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Smoke and Spirits

Vernon Johnson, Bar Director at The Butchery

Article by Allison Bankston

Photography by Rachel Audette, The Turquoise Camera

Originally published in Arvada Lifestyle

Four years ago, Vernon Johnson and his wife drove more than an hour, so Vernon could meet with some high profile Denver hospitality executives about a bar management position. Vernon had spent ten years working at restaurants in and around the Denver International Airport. He was no stranger to long drives and endless work hours. His wife was completely supportive, but Vernon found himself wondering if he was ready to do that again. “I was wearing a suit,” he says, “I was ready, but something just didn't feel right. They offered me a great position at an amazing spot in Denver, and I just turned it down.”

Cassandra was downstairs waiting for Vernon after the meeting. “She was sitting in a booth and just looked beautiful. She'd saved me a bite of Bananas Foster.” He told her he'd turned down the position—largely because of a gut feeling.

That same day, Vernon found a job listing on Craigslist for the bar director at The Butchery in Arvada. He contacted them immediately. “I was still in my suit from the meeting, and I went right over to meet with the (previous) general manager of The Butchery. That was it.” He was hired as the lead bartender and mixologist, and within a day, he had redesigned the bar menu.

While working at the Gaylord Rockies Marriott by the airport, Vernon went through an extensive training with some of the best bartending trainers in the world. “I was able to train directly with some incredibly talented people,” he recounts.” One of those mentors was Ravin Buzzell who owns Bezel downtown. “We stayed in touch. He always took time to speak with me, compare ideas, and encourage me.” The two got together after Vernon had transformed The Butchery's bar program. “He told me, 'You've made it. You're here! You and me, brother, we're looking eye to eye now.' I wanted to make him proud. I really look up to him, and he's had a major impact on everything I've done.” 

Vernon loves bourbons and whiskeys. His signature drink at The Butchery is a Smoked Old Fashion. “It's a whole, table-side experience. One guest called it the Sizzling Fajitas of Cocktails.” But Vernon also has a passion for gin. “I love the versatility of gins. They're so complex. To make something harmonize that has so many notes is incredible.” 

The bar staff at The Butchery want guests to go on a journey while trying their unique cocktails. Vernon explains, “I want people to feel like while you're here, you don't have a care in the world. I'm going to take care of you.” Vernon makes sure the bar and food menu compliment each other. “I eat all the food. I want to know the ingredients and how the chef prepares them. I also cater the bar menu around what I know the people in Arvada want.” 

Vernon is especially proud of the team at The Butchery. “We're all very close. We're always offering new things to our guests while still providing consistency in our long-standing menu items people love.” 

In recent years, the community has recognized Vernon's hard work and creativity. He was named Arvada Press Bartender of the Year for 2022. The Butchery also won Best Bar and Best Happy Hour, and Vernon was named a Hospitality Hero in December of 2022 by Arvada Report. “I just owe so much to my wife and my son, London. They've been my inspiration to do well.”

For anyone thinking about a career in bar management, Vernon advises, “Stay true to yourself. Bring your personality, and bring passion into everything you make.” 

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