A year of on and off lockdown has been tough in countless ways and it came with a whole set of specific challenges for the hospitality industry. Characteristically venues across the UK stepped up with innovation, creativity and resilience to support customers, community and each other.
It’s an attitude that resonates deeply with the values of KI NO BI GIN, which is why it’s joining with us to celebrate some amazing bars.
Here, in the second of a two part series, we hear from some of the people behind these bars who tell us about their lockdown experiences and how it inspired them.
Nightjar, Oriole and Swift, London
Combining three award-winning bars into one unique home delivery cocktail experience
Edmund Weil, founder Speakeasy Entertainment.
When lockdown hit
The initial reaction was shellshock, then euphoria when furlough was introduced as it meant we could keep our teams together. After that it felt like trauma on trauma. Our first focus was to support our employees so we set up a series of online raffles to raise funds to help them through. Although we were delighted to reopen in the summer there were ongoing restrictions like the curfew which halved our trading hours and it became very hard to operate in a financially viable way, but we learned some very valuable lessons along the way. We’re also very happy that this time around the initial restrictions appear to be better grounded in common sense.
We’d love to say that the idea of selling bottled cocktails was a flash of unique genius on our part, but really we saw friends in the industry setting up delivery services which were a great way of turning redundant stock into much-needed cash. Initially each of our bars set up their own e-shop and we delivered twice-weekly by car and bike. Then we realised the bigger potential audience for our cocktails if we could deliver nationwide. So we brought all the bars together on one site, minimising costs and maximising the reach. And this also gave us something unique as our tagline says, “3 of the world’s best bars under one roof: yours!” And Speakeasy at Home was born.
Although we’d finalised the concept by late summer it took a surprisingly long time to get the logistics together. Opening an account to send liquids with a nationwide courier was a tortuous experienced, as was sourcing the packaging to safely send bottles, garnishes, glassware, etc. And all three bars were bottling their own drinks but working from one ‘fulfilment centre’ at Oriole. We also needed a website, brand and logo. We finally launched just as the second lockdown began.
Initially we offered drinks exclusively from each bar’s menu but as the concept developed, we’ve started doing cocktails exclusively for Speakeasy at Home. We’ve found that ‘hero serves’ from each bar’s menu alongside web exclusives forms a good mix. We also offer 3-packs of cocktails, containing one from each bar.
Initially our main customers were our ‘superfans’ and one of the highlights of the first lockdown was exchanging friendly words with our regulars from the bars as I personally delivered their bottled cocktails. However, word of mouth, good press and the launch of the website accelerated things and we made over £50,000 in sales over November and December. We were expecting a drop off in this year, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the volume of orders. And now we have around 100 subscribers to our newly launched Speakeasy Cocktail Club monthly subscription service. While there’s no substitute for enjoying cocktails in a buzzing bar, we’re confident that cocktail lovers will continue to enjoy bottled cocktails at home as well.
What we learned
The importance of keeping going. During the worst times it felt too easy to let the despair consume you, but we discovered that one project, although seemingly small at the time, kept our sense of purpose alive. And who knows, it could grow into something beautiful. It was great, too, that so many of our people pitched in and the project has really given our bartenders a creative outlet and kept a real sense of purpose throughout the team.
Can’t wait to…
See our teams together again. And to enjoy a Sweet Manhattan, sat at my favourite spot at the end of Nightjar’s bar, listening to Rosie (my wife, business partner and performer) sing the blues.
Nightjar, 129 City Road, London, EC1V 1JB.
Oriole, East Poultry Avenue, Smithfield Markets, London, EC1A 9LH.
Swift, 12 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TQ. and 91-93 Great Eastern St, EC2A 3HZ.
Milk Thistle, Bristol
Turning neighbourhood whisky tastings into a national online club
Dan Bovey, Hyde & Co Group Beverage Manager.
When lockdown hit
We were all very worried at the beginning and I personally had a feeling of paranoia hanging over me that I was going to catch it as soon as I went out in public. I distinctly remember locking up some of the bars then rushing to my car so that I didn’t bump into anyone. We were lucky in Bristol, though, that it hit us later than London and the North. And we have three excellent and thoughtful owners who’ve done everything to support the employees.
As everything settled down we realised you have to try your best to wash your hands, wear a mask, stay at home, etc, so we felt more at ease. Also it helped to hear about all the exciting projects that meant we could emerge stronger once lockdown finished.
I’ve always tried to get more people excited about whisky and before lockdown we had already been doing special cocktails, tastings and selling drams at cost price. The idea of The Dusties, as we called the club, was to offer a breakeven tasting so we could offer multiple bottles of whisky we normally couldn’t afford.
Before lockdown all of our tastings were in person but then the pandemic hit and we had our last event in March and paused the club. It was only when we got used to chatting on video calls that I decided to try an online event.
It was a big success and since then we’ve done a tasting a month online and the club has grown bigger and bigger. We now have members as far a field as Scotland and because the tastings are online we’ve been able to bring in some fantastic hosts from around the world. In fact, we started this year with two American whiskey tastings and have brought in ambassadors to host from distilleries. We could never have had the chance to do these kind of things in a normal situation so I think we’ll try and have an element of that even when we go back to physical tastings.
While we’re all eager to get back to meeting up again in person for the foreseeable future the club has been so successful that we will definitely continue with the online format as well.
What we learned
There are always positive ways to deal with situations and this has lead to lots of fun stuff in the pipeline. I also think the pandemic made us realise we have a very social industry and just how much we miss being around our friends, family and the guests in our bars and restaurants.
Can’t wait to…
Hang out with everyone, hug my mates and share some drams in person.
Milk Thistle, Quay Head House, Colston Avenue, Bristol, BS1 1EB.
Recreating a premium cocktail bar and delicious steak restaurant experience at home
Liam Davy, Hawsmoor, Head of Bars.
When lockdown hit
At the beginning, when less was known about the virus, it felt like closing venues, furloughing staff and waiting it out were the only options. Then later in the year there were some frustrations with how things were handled with the constantly changing restrictions. We were also on the verge of opening a restaurant in New York (our first outside the UK) then 48 hours before our first service we had to postpone the opening. It left everyone pretty shellshocked.
I had been talking to our managing director for some time about putting together a bottled cocktail offering and in the end we decided to combine food and drink as one single product for the launch. Once we had agreed to do it, we launched the Hawksmoor at Home boxes pretty quickly. The first boxes were sent in June last year and by September we had launched cocktails at home and local delivery from our Air Street restaurant in time for the November lockdown.
We started off with a single steak box that included everything for a perfect steak night in for two (a porterhouse steak, wine, martinis, beer, sides and sauces). The first ten boxes were sent from Hawksmoor Guildhall and were packed by a small group of us who were surprised how easy it was. The next week we increased it to 250 boxes and I can say it was one of the most stressful days of my working life. Building, packing, sealing and carrying all of those boxes up and down the stairs (the lift broke during a heatwave obviously) was no joke.
Now we have over 20 different cocktail products, eight monthly changing nationwide boxes and a fully customisable local delivery menu from Air Street. It’s a monster!
At first we used specific menu drinks and tweaked them to fit our two formats (bottles and fizzy cans). We had done quite a lot of work on a new list in the UK and then the US just before lockdown so we had plenty of recipes ready to go. Since we’ve had a bit more time in January and February we’ve been working on new recipes including a Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew.
Journalists and people in the industry have been really warm and incredibly supportive. Hawksmoor is very fortunate to have a strong name and as such we have been able to talk to a lot of people about what we’re up to with Hawksmoor at Home. While it isn’t always easy working with third party delivery services or guaranteeing that the food and drink will always be restaurant quality we have been extremely happy with the feedback.
We are really excited about the future with Hawksmoor at Home and I love the creativity it affords from a drinks point of view. It’s a completely different challenge to the restaurants.
What we learned
I feel like I’ve learned more in the last year than in the previous ten combined. As well as the detailed learnings of understanding your brand and making sure products are commercially oriented (rather than designed to impress your peers) I’ve learned a lot about resilience and trying to see what opportunities arise even from the toughest of situations.
I also love the idea that Covid has made people appreciate that restaurants, bars and pubs are so important to our lives. I really hope that the industry uses this as an opportunity to embrace more creativity and innovation and that restaurant work is given the respect (and the salary) it deserves.
Can’t wait to…
Sit at the bar at Hawksmoor Spitalfields, have a steak and a martini and listen to the hum of a busy restaurant. That has been my favourite restaurant seat in London for a decade!
Hawksmoor has venues across the UK, see its website for details.
As a small token of appreciation to these bars, KI NO BI GIN is sending each of them a unique gift all the way from its home in Japan. As a premium spirit dedicated to innovation and craftsmanship it hopes this gift will go a small way to supporting their re-openings. Included will be a Kasumi Japanese forged pairing knife, Usagi cobbler shaker, Yarai mixing glass, Stepped Jigger, Wilkinson Julep strainer, ice stamp and three KI NO BI GIN expressions.
In the meantime keep supporting your local bars.