Checking Out Kimpton’s Annual Bar Summit

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Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants hosts an annual Bar Summit to bring together its head bartenders from across the country for a three-day event. The program aims to educate and inspire the bar staff with hands-on training, distillery tours, spirit tastings, educational seminars and more.

The 2019 Summit took place in Nashville in late May at the company’s two-year-old Aertson Hotel. Kimpton invited Cheers to be a guest this year to share a behind-the-scenes look at how the San Francisco-based hospitality company trains and develops its bar leaders.

A White Negroni, with Hendrick’s gin, wildflower vermouth and Luxardo Bitter Bianco.

A welcome Happy Hour in the Aertson’s Woodlea rooftop space kicked off the event. The reception included a number of inventive cocktails, such as a Dickel Highball, with Dickel Henley barrel (the hotel restaurant’s whiskey), strawberry vinegar, DCF fennel liqueur and seltzer; a White Negroni, with Hendrick’s gin, wildflower vermouth and Luxardo Bitter Bianco; the Cedar Sour, with Grey Goose vodka, spruce syrup and lemon juice; and the Rainforest Colada, with orange-infused Plantation rum, cherry, coconut cream, tangerine juice and toasted coconut.

The Bar Summit program began the next morning with a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Spirits Intensive led by the WSET’s Rob McCaughey. The session provided an analytical spirits tasting, focusing on rum and rum production. When tasting rum, or any spirit, McCaughey noted, start with the aroma, but don’t swirl the glass first. And don’t bury your nose in the glass: “It’s not wine—come at it gently,” he said.

After walking the group through tastings of four different brands and styles of rum, McCaughey advised attendees to “understand why the rums are on your back bar, have one or two things you can say about each one.” And when describing the aromas and flavors of a spirit, he added, “use a vocabulary that’s going to be universally understood by people.”

Barrels resting at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville
Barrels resting at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville.

The afternoon included a presentation on Agave: Creating a Sustainable Future for Your Bar. Misty Kalkofen of Del Maguey mezcal gave an overview of the complicated world of mezcal and offered the bar manager tips on selecting partners who are working to sustain the spirit’s future. “Set expectations with your rep with the information you expect when they present agave spirits to you,” Kalkofen said.

The day concluded with a seminar on Cognac: Understanding the Art of Blending, presented by Rocky Yeh and Guillaume Lamy from Pierre Ferrand Cognac. Lamy explained that Cognac is the distillation of unfinished wine made in the Cognac region of France. Among nuggets of information from the session:

• It takes 10 bottles of wine to make one bottle of Cognac.
• The ultimate goal of Cognac production is to get the essence of the grape.
• For Cognac, you want to use grapes with higher acidity than with wine.
• Spirits blending takes a culinary approach to achieve an improved flavor.

When tasting spirits, alcohol should never be harsh, Lamy noted. “If it’s well made, it shouldn’t burn you.”

The full-day program took place at Nelson’s Green Briar Distillery in Nashville and included a tour of the operation and tasting. The distillery, which had closed in 1909 because of Prohibition, was reopened in 2014 by Andy and Charlie Nelson—the great-great-great grandsons of founder Charles Nelson, and is known for Belle Meade bourbon, among other special releases.

Wine Boot Camp

Day two included an intensive, WSET wine boot camp with McCaughey. He covered analytical tasting of reds and whites, wine and food pairings, and basic viticulture and viniculture.

Rob McCaughey of the WSET conducting a wine boot camp.

For starters, McCaughey said, wine is influenced by a number of factors, including the grape, the environment, grape growing, wine making and maturation. Viniculture is what happens in the vineyard; vinification is what happens after the harvest, he noted.

As with spirits, use language that most people will understand when talking about wine, McCaughey said, and always be as descriptive as you can. For instance, if a wine has floral flavors, be specific—what kind of flowers? If it’s lemon, is it lemon juice, lemon peel, lemon curd?

Keep in mind that your wine is only worth as much as people are willing to pay for it, McCaughey said. “Does your $50 bottle of wine have a compelling story to justify the price?”

McCaughey added that there’s very little difference in the quality of a wine with a screwcap vs. a cork, “but there’s a big difference in perception with the creak of a cork vs. the twist of a screwcap–especially on-premise.”

When it comes to wine and food pairings, don’t be ruled by rules. “We are all different, so personal preferences matter,” McCaughey said. Food is the culprit with problems with wine pairings, as food will affect the wine more than wine will affect the food. For instance, he explained, salt and fat will make the wine taste smoother and soften the tannins.

Understanding the production and flavor profiles of different wines and spirits ultimately helps bar staff better serve the customer. “Make sure that your giving yourself the tools you need to give your guests the experience they deserve,” McCaughey said. These tools will serve the bar managers and bartenders well in future positions and help them advance.

The Bar Summit program content “helps you make the best decisions about the bottles that you carry,” said Mike Ryan, Kimpton’s director of bars. Perhaps more important, “We want to make sure you have all the tools to move forward.”

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