After Hours with Genevieve Johnson, Bar Manager for Rooh in the Short North
The Rooh bar manager talks about crafting an ayurvedic-inspired cocktail menu.
Genevieve Johnson has always been drawn to the hectic life of restaurants and the rush of the bar. Now, as the bar manager and lead bartender of a popular Short North restaurant, Johnson is grappling with an industrywide staffing shortage. The rush is no joke.
Johnson, who uses she/they pronouns, says they didn’t exactly have a normal upbringing in Cincinnati, explaining that they were born in China and adopted by “a phenomenal single mother of two adopted Chinese girls.”
During college, Johnson started bartending young. Too young, in fact, to legally serve wine or liquor in Ohio, but the bar turned a blind eye. “I started bartending when I was 19, which not a lot of people can say,” the German Village resident says.
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Afterward, Johnson started working at a more reputable spot in Columbus: Bernard’s Tavern, which they fondly call a “Jack and coke, Vegas Bomb kind of place.” They stayed for three years.
“I have a lot of love and good memories of that place. I met my first little bar family [there],” Johnson says.
In 2018, Johnson snagged a job at Denmark on High, their first true introduction to the craft cocktail world. (They laugh about dropping off a resume at Denmark only to leave the whole stack of resume copies there.)
685 N. High St., Short North, 614-972-8678, roohcolumbus.com
Denmark shut down during most of 2020 because of the pandemic, so in October of last year Johnson took a job at Rooh and quickly became “the whole bar program,” though the restaurant recently hired another bartender to work weekends.
Earlier this year, Johnson passed a career milestone by creating their first-ever cocktail menu for Rooh. The “progressive” Indian restaurant is known for its complex cocktail program, which is built around the six rasas (meaning tastes or essences) of ayurvedic medicine: sweet, sour, salt, pungent, bitter and astringent. The cocktails on the Rooh menu are meant to tick those boxes.
“I was so scared,” Johnson says about launching that first menu. “I had been working on it for months and months and, being short-staffed and still dealing with COVID, it kept getting pushed back.”
Johnson created five of the cocktails you’ll find on Rooh’s current menu, including Kokum—a cocktail named after a fruit in the mangosteen family that’s indigenous to India. In Indian cooking, the kokum rind is dried and sometimes used as a souring agent. For the cocktail, Johnson infuses bourbon with tart kokum fruit and adds yuzu and lychee liqueurs and juices, Angostura bitters and expressed lemon peel. “That’s definitely my pride and joy right there,” Johnson says.
Here’s where you can find Johnson when they are not, in bartender parlance, “completely weeded” behind the bar.
Breakfast spot: Emmett’s Café
Hidden-gem restaurant: “Moy’s Chinese on Campus. Say ‘hi’ to Mama Moy for me.”
Best pizza: “I’m a sucker for Harvest.”
Drink order: “A Four Peel or Statehouse gin and soda with lime juice, or a super-sour beer.”
Go-to bar: “[Any] open cocktail bar on days off. Local Bar after shift.”
Thing Columbus needs: “More restaurant diversity in Short North/Downtown. I can only eat so many burgers and fries.”
Tired food trend they wouldn’t miss: “Bougie avocado toast. Stop charging $13 for a piece of toast and a 10th of an avocado.”
Recommended reading: “‘The Bar Book’ was the first one I read [after becoming a bartender] and was gifted to me by my mentor.”
This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.