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Remember when you could meet up with friends for cocktails at a bar? Celebrate an important milestone with a Champagne toast? Attend holiday parties with your colleagues? Yeah, us too…
The pandemic has altered our social lives this year in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Now instead of meeting up with friends, family, and colleagues like we used to, our days are filled with meetings, happy hours, and cocktail parties, all on Zoom. And though it’s not the same, the sentiments remain. Technology has brought us together this year—for better or worse.
“For Zoom happy hours, it’s important that if people have already been sitting in front of a screen all day, that it’s lively and truly feels like a respite from work life,” Meaghan Dorman, partner at Yves Jadot Restaurant Group, which runs New York speakeasies Raines Law Room and Dear Irving, told Departures. Her bars have mostly remained closed throughout the pandemic, except for October and November, when indoor dining was allowed. In addition to hosting Zoom happy hours for corporate clients, Dorman, along with Jena Ellenwood who bartends at Dear Irving, have been doing Friday night cocktail classes over Zoom with themes like “Mastering the Classics” and deep dives into spirits like gin, tequila, and mezcal. “That’s been fun because we’ve gotten a lot of people outside of our usual NYC regulars,” Dorman said. “So it has been a silver lining to expand our circle and connect with cocktail enthusiasts all over—even people in Brazil, the U.K., and Israel have tuned in!”
For cocktail lovers who want to up their home bartending game, this kind of virtual class can be great because you get to learn how to make delicious drinks at home and support your favorite bars—or discover new ones—in the process. Indagare, a membership-based travel planning company, is taking the concept one step further. In January, they’re launching a series of Indagare Clubs, including a Cocktail Club. Each month, members will tune in for a virtual cocktail class with a bartender from one of the world’s best hotel bars, from the Connaught in London to Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle in New York and the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Paris. Indagare’s team will send a list of cocktail recipes, bar tools, essential equipment, and ingredients ahead of time and members will have the opportunity to ask the bartenders questions in a Q&A session at the end of each class.
But what if you can’t spare the time and effort it takes to mix up your own cocktails? Or you’ve tried but they never come out as good as when a professional makes them? Luckily for you, the pandemic has ushered in a whole new movement: to-go cocktails. This spring and summer, amid lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, 33 states and the District of Columbia granted bars permission to serve cocktails to go, according to Fortune. “The National Restaurant Association has been lobbying for this cocktail to go concept for years and the government said, ‘nope, not gonna happen’ for years and years. Now with this pandemic, I think the government is becoming more flexible with the regulations and I think that’s one of the silver linings,” Hanna Lee, founder of Hanna Lee Communications, an innovative PR agency that counts some of New York’s best bars among its clients, said.
When various states suddenly granted permission to serve cocktails to go, bars all over the country scrambled to get in on the act. “Drinks have been delivered in a wide variety of impromptu vessels, from Ball jars to coffee cups to capped glass soda bottles,” the New York Times reported in March. According to Lee, however, there’s been a huge effort by bar owners to step up the branding for their to-go cocktails. Some bars have starting using delivery apps like Caviar, Seamless, and Grubhub while others take orders right on their websites and ship around the country.
Bars like Bathtub Gin, Dante, and Death & Company sell premixed bottled cocktails and beautifully packaged cocktail kits. Bathtub Gin sells a $100 Gift Box that includes a bottled cocktail of your choice with 3-4 servings, branded merch like a t-shirt, baseball cap, or mask, seasoned popcorn, and access to a curated playlist. Dante, which is known for its Negronis, offers a $140 Negroni Birthday/Occasion Pack complete with a 750 ml bottle of the bar’s classic Negroni, an ice cube tray that makes the extra-large cubes they use at the bar, a Negroni candle, face mask, illustrated coasters, matches, and playlist. Death & Co. sells bottles of original cocktails like the Great Escape (gin, mango brandy, Dolin Blanc vermouth, makrut lime leaf, and orange bitters) as well as holiday cocktail and dessert kits via Tock and Doordash. They’re basically grown-up, sophisticated parties in a box.
“In addition to offering to-go cocktails and food packages at all three of our locations, we’ve also expanded our retail offerings to include a range of unique experiences, some of which can be redeemed now and others at a later date when it’s considered safe to do so,” Dave Kaplan, founder and co-owner of Death & Co., said. The experiences range from $200 for a five-pack of priority reservations good for a year to $10,000 for an evening of custom cocktails and cuisine in your home, executed by the bar’s talented team, anywhere in the U.S.
While many bars sadly have not survived the pandemic, new bars are still opening and others are actually expanding. Amor y Amargo, the small but mighty amaro-focused bar in New York’s East Village, moved into a larger space next door and launched the General Store at Amor y Amargo with a new tasting room serving amaro-forward cocktails and vegan hors d’oeuvres in the back. The retail space up front sells bottled cocktails by award-winning beverage director Sother Teague (Manhattans, Negronis, Old Fashioneds, and other cocktails as well as original drinks like the Di Pompelmo), amari, spirits, and a massive selection of bitters in addition to merchandise like books, branded barware, and t-shirts. All the offerings are available for delivery in NYC via Grubhub and Seamless.
Another major change has been the advent of outdoor dining, thanks to eased regulations on where bars and restaurants can set up tables in cities like New York. Rockwell Group’s DineOut NYC project was born out of a desire to help affected restaurants and bars jumpstart their business by providing a safe place for restaurant workers and guests. Inspired by European outdoor cafes, Rockwell Group created a modular outdoor dining system that was distributed pro-bono in coordination with the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “I believe that by continuing to think about flexibility and how to improve outdoor dining, this ‘new normal’ will be sustainable,” Rockwell told Architectural Digest. “In the long run, restaurants will have to be adaptable, with seating plans that expand and contract easily and quickly, providing a great experience in every format.”
Ultimately, a number of these changes are likely to outlast the pandemic. To go cocktails have become so popular it will be hard for states to ban them again and bartenders have discovered that offering delivery, doing virtual classes, and having a retail component can be great ways to have another revenue stream. “I think we’ll see some things stay—QR codes, touchless payments, more merch and online sales, to-go and other creative revenue opportunities—but I think the bar experience of the future will feel much like the experience of the past,” Kaplan said. “I hope most of the changes that stay will be largely unseen or at least not disruptive to what bars and restaurants do—act as the stage for human connectivity supported by great food and drink.”