In what has become a twice-per-year ritual, PUNCH conducts a survey for which the goal is simple, but rather lofty: to determine which ingredients define the cocktail zeitgeist at that moment. We begin with a sample of about 50 bars—some brand new, some stalwart—and pore over their seasonal menus to track the frequency with which certain ingredients appear. Fall 2019, for instance, was the season of the banana, whether fermented, roasted or macerated; of miso, nori and dashi; of the triumphant return of lychee. The previous summer, we were riding fat-washing’s third wave and caught gentian fever. And the year before that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a progressive cocktail menu that didn’t have a yogurt drink on it (extra points for sheep or goat’s milk).
The exercise was meant to act as a record of the constant reinvention that defines so much of today’s cocktail culture. This season, the reinvention has come in a different form. Bars around the country have been charged with finding ways to translate their ethos, their hospitality and their drinks into a format that can exist in this new normal. Some have reimagined their bars as a community convenience store, like Law Bird, Annie Williams Pierce’s Columbus, Ohio, spot. “We’ve tried to imagine what it would basically look like if [the bar] became a 7-Eleven,” says Williams Pierce. “Which means things like our favorite snacks from all over the world, natural wine and pink cones to roll a joint.”
Others, like Chicago’s Kumiko, have sought to bring the same attention to detail they apply to their omakase menu to takeaway cocktails, translating elements of the bar’s design into the label for each of the drinks. “I like to think of Kumiko Omochi-Kaeri as an embrace that extends past our walls [and] into the homes of our guests,” says creative director Julia Momose. “Since we cannot welcome them into our home right now, it is nice to give them a part of us to take home with them.”
Los Angeles’ Thunderbolt has taken a different path to the same goal, engaging in extensive R&D and equipment to turn out ready-to-drink canned cocktails in order to “send people home with the closest experience to drinking at our bar as possible,” says co-owner Mike Capoferri. At Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, meanwhile, owner Claire Sprouse has sought to extend the bar’s ethos of sustainability and community, matching its cocktails with food from neighborhood chefs and bakers for to-go “pop-ups” to benefit charity.
What unifies this year’s zeitgeist are equal doses of adaptation and comfort. “It’s interesting to see what’s popular in a pre-pandemic cocktail bar and what’s popular now,” says Neal Bodenheimer, of New Orleans’ Cure and Cane & Table. “It’s all comfort things—I think pretension is going away for a while.”
Each bar we spoke with had a different approach to bringing their bar to life outside their own four walls. Some have taken the restrictions on service as an opportunity to brand a concept, complete with custom labels, bottles, brand identity work—even swag. “We [recently] launched the Ticon-To-Go Club ‘Swim Up Bar’ (swim up, then swim away—no loitering!),” says Paul Calvert, an owner of Atlanta’s beloved Ticonderoga Club. “Functionally speaking, it’s a satellite bar such as you might see in an old issue of Gourmet with a feature on home bars. While we’ve set up the bar a healthy 10 feet away from guests and behind a half-wall of plexiglass, folks waiting for drinks can still see their drinks being made, hear the ice in the tin and briefly shoot the proverbial shit with their favorite TC bartender while she works.”
View this post on Instagram
Others, such as Jon Santer’s Prizefighter in Emeryville, California, have used media to build their DIY concept: Prizefighter At Home offers signature Prizefighter cocktails and drink kits alongside a newsletter and videos produced by the staff. “We feel like we still have a lot of energy and expertise to offer,” says Santer, “so we’re trying to get the word out and make the drinks for you while you cook dinner.”
Margarita & Co.
While past years’ zeitgeist surveys revealed a sort of relentless innovation—from ingredients to techniques and serves—COVID-19 has turned back the clock on some of this, with both bar owners and customers reporting a return to cocktails that put “comfort” first. “People went back to the classics,” says Sam Levy, of Fern Bar in Sebastopol, California. “They just feel like a sure bet when so much was up in the air.”
View this post on Instagram
Across the board, the Margarita—or anything Margarita-like—often took top honors among bestselling cocktails. “Margaritas are always No. 1, whether it is shaken or frozen,” says Fanny Chu, of Brooklyn’s Donna. The same was true at Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Maine, Reyla in New Jersey, Grand Army and Hunky Dory in Brooklyn and Fern Bar. Each has a version of the Margarita whose sales outpaced all other offerings. “Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise during COVID,” says Andrew Volk, of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “Everyone could use a lively drink in their life.”
Many of the bars we spoke with have taken to offering cocktails in larger formats, whether it’s to reduce glass-bottle waste, allow customers the opportunity to share to-go cocktails with friends or simply drink them over the course of a week. At Seattle’s Rob Roy, owner Anu Apte-Elford offers some of the bar’s signature stirred cocktails in 750ml bottles with wax-dipped tops. Each is prediluted so it can be served straight from the freezer. Similarly, Death & Co. in New York and Denver is serving both shaken and stirred cocktails in two formats: for four and eight, in heavy-bottom glass bottles adorned with custom labels. At Tesse in Los Angeles, the bar’s signature Smoky Negroni, built on mezcal, and its Espresso Martini are available in large-format 750ml bottles, while at the Bronx Drafthouse in New York, Margaritas are available in 32-ounce to-go containers in a variety of flavors, including mango, tamarind and passion fruit.
View this post on Instagram
Even as bars around the country are hustling to ensure their own future, many are still committed to redirecting profits and energy to support their larger communities. Chicago’s Lost Lake has incorporated their monthly charitable event, called #shiftease, into their programming. “In May we raised over $8,000 for a South Side organization,” says co-owner Shelby Allison.
“This past weekend we welcomed back Chick-Feel-Gay, executive sous chef Dani Kaplan’s hate-free chicken sandwich pop-up benefiting a black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ community center in Chicago.”
In Oakland, the team at Viridian is donating a portion of profits from cocktail sales to Black Lives Matter as well as People’s Breakfast Oakland, a local Black socialist organization dedicated to supporting the immediate community. At Brooklyn’s Hunky Dory, Sprouse has been contributing to a rotating number of charities. Most recently, for Pride, the bar offered cakes and cocktail combos with proceeds going directly to the Okra Project. And just north, Donna has been committed to providing free meals to furloughed restaurant workers, particularly those who are undocumented.