Although we primarily celebrate wine here, we are just alcophiles in general really (yes, I may have just created the word ‘alcophile’…) We appreciate all alcohols and have huge amounts of respect for the people creating and serving them to us.
I see wine, beer and spirits as accessories, and sometimes the driving force, to having a good time. If you’re drinking a quality beverage, it’s most likely going to help you enjoy your evening and, in my opinion, socialising is one of the most important parts of life. This is my whole ethos about alcohol in a nutshell. I recently met up with Johnny Culkin and Sean Lane of Kuckoo rock and roll bars. These fellas share my ethos and, with the rest of the Kuckoo team, are doing amazing things.
Kuckoo started seven years ago in Preston and since then have opened subsequent units in Chester, soon to be opening two more in Knutsford and the mighty Steel City – Sheffield! They originally bucked the trend for bars in student towns.
Other bars offered 75p drinks and 2-4-1 offers on pitchers of Sex on the Beach and Woo Woo while playing generic party anthems, whereas Kuckoo offered quality made cocktails without any drinks deals and blasted out ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by The Doors on a Friday night. “There was a bit of a risk with it,” Johnny admitted.
But it was a risk that paid off. One thing that’s been clear from the beginning is the sheer joy that Johnny and Sean get from creating an experience and the importance they place on creating a memorable evening for their customers.
“Our bartenders are trained to the level at which they want to talk to you while they work, they want to find out what you’re drinking, they want to be interested in your evening and where you’re going; they want you to feel those emotions of hearing Roadhouse Blues on a Friday night while drinking a quality drink or a pint from a frozen glass. We want to create emotions attached to the experience everywhere we go!” Johnny exclaimed.
As someone who has worked in hospitality for a number of years, it was so refreshing to sit down and have a conversation with two people who share the same enthusiasm for the industry as I do. I’ve maintained the notion that, in order to be successful, you have to be genuine.
Bartending and waiting tables require much more than simply presenting a customer with a drink or a plate of food. It’s about welcoming people into your domain and creating a warm and inviting environment for them. This all depends on the team you have working with you because everyone needs to be on the same page and collectively working towards the same goal.
Kuckoo run a manager-less system, which means that every bartender they hire is trained to the same standard and everyone’s in the same boat. They’re told: “This is your bar.” In a way it’s to encourage them to put their pride into it, engage with the customers and transmit the enthusiasm and passion they have.
Sean made the point of saying, “It won’t be the general manager that’s stood talking to a couple sat at the bar for a number of hours on a Tuesday night when they’ve popped in after going for a meal, executing the drinks for them, making sure the right choice of music is on, that the aircon is right and the lighting sets the appropriate mood. That’s where the guys earn the money; it’s what they’re good at, so why should we give that money to a general manager and not our bartenders? As they’re the guys who are making all this happen”.
For me, this approach makes Kuckoo one of the best cocktail bar brands in the country. The genuine care for customer experience can be seen throughout the night’s service. One thing I learned from them, and have applied to my own attitude when working as a bartender, is to make sure the customer knows you’ve seen them. Halfway through one order, I would always take a second order so the patrons knew I was on the case.
One thing I absolutely love about wine and alcohol in general is that your tastes never stop developing. Johnny and Sean have been donning bars for many years, tasting many drinks, and both have refined palettes when it comes to spirits and cocktails – but I was happy to hear that Sean is currently on his own wine journey.
When someone spends all their working life tailoring drinks to other people’s preferences, it’s great to hear that they still take time to develop their own. Kuckoo offers to educate their customers and, as spirit aficionados, they’re well equipped to introduce people to drinks they’re not too familiar with.
Talking about the craft beer boom and how IPA has taken over, Sean explained how this can help enlighten people to try new things. “You tend to find that if people have got the palette for a good beer, like a good hand pulled IPA, you can then ask them what spirits they like,” he said.
“It will, off the bat, most likely be Jack Daniel’s. Cool, in that case, let’s get them into bourbon. Then they’re drinking something like Maker’s Mark and, before you know it, they’re ordering an Old Fashioned.”
This is great to hear and, as a oenophile, it was great to hear about Sean’s newfound penchant for wine. I couldn’t help but think that he’s taking himself on the same journey as he creates for his customers. He admitted that he has always been into bourbon but, more recently, has discovered a love for Scotch. Scotch can be a bit more peaty or earthy than whiskies from other regions.
He was also describing the red wines that he has developed a taste for, in particular Pinotage and Negroamaro. These two are ‘big’ red wines, bursting with flavour and tannin (bitterness) – qualities that can be likened to some Scotch whiskies. It’s great to see that someone who has devoted his working life to alcohol is still developing his tastes and preferences.
So they’ve conquered Preston, Chester, Knutsford and Sheffield; but what’s next for Kuckoo? “World domination!” Johnny joked. He went on to say, “The ultimate goal is to have a Kuckoo in every major city.”
To be honest, I celebrate this ambition. You’ve got to admire the quality of their product, the pride in what they do and the decor of the bars (dark, sleek and stylish with raised booths and the bar being the focal point of each establishment).
On this particular Saturday night they played House of the Rising Sun, served pints in frozen tankards and made a certain wine lover the best negroni he’s ever had. What a winning combination.