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At Modern Cocktail Bars, It’s Every Drink, Everywhere, All at Once. Is That Such a Bad Thing?

On Jan. 11, the noted Queens cocktail bar Dutch Kills posted a query on its Instagram feed. “Why is it,” it asked, “that nowadays everything has to be available to everyone?”

The post continued to say, “Businesses can’t simply exist as be[ing] iconic for what they do. … Since when did new and flashy, all inclusive and all encompassing become the winning ticket? Are we all expected to be a mini Walmart? So many cocktail bars have such distinct identities there is no need for them to homogenize themselves in order to suit the trends of the masses.”

The post resonated with me. The phenomenon Dutch Kills was referring to had been something I’d been ruminating on for some time. In my line of work, I am regularly asked what the latest trends are in cocktails. And in the past, I have had a ready answer. There was always a very clear cocktail development afoot, something being embraced by consumers and bar owners alike.

But lately, I haven’t known what to say. There was certainly the continued rise of agave spirits, RTDs, low-ABV drinks, and non-alcoholic cocktails. But, really, those trends began several years ago. What was going on that was truly new?

Then one day I realized that the prevailing new trend in cocktails wasn’t a single thing. It’s all the trends of the past 20 years, happening simultaneously; a liquid smorgasbord.

For many years, and until not too long ago, when a new cocktail bar opened in New York or other major metropolitan areas, it did so armed with a very focused personality. It was a classic cocktail bar, or a neo-speakeasy. It specialized in agave spirits and drinks, or rum. It was a tiki/tropical bar or a haven for amaro. It was an Italianiate aperitivo-style bar or a drinkery in the Japanese mode. There were deviations from these various models, of course, but the clear outlines were visible.

In the last few years, however, all those genres of cocktail bar have synthesized into a catch-all amalgam, at least when it comes down to the drinks list. Your typical new cocktail bar will offer everything. The menu will have a few agave cocktails; a couple aperitivo drinks; the expected classic cocktails; and some original creations. There will probably be a separate Martini menu, and there will certainly be a list of non-alcoholic drinks. The Espresso Martini and a spicy Margarita of some kind will have a place. Also on offer may be a frozen cocktail or two, draft cocktails, a fat-washed cocktail, a clarified milk punch, a Boilermaker, a fancified whiskey highball, something with shochu, and a spritz.

It is a bit like Walmart. The most fun Walmart you’ve ever been to, sure, but still, a department store. Or, to use a more contemporary metaphor, cocktail menus today are the spirituous version of the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That

How did we get here? How did the once kaleidoscopic world of cocktails become increasingly monochrome? There is no single reason. Nor is there total agreement on whether this trend is a good or bad thing.

As with most current trends in the food and drink space, the roots lie partly in the pandemic, that once-in-a-generation collective experience that upended all social expectations. Covid changed everything for both bar owners and bar-goers. On the owner end, it bred existential uncertainty and desperation. On the consumer end, once the pandemic had receded somewhat and bars began to open again, it released a bottled-up need and desire.

“And a lot of these bars that loved the elegance of ‘We only seat as many people as we have seats,’ and ‘We only do this,’ and ‘We only do that,’ realized there was no way they were going to survive.”

“Those people, that demographic, they were cheated out of what should have been the most carefree years of their life,” says cocktail world veteran Erick Castro, who recently opened Gilly’s House of Cocktails in San Diego. Castro is talking about the young generation that came of drinking age during the pandemic, a group that, now allowed to drink publicly, is interested in expanding, not limiting, their options. “They want to make up for lost time. I get it. I’d want to go out try everything, too.”

Bar owners, meanwhile, found that they had to be prepared to have everything that customer was thirsting for or risk losing them.

“I think it started during Covid, when everyone scrambled to develop to-go cocktails and delivery cocktails,” says Philip Duff, bartender, spirits expert, cocktail educator, and producer of Old Duff Genever. “Attaboy was making spicy Margaritas and stuff like that because everyone — correctly — went into crisis mode. When they came out of the pandemic, we had all gone through a psychological upheaval and staffing had completely turned around. For sure, bars that would have never had a spicy Margarita on the menu had a spicy Margarita on the menu.”

Suddenly, what had worked pre-Covid was no longer viable.

“On the cocktail menu, I think people have started to realize that you can’t be so esoteric,” says Rachel Harrison.

Harrison is the founder of Rachel Harrison Communications, a publicity firm that is prominent in the food, drink, and hospitality world. She believes the rising cost of every aspect of doing business in the post-pandemic hospitality sphere was a wake-up call for many bars, both old and new.

“As we were all coming up in the cocktail movement, there were so many different camps. Now, it’s so big that it’s possible to provide many different experiences under one room.”

“I look at the trends of the pandemic — inflation, staff, rent. Everything ended up going up,” she says. “And a lot of these bars that loved the elegance of ‘We only seat as many people as we have seats,’ and ‘We only do this,’ and ‘We only do that,’ realized there was no way they were going to survive. They didn’t want to lose that element. But they realized they had to create something else that was actually going to make them money.”

In many cases, that “something else” isn’t merely a few extra items on the menu, but a whole extra bar. The most maximalist aspect of the “Everything Everywhere” movement is that many new cocktail bars open with dual concepts. Think Double Chicken Please, with its draft cocktail tap room up front and posh mixology lounge in back, and the newly opened Sip & Guzzle, which boasts a high-energy bar upstairs and an elegant Japanese-style bar in the basement.

At Gage & Tollner, if you tire of the list of classic cocktails available at the restaurant bar, you can climb the stairs to Sunken Harbor Club for some next-level tropical drinks. Even Dutch Kills recently opened Debbie’s, a music space with a separate drinks list, upstairs from the old bar.

The message sent by all these versatile barkeepers: If you don’t like this, then maybe you may like that.

“It’s to drive revenue,” says Harrison. “It has to be. And also people are realizing that at those high-end cocktail bars, those cocktails are very, very expensive and the margins are very tight. They are not making that much money. You need an element that is high-volume. I don’t know if it’s necessarily ‘Let’s appeal to everybody.’ It’s like, how can we provide a concept — two concepts that are great — and one is like a showroom and the other one is potentially high-volume.” In the latter, Harrison adds, the atmosphere is more fun. “But you can also do Vodka Soda, Vodka Soda, Vodka Soda. It’s not the chapel of the bar.”

For operators who have been in the industry for a while, a bar opening today is an opportunity to expand the scope of what you do. “As we were all coming up in the cocktail movement, there were so many different camps,” says Steve Schneider, an owner of Sip & Guzzle. “Now, it’s so big that it’s possible to provide many different experiences under one room.

“There are specialty bars that still exist, but I like the broad approach,” he continues. “A good bar for me is something that can do a little bit of everything. I never wanted to be a one-drink pony. I like to drink and eat a lot of different stuff, and I don’t imagine I’m the only one.”

Both Harrison and Duff agree that Dead Rabbit was a pioneer in this approach. From the day that bar opened in 2013, there was a populist tap room on the ground floor, where bartenders pulled pints and sold Scotch eggs, and an elite cocktail parlor on the second floor that served elegant bowls of punch and pre-Prohibition drinks. Since then, places like the original Nomad hotel in New York, which has since closed, and The Clumsies in Athens have followed this multi-pronged approach. (Castro says he soon plans to do this very thing at Gilly’s, opening “another side” of the bar on the back deck.)

Of course, Castro and the people who built the Nomad Bar (Leo Robitschek) and the Dead Rabbit (Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry) are all seasoned veterans of the cocktail renaissance. If they choose to try their hand at any kind of adult refreshment, chances are they’re going to nail it. But for the relatively green, first-time bar owners who decide the best business practice is to offer all things at all times, there’s a real danger of hit-and-miss mediocrity, both in terms of product and the bar’s image.

“In the modern era you can get everything you want on your phone. The success of a modern bar now hinges on how it feels to be there.”

“This idea has arisen that, well, you have to have some classics on your menu; you have to have some tiki drinks; you have to have some non-alcs,” says Duff. “It doesn’t take much before you wind up with a list where you’re like, ‘OK, but what is this place about?’ If you don’t have a clear view of who you are and what you are, you do run the risk of being beige or tofu or chicken.”

Harrison feels, however, that such a situation is fixable, as long as the bar itself has a succinct overarching concept, one that encompasses anything the menu might have to offer. And for her, that concept these days can often be summed up in one word.

“I think a lot of times, if there’s kind of a ‘no concept,’ the concept is ‘fun,’” she says. “I think for the last several years, people had lost the fun.”

Castro agrees that the winning formula for new bars may no longer be the largest collection of mezcal in the city or the most advanced molecular mixology techniques. Rather, it is something broader, less about what you’re drinking and more about where you’re drinking.

“I do feel that bars need to be experiential in the modern era,” says Castro. “Because in the modern era you can get everything you want on your phone. The success of a modern bar now hinges on how it feels to be there.”

More Choices, Happier Patrons?

So, you may ask, what’s the worry here? What’s wrong with more choice at a bar, if increased options leads to happy patrons and solvent businesses? Well, nothing really. Except that when every bar menu becomes an omnibus, a certain vanilla sameness in the cocktail community may settle in.

In the past, cocktail bars were a bit obsessive. They were all in on pre-Prohibition, Jerry Thomas-style cocktails; or they were only about mezcal; or they had drunk the bitter amaro Kool-Aid. Whatever the choice was, it was made with conviction, and it was first and foremost about the spirit or era or technique or style of drink. They were churches looking for like-minded congregants. Perhaps today’s cocktail bar owners simply want to open a popular place that pleases all comers. It’s hard to argue against that. If one of the collateral results of this approach is that their menu slightly resembles a modern, artisanal version of what TGI Fridays offered back in the 1990s — the large sort of document with all manner of columns and boxes and inserts — that may be a small price to pay.

Still, I will miss the precision, the focus, the downright geekiness of the cocktail bars of the past. At Bar Agricole, one of the pioneering cocktail bars in San Francisco in the aughts and 2010s, owner Thad Vogler inserted a quote by Bruce Lee in his menu. It went, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Change “fear” to “like,” and “kicks” to “cocktails,” and you get the idea of what may be lost in our new all-inclusive drinking landscape.

The article At Modern Cocktail Bars, It’s Every Drink, Everywhere, All at Once. Is That Such a Bad Thing? appeared first on VinePair.

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