Behind Bars: Jesse Hubbard at The Great Southern Whiskey Bar

Erica Thompson
Jesse Hubbard

A major center of the American whiskey market, Kentucky is a destination for drinkers nationwide. They plan pilgrimages to distilleries like Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve.

As a former Louisville resident, those destinations were virtually in Jesse Hubbard’s backyard.

“I didn't realize how spoiled I was at the time,” said Hubbard, who has worked in the bar industry for about a decade.

After immersing himself in the bourbon culture in the South, Hubbard relocated to Columbus and searched for a place to put his skills to use. He landed a role as bar manager at The Great Southern Whiskey Bar — inside The Westin Great Southern Columbus hotel on South High Street — just as it was transitioning from Thurber’s Bar.

“While James Thurber was a very prominent person in the Columbus area, [the bar] wasn't touching some of the newer clientele we're hoping to bring in,” explained food and beverage manager Jason Potts.

“People weren't coming in to look at our Thurber paintings; they're coming in to drink whiskey,” Hubbard added.

Those paintings will eventually be replaced with new décor. In the meantime, patrons can enjoy other eye-catching details, including a framed, Prohibition-era prescription for alcohol, a world map of whiskey sources and a mesmerizing skylight above the bar.

Or one can simply bask in the experience of spending time in an approximately 120-year-old building (shared with the Southern Theatre), and wave to its ghosts (Hi, Ophelia).

But the real star of the establishment is the whiskey, available in over 100 brands.

“I really enjoy the chance to be creative and have fun with things, and to also showcase a lot of the local spirits that we do have here,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard’s imagination is showcased in cocktails like Room With a View, which includes Middlewest Pumpernickel Rye Whiskey, pineapple-infused Campari, OYO Stonefruit Vodka, Carpano Antica and smoked sea salt spritz. The drink won him first place in the Spirits of Columbus Negroni competition.

“It's great to be a part of those [competitions],” he said. “I made a lot of friendships with the bartenders in the community. … It's really made me more confident as a bartender and it's really made me feel like I do belong here.”

Being in the hotel also allows Hubbard to interact with people from all over the world who visit Columbus for business or weddings.

“We always want our staff to be as informed and educated as possible so we can pass that along to our guests,” he said. “We have people come in here that maybe have tried every single whiskey we have, or we have somebody that doesn't really know too much about whiskey. … It’s the full spectrum.”

The biggest challenge has been trying to get the word out among locals.

“We're kind of tucked away, a little hidden,” he said. “[But] people are starting to come in. … All of our hard work is starting to pay off.”