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Does a Bar Have to Go Global to Stay Relevant?

The pop-up cocktail bar has gone from occasional incident to top-tier requisite. Robert Simonson on the roots of this trend—and why it shows no sign of slowing.

Seagrams Gin Pop Up Bar Dead Rabbit

This past December, the Only YOU Hotel Atocha, new to Madrid, kicked off its opening in decadent style. For four months, it hosted just as many New York cocktail bars: Dead Rabbit, Dante, Leyenda and Clover Club. Each bar took over the hotel lobby for a solid month.

Nine months earlier, The Clumsies, the acclaimed Athens bar, attempted something nearly as ambitious. For one day only, in March, 2016, it opened a massive pop-up called The Clumsies Hotel Bar. Inside a century-old, two-story mansion, several hotel bars (including the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar in London, The NoMad Bar in New York and The Broker Shaker in Miami) operated out of their own rooms, with The Clumsies functioning as a reception bar on the ground floor.

The cocktail bar pop-up phenomenon—in which a name bar inhabits another bar or a raw space in a city that is not its own—has steadily grown over the last few years from occasional incident to movement. In fact, some of the world’s best-known bars have essentially converted into traveling road shows, bringing a semblance of themselves to anywhere from two to 12 cities a year.

“I think that it does help spread the word,” says Naren Young, one of the owners of Dante, who has spent much of the last year bringing the bar’s name, drinks and style of service to the four corners of the earth. “Bringing that experience to a different market brings a buzz to your bar and brand.”

Building an international brand is a large part of the motivation behind the pop-up craze, which in itself is a natural outgrowth of the globalization of the cocktail community. For cocktail bars to survive in an increasingly competitive and crowded global market, ambitious owners need to stay in the news often by way of jet-setting cameos as guest bartenders, bar consultants and competition judges.  But nothing grabs headlines like the bibulous equivalent of “The Circus Is Coming to Town.”

“Part of owning a bar now is about your media presence, for better or for worse,” says Ivy Mix, an owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda. “Being able to take Leyenda and my bartenders to these other places is great, not only because of who gets to see us, but also because of what we get to see.”

Pop-ups also attract the attention of the tastemakers that hand out the brass rings of notoriety, which are increasingly coveted by the industry. “I have heard people talk about it being used as a gateway into the ‘Top 50 Bars,’” says peripatetic cocktail pundit Angus Winchester, referring to the coveted list that is announced by Drinks International magazine in London every fall. According to him, it’s a way of “showing at least the menu and drinks to other possible judges.” (Winchester himself has gotten caught up in the pop-up mania: the opening of his upcoming Brooklyn bar, The Embassy, will be preceded by a May pop-up in Singapore.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, the 2016 “Top 50” list included some pop-up-happy bars, including the aforementioned Dead Rabbit, The NoMad, the American Bar, The Clumsies, The Broken Shaker and Dante, plus Mace and Trick Dog.

Taking off to Singapore or Athens with a few bartenders in tow to duplicate your bar is, of course, not a small monetary proposition. Unsurprisingly, most pop-ups are funded by large liquor corporations with deep pockets. The Madrid mega-pop-up was sponsored by Seagram’s Gin, which was poured by all four bars. Meanwhile, Winchester’s Singapore pop-up will be backed by Diageo.

The bars taking advantage of these strings-attached arrangements aren’t exactly complaining. Young pointed out that such corporate largesse allows his Dante bartenders to experience cocktail cities they might otherwise not be able to visit. Moreover, he sees the ties between brands and bars are being symbiotic.

“A lot of brands are looking for opportunities to bring their brands to new markets, so they take bars and bartenders around the world,” says Young.

Jacob Briars, the global director of trade advocacy at Bacardi, said his company supports, sponsors and out-right organizes pop-ups that last from several hours to several days. These events sometimes do much more for Bacardi than just remind consumers of the brands being used—they often help open new markets.

“It is something we use in emerging cocktail markets, such as China or South Africa, where consumers increasingly are interested in cocktail experiences,” says Briars.

The pop-up movement is not without its downsides. A bar whose owners and staff are regularly traveling can run the risk of losing its footing at home. And some observers, like Camper English, a San Francisco-based cocktail writer, worry about the watering-down of the concept. “A guest bartender working a few hours in a different bar is not a ‘pop-up,’ nor is it a bar ‘on tour,’” he says. “For me, the issue is the term ‘pop-up’ is becoming as useless as ‘craft.’”

But, just like “craft,” the term “pop-up”—and the Brigadoon-like bars it refers to—is not going away.

Perhaps the most apt parallel to the new cocktail landscape, in which regular pop-ups are a requisite for a bar with big league aspirations, comes from Broadway. There’s the bedrock show that wins the accolades. And then there’s the road show that delivers access to the performance to regional and foreign markets. It’s often the latter the cements the former’s reputation in the record books. 

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