In many ways, the Old-Fashioned is the ideal drink to embody the state of the bar industry right now. Traditionally a glass of whiskey over ice, minimally adjusted with muddled sugar and a hearty dash of bitters, the cocktail has been iconic since the first Golden Age of cocktails. Today, the drink can be adapted endlessly, yet remains instantly recognizable—a reason it continues to be one of the most popular drinks in the country.
Even in an unfamiliar setting, says Alisha Neverson, bartender at Brooklyn’s Leyenda, “You can always rely on an Old-Fashioned being what it is: boozy and delicious. But if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, that drink can be jazzed up to fit the style of whatever bar you’re at.”
Like the bar world, the Old-Fashioned adapts and endures while remaining true to its roots. For this reason, Elijah Craig Bourbon, in partnership with PUNCH, will celebrate its first-ever Old-Fashioned Week, a charity initiative that will run from October 16-25 and support the hospitality industry impacted by the pandemic. Meant to unify bartenders across the United States in their mission to rebuild the community through their love of the OG cocktail, Old-Fashioned Week will culminate in a donation of up to $100,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF), an advocacy and action nonprofit created by and for restaurant workers. RWCF’s COVID-19 relief fund provides financial resources to individual employees and nonprofit organizations serving workers in crisis. The fund is also offering zero-interest loans for small businesses to get back up and running.
When many bars and restaurants were forced to shutter this spring, bartenders had to pivot quickly. Some switched to offering drinks to go; some jumped into charitable efforts, offering up idled kitchens and barrooms to feed and support frontline workers and fellow hospitality staffers, including undocumented employees. Still others found new callings in advocacy work, in front of cameras on Instagram Live and Zoom or through writing. At the same time, many discovered an unexpected opportunity to reflect on their industry—and now they’re turning those learnings into plans to implement change going forward.
“The silver lining of [the COVID shutdown] has been to actually look at the business you have, rather than just be in it,” says Leyenda co-owner Ivy Mix. “I can take the time to look at the systems we have in place and say, how do I want to fix these in the future?” Viewed through the lens of the pandemic as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, which is currently galvanizing the industry in other ways, Mix says, “We’re learning how to make money, and how to make money for good.” She, for one, is eyeing ways to make her bar more welcoming to all.
Finding ways to stay connected to others during the age of social distancing has presented another challenge. “Community is so important, especially during crisis moments,” says Lynnette Marrero, bar director at Llama San NYC and Llama Inn. “If you had strong community before, I think the pandemic reinforced that. If you were looking for one, many more opportunities to connect with communities became available via new initiatives,” such as online seminars and events. Marrero points specifically to ones that sprang out of the pandemic, such as Campari Community, PUNCH’s Tip Your Bartender, and World Class Community Weeks, as well as those that have pivoted to an online iteration, like Portland Cocktail Week, Tales of the Cocktail’s Full Hands In program, and Bacardi Spirit Forward, among others.
Erick Castro echoes this sentiment about the importance of community. “If there is one thing that I have relearned during the shutdown, it is just how much we hunger for social interaction,” he says. The pandemic has reminded bartenders (and consumers) that going to a bar is about far more than the drinks. “No matter how good my home cocktails are, there is just no replacement for quality hospitality.”
As the industry has begun to move slowly through the phases of reopening, some observe that dynamics between bartenders and patrons have shifted, but that there are positives to be found.
Mix expresses gratitude that guests have been willing to come out and purchase Leyenda’s batched cocktails in paper cups or plastic bottles, with minimal human interaction involved. “It’s not anywhere close to being the same. But there’s a camaraderie in it, and a hopefulness that I think is good.”
Of course, bartenders are keenly anticipating getting behind the stick again, interacting with customers and developing new recipes. Yet the “new normal” of making drinks may look far different from the old normal, at least for a while.
Castro emphasizes the need “to bounce back and fight for the survival of our industry,” a path that includes newly prioritizing kindness and hospitality. “It is going to become even more important for us to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure that guests feel welcome,” he says.
“People around the world are broke, scared and stressed out, so we should never underestimate how far a little kindness and goodwill can go when taking care of folks at the bar.”
Meanwhile, as bars reopen with limited capacity and razor-thin margins, many are thinking anew about sustainability and ways to minimize waste. Which is why Devin Kennedy, of New York City’s Pouring Ribbons, is refocusing on the importance of being “purposeful” with ingredients, an attitude he’s finding can also act as “a spur of new creative ideas.” His take on the Old-Fashioned—in which “just the tiniest tinkering of ingredients” can yield a complex drink—embodies this mindset.
In this new era for the industry, the versatile Old-Fashioned will remain one of the best ways to get to know a bar, and a bartender. No matter how it’s tweaked, Mix says, “If you put an ‘X Whatever Name Old-Fashioned’ on the menu, it will sell. It’s so recognizable as a type of drink. And you know it’s going to taste good.”
Learn more about Elijah Craig Old-Fashioned Week.