Irish Hospitality Heroes: Examples of Excellence

As a short forward to this piece, I wanted to highlight that, at the time of posting, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic the bars of Ireland are currently closed. We now have a potential date for re-opening and I’m sure you will be as happy as I am to get back to visiting some of our most loved venues.

This series of post will explore Bars which have set themselves apart by having Irish Whiskey at their core, and will discuss the many elements of their experience that are a joy for all consumers!

Searsons of Baggot Street

Searsons of Baggot Street, Dublin, one of Dublin’s most recognisable and historic pubs dating back to October 1845. As with many Dublin pubs, it began it’s journey as a Grocer, Wine & Spirit Merchant under the ownership of Henry Tobin before entering the possession of the Davy family from 1884 through to 1923. The Davy’s being one of Dublin’s most prominent Wine & Spirit grocers were able to bestow a superb Victorian renovation to the pub. In 1923 the venue passed to the Searson family, with William Searson taking total control of the venue on April 9th 1926, and this fine Dublin Pub has had his name over the door ever since.

In more recent history, in October of 2012, prominent Irish publican Charlie Chawke became the custodian of this fantastic Dublin pub. Having fallen into a poor state in the years prior to this, Charlie restored and renovated the venue, re-instating Searson’s as one of Ireland’s most Iconic pubs once again, becoming a vital part of his family run group. Searson’s is famed for it’s astonishing Whiskey Bar, fantastic food offering focusing on local Irish Produce, superb service, and remains at the heart of the sporting community of Dublin, known as one of Irish Rugby’s most famous strongholds.

Truth be told, I have had the pleasure of working as the Development Manager for The Chawke Group over the past year. So, rather than bore you with some kind of glorified advertorial piece, I will give you an insight into some of the aspects of the Irish Whiskey Experience at Searson’s which I have worked on. Throughout the project thus far I have had the pleasure of working alongside Bill Chawke, Charlie’s youngest son, who has strengthened and invigorated Searson’s since taking the helm, and who put Irish Whiskey at the forefront of the business long before I joined the company.

Myself, Bill Chawke & Rob Allanson(Whisky Magazine) at The Icons of Whisky Ireland Awards.

Bill has pushed Searson’s to set itself apart as a bar of prestige when it comes to the Irish Whiskey Industry, putting the Midleton Very Rare brand at the heart of the business. This was achieved initially through becoming the first Bar in Ireland to have a Complete Midleton Very Rare Vintage Collection on display in the bar. However, once unveiled more bars followed suit throughout Ireland, this alone was no longer sufficient to solidify themselves as the home of Midleton Very Rare in Dublin. Not one to rest on his laurels, Bill set out to solidify Searson’s as not just the home of Midleton Very Rare in Dublin, but also the leading Irish Whiskey Bar in the country.

There were a number of elements to achieving this within the venue:

  1. Creating Iconic moments through the aesthetics of the Whiskey bar in Searson’s.
  2. Releasing Ireland’s Oldest Ever Single Pot Still Single Cask Irish Whiskey, The Midleton ‘Charlie Chawke’ Edition.
  3. Designing & executing an Irish Whiskey Training course to strengthen the Bartenders knowledge & ability to focus on Consumer preferences.
  4. Developing & hosting exclusive Whiskey Tasting Events in the Bar.
  5. Improving & amplifying the already outstanding Customer Experience.

Throughout the following section I am going to discuss Examples of Excellence which Searson’s displays through the above topics and explain how they are relevant and transferable to many modern or Traditional Irish Pubs.

Iconic Moments

When a new or existing customer enters a venue their immediate impressions are crafted by the atmosphere & aesthetics as they walk into the bar. Atmosphere is developed through consistent maintenance of a number of factors, the warmth of the venue, the warmth of the lighting, the level of the music, and the cleanliness of the venue, these are what I refer to as the ‘controllables’.

The aesthetics can play an indefinable role in a Bar’s identity. When a new bar opens, it’s the first thing people will describe to their peers, ‘what did the bar look like?’, ‘was it modern?’, ‘was it cosy?’, ‘did they have a snug?’. People will describe the elements they did and didn’t like of the atmosphere and aesthetics before anything else. ‘It was a gorgeous bar, real traditional looking, we got a seat in one of the snugs towards the front, but the music was far too loud so we didn’t stay long’ OR ‘it was incredibly modern, all brand new and shiny, I was almost afraid to touch anything, the music was great and you could have a chat, but it was a bit cold, I think maybe ceilings were too high’. You see, finding the balance between these two factors can either make or break a customers experience within the venue. Although, more importantly than this, is how they were made feel while in the venue, and I’ll discuss this later in the article.

In Searsons and the wider Chawke Pub Group, the importance of the atmosphere is never understated, it is controlled and adjusted by management in each venue, and it is the first thing the Chawke’s themselves assess about their own venues on any visit. Consistency is key to ensuring the atmosphere never falters, in general it takes at least 3 visits before someone will place a venue in their top recommendations, so you need to get it right every time to gain as much recommendation and word of mouth support as possible.

Charlie Chawke’s eye for the aesthetic potential of a venue is something that sets him apart from his peers, it is evident throughout the group, and this talent has rubbed off on his family as it is consistently proven in the small changes made to their venues over time. When considering change, you must take into consideration how it will affect the venue operationally, will it amplify the venue, does it add to the venues story or brand, and also how it will effect your loyal regular customers (who tend to not like change).

Below are a number of examples of additions which Charlie & Bill have made in Searson’s which have greatly added to the brand of Searson’s, the whiskey experience at Searson’s, and influences the Customer’s reaction to the venue creating the desired Iconic Moments throughout their visit.

Liza, Jenny & Ali. The Three Pot Stills

Searson’s is the only bar in Ireland with Three Pot Stills in the bar, these are not replica’s, they were handcrafted by Italian still makers Frilli and have the potential to be commissioned at some stage in the future. Suspended above the Snug at the front of the Whiskey Bar, these add tremendous value to the brand of Searson’s Whiskey Bar; They give the staff a large physical prop to explain how whiskey is made, while also giving an opportunity to explain the story of The Chawke Pub Group as the stills are named after Charlie’s three daughters, Liza, Jenny and Ali.

At Searson’s, the Whiskey Collection is topped by our Two Complete Midleton Very Rare Collections revered by Irish Whiskey fans and collectors worldwide. Given that in the past 5 years, a number of bars throughout Ireland have followed suit with Searson’s by completing and displaying a Complete Midleton Very Rare collection, Bill set out and acquired a Second Complete Set in 2019, making Searson’s the only Bar in the World with 2 complete sets (as far as we know).

Given the vastness of the Whiskey Collection at Searson’s, planning of the display, lay-out and pricing is of the utmost importance. Laying-out your whiskey collection in a way that can be understood by the consumer is important, also providing a road-map for the staff to be able to easily navigate when making recommendations is important as well.

The Half-Moon display cases directly opposite the Whiskey Bar gives the venue the opportunity to glorify their most prized whiskeys in the collection but also, through the LED lighting provides glorious warmth in the whiskey bar throughout the day and night.

The Pot Stills, the Half-moon Displays, and the re-invigoration of the back bar each provide an Iconic moment for Customers to enjoy, creating awe inspiring backdrops for photos, and really developing the air of prestige within the venue.

The Midleton ‘Charlie Chawke’ Edition

Midleton 28 Year Old Single Pot Still Single Cask ‘Charlie Chawke’ Edition.

This First-fill ex-Bourbon cask was bonded on the 4th of July 1990 & matured for 28 years before bottling at natural cask strength in the Spring of 2019. The cask yielded just 168 bottles & is exclusively available from The Chawke Pub Group for €3500 per bottle.

In 2019, Searson’s collaborated with Midleton Very Rare to create Ireland’s most exclusive Single Cask release to date. Selected by Charlie & Bill alongside Midleton Master Distiller Brian Nation, this truly is one of the rarest Midleton single cask whiskeys the world has ever seen. Being the oldest Single Pot Still Single Cask to be bottled and made available to the general public has added to the venues Whiskey Icon status and gives a Prestige bottling for the connoisseur to savour.

Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard have aligned ‘Midleton’ as their most prestigious brand, ‘The Pinnacle of Irish Whiskey’ in their own words. To further this air of prestige they have chosen only to collaborate with some of Ireland’s 5* Hotels on offering exclusive Single Casks. Searson’s is the only stand alone Bar which has been able to release a Midleton Single Cask, and being the oldest Single Cask release to date only adds more to the Searson’s & Midleton Brands.

Single Cask bottling’s are becoming a more and more common Brand extension for many of Ireland’s top whiskey bars. It is a way for the Bar to build on a historic relationship with a certain brand, or collaborate with newer brands which they have supported from the beginning. It is also a great opportunity to have an exclusive offering which can not be purchased anywhere else in the world and this is sure to pop up as we explore more Irish Hospitality Heroes in the future.

Although some Brands such as Powers and Redbreast almost flooded the market with collaborative Single Cask releases in resent years, this has slowed down immensely now. And with many of the newer distilleries, such as Dingle, Teeling, Echlinville, The Shed, Shortcross and more now having their own whiskey matured, I’m sure in the coming years we may see many collaborative bottling’s with Bars all through out Ireland, a trend which Dingle has already started through some of the Founding Fathers casks being released through bars.

Irish Whiskey Training Course

The implementation of Staff training throughout all aspects of a Venue will help owners and management ensure that there is a standard of service, efficiency, cleanliness, and procedural excellence that will allow their business to operate smoothly at all times. The selection and delegation of responsibilities to the right types of leaders throughout your staff will help to ensure that these standards are then upheld throughout your business, but equally, if not the most important, is that these standards must be demonstrated and consistently displayed by the Boss, ‘from the top down’ as they say.

In Searson’s, myself and Bill Chawke have attempted to develop a specialist Irish Whiskey Training course which focuses on the standard of Irish Whiskey Knowledge throughout the bar team, and then hones in on the unique sales capabilities of each member of the team. The training is laid out over a number of modules which I have designed:

  1. Introduction to Irish Whiskey: Understanding the 4 styles of Irish Whiskey.
  2. Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey: An in-depth overview assessing key flavour characteristics.
  3. Single Malt Irish Whiskey: An in-depth overview assessing key flavour characteristics.
  4. Single Grain Irish Whiskey & Blended Irish Whiskey: An in-depth overview assessing key flavour characteristics.
  5. The Fundamentals of Selling: Assessing and focusing on sales capability and ensuring to make recommendations based on a customers preferences.

These modules all focus on understanding where the flavour of each whiskey is derived from, it doesn’t get too technical in terms of chemistry, it’s more about understanding the unique aspect of Malt whiskey vs Pot Still vs Grain, the unique characteristics different casks or wood types tend to deliver, and how to make recommendations across all styles. I feel the brand stories, and marketing blurbs which tend to be delivered by Distillery Brand Ambassadors are much less effective when building knowledge across staff to be delivered to customers. Being able to make recommendations based in true understanding of the category makes for a much more remarkable and personal experience for the customer. The knowledge gained from distillery visits or from Brand Ambassadors is an added bonus after that.

The content from Module 1: An introduction to Irish Whiskey is included in all staff handbooks which are digitally delivered to all new hires throughout the group, this is our baseline of knowledge.

This project is a continual one as no-one can predict staff-turnover, or even a member of staff’s personal interest in gaining knowledge from training. Management can only attempt to make the most with the staff they have at any one time, but investing in your staff’s personal development and skill sets will hopefully help build loyalty and also ensure they have skills which will help them later in life, if they choose to move on. The engagement and sales skills learned throughout our course can be applied throughout any industry in which you are in a customer facing role.

Whiskey Tastings Events

Hosting Whiskey Tasting events is a great way to provide unique experiences to your customers, and allow them to engage with people from Brands they may not get an opportunity to engage with otherwise. In Searson’s we also try and provide an opportunity to taste whiskeys that you may never get the opportunity to taste again.

For smaller Bars in the industry this may not always be possible, as the venue may be too busy, or you may simply not have the space to consider hosting such events. For venues that can, there are a number of parameters which you must consider when choosing to host an event in your venue:.

  • How will it affect trade on the day?
  • Can we cordon off an area which will not affect the running of the rest of the business?
  • How many staff will we need to dedicate to running the event?
  • Will it generate extra revenue or will the return on investment be purely brand building?

When you consider the events of many of the Whiskey focused societies throughout Ireland such as, the Cork Whiskey Society, the Kilkenny Whiskey Guild, Waterford Whiskey Society and the Dingle Whiskey Society have hosted. The events held by these groups have provided an incredible platform for bars to engage with Whiskey Drinkers in their venues, build rapport and significant brand loyalty through the experiences they deliver, and also increase their online and social presence as many of the attendees of Whiskey events nowadays are so adept at creating a positive online persona for these venues. This also provides am opportunity for the bar to engage with this consumers through their social media feeds.

Although not something that all bars can capatilise on, Whiskey Tasting events have become an incredibly important part of many Bars offerings throughout Ireland.

The Customer Experience

Although the aesthetics, atmosphere, unique offerings such as Single Casks and Whiskey tastings, and developing unique training programs, will all help to set your Bar apart from it’s competitors, build on your unique brand, and improve the over-all consumer perception of your bar. There is nothing more powerful than an exceptional customer experience.

The Customer Experience begins from the second a potential customer comes through your doors. From the greeting or ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ that Ireland is so famous for, to the initial engagement from the staff, ensuring immediately that we, the business, know why the customer has graced our premises, and how we now should react to ensure they have a great time. Throughout their experience in our venue, it is now up to our management & staff to showcase the elements which make our brand unique, while attempting to exceed all expectations of the experience the customer desires.

In Searson’s and throughout The Chawke Pub Group there are a number of Spotlight Items which through which we try to maximise our brand and the customer experience:

Having a carefully curated menu of the best Local Irish produce puts Searson’s at the core on many of their loyal customers lives. Whether it be for their outstanding lunch service, with various options which are delivered swiftly with unrivalled consistency and quality. Or, the refined Dinner options, again with a focus on the best Irish produce they can source. Alongside this there is a eclectic Wine list covering most major regions, and a fantastic selection of cocktails which serve to accompany the fantastic Irish Food and add to the vast beverage selection available in the venue.

When Irish Whiskey is taken in to consideration, Searson’s and it’s sister venue, The Bank on College Green showcase best practices in creating Iconic Serves:

Is there a better sight than a perfectly prepared Irish Coffee? Probably the most underutilised tool in the pocket of every Irish whiskey branded, although it has come to the forefront of the industry in the past 5 years.

The Irish Coffee is the single most important drink to the Irish whiskey industry, and as far as I am concerned, there is no excuse for a bar, especially with any kind of tourism potential to not be able to offer a perfect Irish Coffee for all their consumers to enjoy. It is the only globally recognised classic cocktail that comes from Ireland, and it is something we should be championing as an industry.

There are approximately 7000 bars in Ireland, if every bar was to hold this iconic drink in as high regard as I do, or at least ensure that they offer it, then we could radically change the whiskey industry in Ireland. By each bar serving just 1 single Irish Coffee a day, using a standard bar measure of 35.5ml, we could account for just under 135,000 700ml bottles of Irish Whiskey per year. Unfortunately not all Irish Bars do offer an Irish Coffee but it is increasing in popularity year on year.

At Searson’s it is becoming ever more popular year on year and all through the staff recommendation. The Bank on College Green, David Chawke’s Iconic venue in the heart of Dublin City, just a short stroll from the gates of Trinity College, is the single biggest seller of Teeling Small Batch in the country, why? Because the Champion it through their iconic Irish Coffee serve.

The Whiskey serve in both venues is another opportunity for amplifying the customer experience through creating an element of prestige. Serving in a Nosing Glass alongside Ice and Water gives the consumer an opportunity to maximise their whiskey tasting experience at their own discretion. If they prefer their whiskey with a drop of water, or chilled with Ice, they can choose to do so without having to enquire with their server or bartender. The choice of nosing glass is something we will cover in the Reviews section of the website in the coming months.

In terms of making a significant contribution to the Customer Experience when your venue is busy and your staff may not have the same opportunity to engage with the your customer, the lay-out of your display and having every product priced will serve to increase spend dramatically.

Also, when engaging with customers, assessing budgets, and showcasing options to the consumer, it makes it much easier for the customer to decide on their own preferential price points when they can see them on the back bar.

From a purely aesthetic stand point, keeping Brands together serves to highlight and strengthen these brands within the display, it will also help the staff navigate the collection when products from similar brands and distilleries are kept together.

Lastly with Irish Whiskey at the heart of your brand, to increase your Brand Recognition and rapport with Irish Whiskey Enthusiast’s, Connoisseurs, and Collectors, it will always serve your brand well to have Rare & Collectable Bottlings on display, and available to taste if you can source multiple bottles.

All of these elements help to improve the customer experience in the venues in different ways. When you hone in on all elements of the offering, you see where their are opportunities to create great moments and showcase the best of what you have to offer.

It is important to note, that in order to deliver the absolute Best Customer Experience, all the elements of the offering discussed above are irrelevant if the Staff’s engagement with the customer is not consistently friendly, alert, attentive, proactive and reactive, all of these elements are immeasurable but they serve to create that which we most desire, excellence.

In a recent online interview Jack McGarry, Owner of The Dead Rabbit NYC stated a phrase which has helped his shaping of his Training Programs and overall Brand Identity:

‘Only through striving for perfection can you achieve excellence’.

Jack McGarry, Owner of The Dead Rabbit NYC.

Perfection may or may not be achievable when there are so many moving parts in a Hospitality Business, but doing as much as possible to try and create it will serve to improve all elements within your business.

In Summary:

As I continue to develop content for Cask Strength Communications and the Irish Hospitality Heroes section, I will be focusing on Bars that have created unique experiences, Bars which have been ahead of the trends, Bars that are continuously adding to their brands without having to re-invent themselves, the Bars that make Ireland’s hospitality industry so special and will continue to deliver those experiences when they can re-open once again.

Through Searson’s I feel I’ve been able to give you an insight into some the elements of the Bar which I feel are important and will be elements that will be on my mind as I write about some of Ireland’s other fantastic Bars.

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