Entertainment & Events

The SWAY Lounge Champagne Gospel according to James Kaen

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SWAY Nightclub in the Gaslamp Quarter hosts a new Champagne Lounge

SWAY Nightclub in the Gaslamp Quarter hosts a new Champagne Lounge

By James Kaen

Ninety percent of people these days still only drink champagne on special occasions. For some reason, there is this stigma that champagne is only for New Years, weddings or other special occasions. On the other hand, many people have a bad taste in their mouth regarding champagne thanks to some dry and distasteful glass at one of these “special events”?

But to me, champagne does not have to be a celebratory drink. Champagne combines elegance, enjoyment and is the wine of romance!

Champagne can be sipped on during a hot summer afternoon, or mixed in with some fresh fruit to create a new kind of cocktail. I’m surprised that so many people don’t realize that you can have “champagne cocktails.” Most of these people go to the bar and ask the bartender, “What’s a good shot?”

Ask that question to a bartender in a normal high-volume nightclub and the bartender will respond with the usual list of kamikazes, lemon drops, Patron tequila, or Jager shots, but I want to raise the bar of the bar higher.

I want to show our guests at SWAY something new, something different, something that tantalizes the senses. That is why we are constantly creating new recipes for drinks and cocktails. This new trend of mixology has just started to pop up around San Diego, but it’s something I have been preaching this for years, and have tried to introduce it at our bar from day one.

My thought is this: You can have your normal drinks (the vodka tonics, Jack and Cokes, Red Bull vodkas, etc.), but why stop there? Why not test our taste buds?

Ever since I started enjoying cocktails, my best friend has always thought I was crazy for the way I’d doctor up drinks. To him, the thought of using Sriracha hot sauce in certain cocktails gave him the chills. But why should it? It’s spicy and sweet, has a garlic taste, and can enhance Bloody Marys.

One of the first drinks I introduced at SWAY is something called “The Sexy James.” (Point of confession: I came up with the drink, but not the name. One of my bartenders called it that due to the fact I had no idea what to call it for weeks). Everyone who has tried it seems to be a fan, and when I introduced it to people, most of them ordered a second one.

To me, The Sexy James is a type of aphrodisiac. Here was my line of thought, and the ingredients: I took vodka as a base (I love vodka, my grandmother is Russian, and it’s an easy starting point) and added strawberries. I find there is something sexy about strawberries.

Anyway, we muddled and crushed the strawberries, added some vodka, stirred in a tea spoon of honey, and floated Veuve Clicquot champagne in a flute, and – BAM!!! – we had this untitled aphrodisiac. It took a few weeks until one of my bartenders started calling it “The Sexy James.” It was his way of poking fun of me for coming up with such an extravagant cocktail!

By the way, The Sexy James is on the hidden menu if you ask for it!

The whole point is that we, as cocktail consumers, are programmed to just order that domestic beer, order that vodka tonic, or soda, but why not come up with something that will enlighten your taste buds? And why treat champagne like it’s only a celebratory drink, and have thoughts that it’s oddly sweet, harsh, out of balance or just plain dull while sipping it?

Champagne of course, is a wine, and you might be even more surprised at how happy you’ll be when you start treating it like one.

We are hoping to help our guests do just that at SWAY via a new bar-within-a-bar called MIX. The new bar is outfitted with a whole slew of fresh and organic ingredients, but no menu, just the fruits, herbs, and spices sitting in front of you on the bar top.

Along with fresh mint, there is rosemary, sage, basil, spearmint, thyme, tarragon, sage, and cilantro (and, as a result, a beautiful aromatic experience you notice walking by the bar). Next to all our essential herbs are some essential fruits: Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cucumbers, olives, lemons and limes. Depending on the season, we add in a few fruits here and there. There are also spices on plates (in plain view, not bottles) like cinnamon, sugar, salt, pepper, smoke salt, nutmeg, ginger, celery salt, and a few more.

What I am trying to create is this unwritten menu, where the consumer can create the drink. “You” pick the liquor, “You” pick the fruits, the flavors, the spices, and we help perfect your vision and serve it just the way you like it!

That way you can enjoy something delicious for “You.” Now, I may not want the drink in a martini glass (it’s just not manly enough for me) and I hate small rocks glasses, so I will probably put my drink of choice will a tall glass, but you may prefer to drink out of a champagne flute, or even an nice big wine glass.

This is the whole point! As my guest at SWAY, YOU can pick what you want. Don’t know what you want? Even better! Let our mixologists collaborate with you and we’ll see what kind of outrageous concoction we can come up with together.

The best part is our mixologist is there to help you through it. This interactivity not only makes for a great date experience, but it makes SWAY the perfect downtown after-dinner destination. It’s not like going to a mega nightclub where you feel awkward going in with a date because there are thousands of people inside.

I don’t like that feeling that going to a club must be a group outing. At SWAY, it is perfectly normal for couples to come in and have great drinks, champagne, or wine.

So the reason we are doing this as a separate bar inside of SWAY, is due to the growing demand for mixology and handmade cocktails. But while all these other bars are just throwing mixology into the repertoire, they’re making the mistake of trying to mix mixology with a high-volume environment.

That’s a sure recipe for disaster, not only for wait times, but for mediocre drinks.

Even worse: At the bars I’ve been to recently, I’ve experienced a sense of being rushed. If you do not know what you want in 4 seconds of getting the bartenders attention, you are screwed. The bartender gets flustered, the bar owner does not want you taking so long because he/she is losing on potential revenue.

But mixology is an art. If I want to decide what I am in the mood for, and you, as a bartender or owner, are preaching the greatness of the mixology trend, then don’t rush me! Seriously! If you are trying to go high volume, than don’t have mixology if you are trying to go high volume.

That is why we have MIX at SWAY. We still have the first bar for the folks who want beer, shots, and other high volume drinks, but for those who want something extra special, there is MIX.

You want strawberries, blueberries, mint, cucumber and gin? Then here you go! Whatever tickles your fancy. You can’t just crush, shake and serve some pre-batched drink and say you have mixology. That is not how it works, but that is the way some owners think they can get away with it.

Specialty drinks take time, especially when you are creating champagne and wine cocktails. The fruit, the herbs, the smell, are not just for show. I really want to give the customer what they want, and it’s OK if you don’t know because all the fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices are laid out in front of you.

Having MIX inside of SWAY, but separate from the main bar also helps to educate the customer. Our bartender has the knowledge to educate and entertain you while creating new unique cocktails and serving the finest champagnes, wines and beers.

Oh yeah, did I mention we will be serving craft beers from this bar as well? No, not your average Bud Light or Corona! How about a special craft beer from one of our great local brewers?

This is the sort of experience that usually happens in pubs or wine bars and, in most cases, it is wishful thinking to have this all happen in a high-volume environment. It’s impossible to expect the bartender to explain what kind of beer he’s serving including details like the taste, the production, the brewer, etc.

It’s just not going to happen when the music is blaring; people are pushing and staring at you like they want to kill you. not to mention that a bartender working high-volume does not want to sit there and chat with you (if they do, you can bet their manager is probably going to have a talk with them after work).

This is what gives SWAY its advantage: You walk down the stairs and the first bar you pass is MIX, where your cocktail and drink experiences will forever change.

You might think that an upscale place like SWAY is expensive, but you’d be surprised. Our drinks start anywhere from $4 – $13 for mixology.

SWAY is not a dive bar. It is a classy place for the niche customer, who wants extraordinary service, drinks, and experiences. That said, we still strive to provide that same level of personal service you get as a trusted regular at your neighborhood.

That’s why all bar staff are allotted a bar tab to buy regulars and locals a few rounds on the house. This is to make you feel at home.

SWAY offers something that our competitors cannot: extraordinary experience and service. And it starts from the top. I normally walk around the bar, introducing myself to customers and sharing a drink with them.

To me, hosting is a big part of what is missing from many of the upscale bars and clubs in this town. In this town, VIP Hosting means you are a bottle buyer (Bottle Service), and the more you spend, the friendlier your host will be.

But why not host all your customers? They are all here for a purpose. No one wants to get yelled at for taking a few extra seconds to think about what they want to drink. Or have drinks poured on them left and right. Or worse, drinking out of plastic cups!

That last one drives me bonkers! I cannot even enjoy a glass of wine unless it is in a nice big red wine glass. It is a novelty that helps enhance the experience. That is what we at The Keating Hotel Group preach…”Something above and beyond. A truly unique experience!”

432 F Street (cross 5th Avenue)

More info:

The champagnes we will be serving will include the following plus we will be adding some craft and vintage ones down the line…

Moet & Chandon
Louis Roederer
Dom Pérignon
Veuve Clicquot

The price range will be from $4 – $85 (For Dom and the more expensive ones)

We will be serving both Champagnes and sparkling wines.

We will be serving a whole slew of mixology that will incorporate fresh fruits, champagnes, herbs and spices.

As far as cognacs … We will have the occasional tastings, as well as scotch and bourbon tastings. My idea is that that little room can host new things for the nightlife … change the way we think of going out to mega nightclubs … instead, I can do Cognac and Crepe tastings, while having DJ spinning and dancing. It is a lounge, with dancing, and an upscale enhanced experience. That area can be opened during the day, corporate buy-outs, private parties, bachelor/bachelorette parties, etc …

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