures and restrictions in place, but each weekend we’re seeing more and more people out on the streets and frequenting the restaurants and bars. We’re seeing tourism coming back in full. People are really excited to be able to get back out. Our restaurant on the weekends is starting to feel like old times. I’ve had several say this is the first time they’ve been out in a year, so it’s just great to be able to make these human connections again.

All our employees wear masks, and we require all the patrons to wear masks when moving about the venue. We put up what they refer to as sneeze guards, Plexiglass shields between the guests and the bartenders, at the bar. We also space out our seating. We have a limited seating at the bar, with two seats together, so guests can enjoy cocktails with whoever they came in with, and then six feet between each grouping.

And if somebody comes in with a group of three, we can accommodate.

What’s being done for groups to make them feel welcome back?

Groups are coming back a little more slowly than what we’re seeing in the restauarnt. Just this last weekend we had a couple groups. Right now, to make sure we give people the safest and most comfortable experience, we’re using packaged goods only, so canned beers, hard seltzers, canned cocktails and wines.

But we’re really excited, as restrictions continue to ease and people feel more comfortable, about activating more creative beverages features that can be done in very responsible way.

A gin-and-tonic station, for instance, where we pull fresh herbs and fruits from local farmers markets and our own gardens and put them in displays, with a bartender hosting the station. Guests choose what gin, craft tonic and garnishes they’d like. And a bartender with gloves on, taking every precaution, creates these cocktails for guests. And then they can take these with them as they go into the event.

Another is a whiskey ambassador station, where our bartender will sit with a collection of different whiskeys, and as guests approach gives them an idea what makes each one unique and lets them have sample pours to try. Then we’ll create cocktails based on what the guest’s proclivities are.

As a former bartender yourself, have you noticed that the coronavirus spawned any cocktails? Are there Covid cocktails?

It’s interesting. A lot of trends we saw pre-Covid have kind of died or at least were put on pause. We’re seeing some of them re-emerge, like the low-AVB cocktail for people who want to come out but don’t want anything with too much alcohol in it. The thing Covid itself inspired is definitely the to-go cocktail. Bartenders everywhere are getting really creative about packaged cocktails—something that we’re planning on embracing up at our pool bar. What you do is create a nonalcoholic mixer using fresh ingredients and then sell it alongside an airplane bottle of alcohol, so guests can create their own cocktails.

Or even take them home. Many markets, Nashville included, have eased up restrictions for take-away beverages from restaurants and bars, making it possible for bartenders to create a cocktail in a safe, sealed container and give it to them to take home. There’s been a lot of creativity around that.

People are looking for things that are familiar, that bring back positive memories. We’ve gone through stages where the intricately crafted cocktail with 12 different ingredients you’ve never heard of really had a day in the sun. I loved it, but at this moment, the familiar is a lot more important. Something that’s easy and understandable and relatable.

We’re going back to some classic recipes like the whiskey smash, which is sort of a lost cocktail. It’s typically a whiskey with some muddled fruit, mint and citrus shaken and served in a rocks glass, so you can see all the delicious ingredients. That evokes memories of picnics and time spent together with friends.

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