Food & Drink

Instagram Isn’t Ruining Drinks, But It Might Be Ruining You

Muddling Memories / Instagram

All the world’s a stage, as is every bar top. Instagram has turned a bartender’s every move into a shareable performance. Both an opportunity and a challenge, that potential for viral attention has fundamentally changed cocktails, and how bartenders and drinkers all think about them.

Capturing the internet’s attention is a tricky feat. The stereotypical viral cocktail is flashy and over the top, with insane colors, obscene garnishes, trendy ingredients and pop culture references. But creating Instagrammable cocktails—drinks that will catch someone’s eye in three seconds as they scroll past—actually requires a lot of thought.

“Cocktails aren’t like food. When you see a hamburger, you know what a hamburger tastes like. With photos of cocktails it’s a little different,” says Cody Goldstein, founder of Muddling Memoriesa hospitality group specializing in beverage experiences. “Even if you have a great looking drink—say, it’s red with a mint garnish—nobody is going to know what’s inside that drink. No one knows what it tastes like. No one will relate to it. The visuals are important, but it’s also about telling a story so an onlooker has an idea what they’re looking at.”

One of Goldstein’s recent cocktails, the Make New Friends—currently on the menu at The Flying Cock in New York—was based on his own childhood love of Lucky Charms. He tops a cocktail of bourbon, vanilla almond milk, cacao and peppermint with the cereal and serves the drink with a small plastic spoon. Ideally, the cereal bowl-like lowball instantly evokes sentimental memories in Instagram users, making them long for their own slice of childhood bliss and driving them straight to the bar. “When someone says, ‘That reminds me of’—when a drink takes someone back to a happy memory—that’s my whole goal,” he says.

Goldstein has incorporated this goal into the very heart of his drink creation process. “About 80 percent of my cocktails start with a vision or just an idea. Rarely does it start with an ingredient,” he says. For instance, he recently created several cocktails based on famous artists for a boozy paint-and-drink event called Potions and Paintings. “How do you make a cocktail that tastes like Bob Ross? That doesn’t exist,” he says, laughing. “So it’s about, ‘How do I make a cocktail that represents Bob Ross?’ You think about the concept first. It’s supposed to evoke his painting. He liked to use different kinds of oil paints. So let’s say we want it purple because he did lots of shading with purple. OK, then how do I make the drink look purple. We can use crème de cassis or Chambord. It’s really incorporating all of that and working backwards to get all the ingredients where you want it to be.”

As Goldstein points out, though, beneath any particular attraction to a drink, there is a deeper drive: FOMO. Seeing an amazing drink, especially of the flashy viral sort, makes drinkers want to have (and, more importantly, share) that special experience themselves. While envy may be human nature, FOMO is an entirely modern contagion. Not only do drinkers want to experience trendy or alluring drinks for themselves, but they also want to take their own photos to show off the occasion. That feeling of enjoyment goes even further when you can brag to hundreds of followers about your exclusive experience.

Bartenders have to assume their drinks, even simple classics, will be photographed and shared, so every cocktail has to be ready for its close-up. Visual appeal has always played a role in cocktails, but the Sauron’s eye of social media requires bars look past the individual drinker seated on the stool to all of that drinker’s followers. “Someone will take a picture of it and it’ll go off into the internet, and you want to make sure it represents you well,” says Adam Hodak, owner of Green Russell in Denver. “We need to make sure whoever sees it should say to themselves, ‘I want to go there.’”

Platforms like Instagram are a key source of traffic for bars, quickly becoming the new battleground for competing venues. “What makes your Manhattan stand out more than the Manhattan at the bar next door?” asks Goldstein. “Maybe it’s your great vintage glassware. Maybe it’s your garnish. Maybe your cherry’s on fire. People can get a Mai Tai for $10 at the Caribbean bar down the street, or they can pay $15 at your bar because it comes with X, Y and Z.”

For Aaron Paul, beverage director for Alta Group restaurants in the Bay Area, that means checking Instagram constantly to see how the bar’s drinks are performing and to scope out competition. “I’m checking it all day long, every day,” he admits. “I’m a total junkie. I follow all my bartender friends. I will constantly look and see what other bars are doing and how similar my drinks are to theirs.” Taxing as that might sound, that constant awareness has helped Paul refine the bar’s program, using Instagram for quality control. “I can see photos that have been tagged, and advise our team members on ways to adjust presentation and the finishing touches on drinks,” he says. Even before Instagram, Paul encouraged his bartenders to take time trimming and cleaning up their garnishes, but now he has direct drinker feedback.

The only thing Paul can’t control is the customers themselves. “I wish I could control the photographs other people take,” he says. The bar recently held an Instagram contest with a $100 bar tab up for grabs, he explains. ”Out of all the photos everyone submitted, it was really hard to choose one because none of them were very good. People were taking them at night in the bar when there’s not very good lighting. The colors never translate and they turn out kind of grainy.”

Goldstein has gone so far as to help photographers in need of a light. “I have sometimes held up my flashlight to help people get a better photo if I see they’re struggling, which people always appreciate,” he says. “I have even thought about creating a light to have on top of every table that would be more conducive for taking photos, something that’s stylized but also gives off this glow that allows people to take a professional photo.”

Paul has also noticed patrons drawn like moths to good lighting. One of the Alta bars has a glass display that lights up from below, making it a hotspot for the cocktail paparazzi. Hodak has noticed a similar phenomenon, with one table receiving an exorbitant amount of attention. Green Russell generally discourages cell phone use (the bar has an old 1940s Bell phone booth where drinkers can take calls so as not to disturb fellow drinkers), and the bar has a seated room only policy in the main bar area. But in a recently expanded standing bar annex, open to drinkers on weekends as they wait for seats, there’s a small, well lit table made from the floor of a railcar that happens to have the most perfect cocktail spotlight above it. “We take pictures there for the Green Russell Instagram,” Hodak says. “Everyone who walks in walks by that exact spot and it just stands out. People will pick up their cocktail from the table, take it over there, and then walk back.”

Hodak adds that the staff—who have years of experience politely yet emphatically ordering customers to use the phone booth—are prepared to put a halt to any photo shenanigans that go beyond a quick jaunt to the railcar table. “If someone gets really happy with the flash, we do step in. After 20 camera flashes, I can barely see,” he says, laughing. Overall, though, he says obnoxious phone use is actually less of a problem than it used to be, as most users have shifted away from loud phone calls to quietly taking photos of their drinks and interacting with friends online. But that same trend of drinkers quietly turning inwards may just be the ultimate destruction for bars.

As a trained photographer, you’d expect Ryan Wainwright, beverage director for The Ponte in Los Angeles, to be the biggest proponent of Instagram in bars. Instead, he says his degree in photography is the great irony of his loathing for the platform. Wainwright recognizes that social media creates digital communities where drinkers can find new cocktails and bars, but he points out those platforms actually isolate us.

“Pre-smartphone, a bar was a meet-up place,” he says. “Now you see people more and more locked into their own worlds. You think about Facebook and Instagram. The ads that they run are geared toward what you search on Google, what you like on Instagram, what you’re already doing. Everything is insulating you. You’re no longer sitting next to someone who doesn’t believe the way you believe.” Wainwright’s conception of the ideal bar may be optimistic, but his fear for our community is legitimate. Sense of community among Americans is already pretty weak, and access to the internet in communal spaces like bars has only worsened the problem. But that’s not all.

Wainwright argues the individualist spirit of Instagram contributes to deeper issues like food and bar waste. “It’s creating a false sense of ‘look at my lavish life, my hedonistic ways’ sort of mentality,” he says. “It’s encouraging others to be the same. Talking about waste, talking about necessity, those are all things that aren’t even an issue—they’re in the trash.”

Even if you don’t buy Wainwright’s argument, you may still have reason to set down your phone. Hodak and Wainwright both lament when they see drinkers more interested in their smartphones than their present company. Even if you are focused on your cocktail through your camera as you take photo after photo, Wainwright argues that taking a pic makes you a voyeur to your own life. The drink becomes a feast for the eyes but alienates your other senses.

Worst of all, overly visual drinks might even be bad drinks. “This is going to sound trite and cliché,” Wainwright adds, “and we’ve heard it a million times, but the substance is less important than the visual stimulus.” When bartenders focus solely on a drink’s rainbow colors or ridiculous garnish, they forget all about making the booze inside taste good.

Paul disagrees. He believes the quality of a cocktail doesn’t depend on whether a drink is ostentatious or understated, but rather on the person making it. “You can definitely make something disgusting that looks really cool,” he says. “It just comes down to the taste of the person who’s making the cocktail. If you have good bartenders and a good bar director leading the staff, they will make something that’s well-balanced.”

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Even for Goldstein, a master of the Instagram form, there's room on the bar for both the ‘gram bait and the simple classic. At the end of the day, he says, his job is to make customers happy, whether they want the newest trendycocktail or a Martini in peace far from flashing cameras.

Wainwright also admits that, while he tends to wax poetic on the subject, he doesn't want to be on the wrong side of progress. He points out that every wave of new technology is accompanied by critics who foresee the destruction of civil society, like the opponents of TV who thought it would rot everyone’s brains. This same argument will repeat itself with the next new tech to hit the bar too, he predicts. For now, he’s made his peace with IG, putting his photography skills to work on The Ponte’s account with photos of minimalist, elegant cocktails.

Meanwhile, Instagram is opening new doors for bars and bartenders. Goldstein has perhaps used the platform to its fullest, promoting his work to brands and bars, allowing him to form new creative partnerships in the spirits industry and push his craft forward. He encourages others to follow suit.

Good-looking drinks have always sold. Instagram has simply raised the stakes and turned the bar into a highwire act, forcing bartenders to perform a careful balancing act. They have to make drinks look good—but also taste good. They have to outdo the bar next door, but their cocktails have to remain cost effective. They have to make drinks look intricate, but also have to reach every drinker in a timely manner. They have to drive interest with extravagant displays, without destroying ordinary bar culture altogether. It’s exhausting.

So the next time you’re out at a bar, do your bartender (and yourself) a favor: Whether you order a mountainous, rainbow concoction or a dark, stirred lowball, sit back, take in the whole scene—and keep your phone snuggly in your pocket. Try enjoying your drink by drinking it. You can snap a pic of the next one.