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A Different Kind of Cocktail Revival

American cocktail bars have adapted to a new normal, reshaping their programs and their identities in record time.

Thunderbolt, a restaurant and cocktail bar in Los Angeles, was barely six months old when shelter-in-place orders began. Already it had built a reputation for inventive drinks utilizing sous-vide and carbonation, and long before the word “pandemic” was uttered, co-owner and operator Mike Capoferri had been working on canning spritzes to serve on the patio. “That was really serendipitous,” he says. “It was one way we were able to maintain our style,” not to mention cash flow, during the bar’s now three-month-long closure.

Today, Thunderbolt features a rotating lineup of 8-ounce canned cocktails, such as the Watermelon Man (tequila, clarified watermelon, Aperol, poblano, lime acid) and the Tropipop (rum, coconut and pineapple). “I cannot keep them in stock,” says Capoferri. “I’m getting people calling me and saying, ‘What’s in the can today?’ They don’t care about the other drinks.”

In the pre-pandemic era, most bars would have devoted weeks, even months, to developing cocktail program extensions, painstakingly workshopping concepts, tweaking specs, ordering glassware, designing menus. But when COVID-19 arrived, to-go programs materialized overnight. Many establishments have had to figure out how to reshape their programs while maintaining their identities, entirely absent the physical bar itself.

Like Thunderbolt, some programs in cities where takeout drinks became legal were primed to transition to portability. In New Orleans, where to-go drinks—especially of the frozen variety—are de rigueur, the infrastructure was already in place to continue serving. Manolito, the tiny Cuban-style bar in the French Quarter from Chris Hannah, Nick Detrich and Konrad Kantor, kept serving the entire program curbside. In early May (during Phase 1 of the city’s re-opening), Cane & Table and Cure began selling large-format frozen drinks in plastic pouches with pour spouts. Glass bottles the country over have quickly been eschewed for nonbreakable formats like popsicles, cans and sous-vide bags. (At Thunderbolt, Capoferri designed an ambitious three-compartment bag to hold separately each element of his julep-style Peach Thunderbolt—drink ingredients, pebble ice and an agave fiber straw.)

Most bars, however, have had to build takeout programs from the ground up, including navigating the legal red tape of selling drinks to-go. In Brookline, Massachusetts, Blossom Bar assembles everything needed to mix five of their menu favorites, and directs customers to a liquor store across the street with whom they’ve partnered to provide the booze. Bar manager Will Isaza reports that they sell 800 to 1,200 kits a week, which include garnishes of fresh orchids and herbs, bags of ice cubes and colorful straws. In Portland, where spirit-based drinks remain illegal to carry out, Arden, a wine-focused restaurant, offers large-format house Manhattans (house amaro, black walnut bitters) and Martinis (smoked Castelvetrano olive brine, dry vermouth) portioned for mixing with a separately purchased bottle.

Lucinda Sterling of Seaborne, located in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, has begun stocking an inventory of spirits.

As a means of distinguishing their offerings, bars have begun branding takeout vessels with professionally designed labels, ranging from elegant hand-painted boxes to juice bottles stickered with prints of tropical foliage. Some have also begun marketing eye-catching mugs and merchandise to augment revenue. Tiki bars, a genre already attuned to accessorizing, have begun marketing Instagrammable extras (swizzle sticks, color-coordinated garnish packs, coasters) so customers might festoon their drinks at home. At Pittsburgh’s Hidden Harbor, co-owner and cocktail director Adam Henry brought in Tony Canepa, an Austin-based illustrator/designer who specializes in vintage-inspired barware, to create labels with tiki statuettes and lounging mermaids. Their Black Lime Grog (lime-infused rum, passion fruit, pineapple, coconut cream) kit for two arrives with a pair of premolded grog ice cones, which rise from each drink like triangular icebergs.

In New York, SoHo cocktail bar Dante, which already leaned on pre-batched and draft drinks, began elevating presentation in an effort to deliver an upgraded at-home experience. The bar partnered with a local florist to pair bouquets with certain drinks, as well as with San Pellegrino and Perrier to include complimentary sparkling water with every cocktail order. Custom coasters and playlists, delivered via a card with a scannable QR code, round out the experience.

Other bars, however, have sought to translate their identity with intimate, low-key offerings. At Seattle’s Screwdriver Bar, which owner-operator Dave Flatman describes as “a little basement rock & roll neighborhood bar,” employees used scrap wood to build a small “lemonade stand” in the entryway. At first, when mixed drinks were not permitted, Screwdriver offered cocktail kits, packaged with a recipe card, ice and garnish. When, a few weeks later, restrictions were relaxed, Screwdriver began selling five drinks packaged in 8- or 16-ounce plastic bottles with twist-off caps. One popular recent offering was the Gin Paul Jones (Aviation gin, blackberry, housemade dandelion-lemon shrub, soda).

And though cocktails remain the main signifier of a program’s identity, most are not able to survive on takeout drinks alone. In states where laws allow, many bars have pivoted to bottle sales to keep afloat. Thunderbolt transformed half its space into a bottle shop to offer a roster of spirits and natural wines, and today bottles sometimes account for half a day’s sales, Capoferri estimates. Similarly, Lucinda Sterling of Seaborne, located in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, has begun stocking an inventory of spirits. She estimates that sales are evenly split between bottles and cocktails, with weekend foot traffic driving cocktail sales slightly higher, almost matching pre-COVID era levels.

No matter the approach, bars across the board have begun relying on social media more than ever to attract customers. Instagram Live drink tutorials, advertisements for cocktail kits, and up-to-the minute notices about delivery hours and drink menus have all but replaced the usual stylized cocktail hero shots. In addition, bars are rotating drinks more frequently to encourage repeat business and keep customers from getting bored. “We had planned to do one menu for the year,” says Capoferri. “But now, we always need to have something new to post about.” He rotates in a new highball each month, a canned cocktail every two to three weeks and a frozen popsicle flavor weekly. In many ways, the consumer thirst for novelty may require bars to become more nimble along the zig-zagging road toward the “new normal,” whatever that turns out to be.

For decades, it’s been accepted that a bar’s core identity lies within its four physical walls. Only in recent years have owners found ways to commodify and extend that identity, duplicating a concept into chainlets (Death & Co., Employees Only, Attaboy, etc.) or refracting it through various ephemeral pop-ups. This latest, obligatory shift toward drive-through, delivery and carry-out service externalizes a bar’s identity even further, projecting it into consumers’ homes, stoops, parks and wherever else drinks can be carried. And while it may seem that takeaway drinks have the potential to dilute a bar’s identity, bar owners, bartenders and beverage directors—nearly everyone interviewed for this piece—are expressing a desire to see to-go cocktails become a permanent part of their business. Whatever the “new normal” might be, perhaps it’s one that continues to reshape what a cocktail bar’s identity can mean beyond the boundaries of the bar itself.