The Craft Cocktail Revolution Is Over. Now What?
It was on a Wednesday in Omaha that I realized the revolution was over. I was sitting at the casually fancy Grey Plume's bar, listening as a good son of Nebraska, conspicuously lacking any manner of trendy mustache, and clad in the type of polo shirt only available in golf course pro shops, approached the bartender. "Ma'am," he asked. "In that Spotted Quail cocktail, does the marjoram offer more citrus or pine notes?"
As she pondered the question, discussing the various attributes that the thyme-infused vermouth and charcoal brought to the drink, I politely excused myself, sprinted into the men's room, and feverishly typed myself this note while sitting in the stall:
As I so eloquently put it above, it's never been more clear that the craft cocktail "revolution" we first experienced 10 years ago is OVR.
The battle has been fought. Cocktails have won.
In the past year, I traveled to 30 American cities to examine the current state of American dining culture (and also eat a lot of burgers), and in nearly every one, there were at least a handful of places where you could get a daiquiri, negroni, or old-fashioned, and often much more, made with impeccable (or at least very competent) technique and better ingredients: fruit juices, homemade syrups and bitters, refrigerated vermouth and higher-quality spirits. It shouldn't come as a surprise that last year Nielsen CGA reported nearly a quarter of all Americans regularly drank cocktails outside their home. The industry's biggest conference, Tales of the Cocktail, now gets almost 20,000 attendees to its main event in New Orleans and features its own international road show as well as a membership program with seminars and product discounts. The original bartender who started it all, "King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff, now helps run the Beverage Alcohol Resource, which features a five-day certification that's "the world's most comprehensive distilled spirits & mixology program," costs nearly $4,000, and is essentially the PhD you receive after you complete their undergraduate BarSmarts online program. Amazon turns up 55,000 results when you search for "bitters."
That sort of popularity has meant a golden age for an entire professional class of people who can now make a living and feed their families thanks to fancy cocktails. We even came up with a pretentious new word for them: "mixologists" -- anything to set these skilled artists apart from mere bartenders, who, far from expounding on the notes of marjoram, spent most of their time picking you up by the waist of your pants and hurling you into the street because you refused to stop playing Live's Throwing Copper on the jukebox.
I digress. In speaking to more than 25, ahem, bartenders, bar managers, and bar owners across the country, I've learned ubiquity comes with a price. It means this once hobbyist field has now turned into a giant market with unprecedented competition paradoxically creating a glut of sameness. It means big restaurant groups and hotels including "craft cocktails" as some sort of box to check on a laundry list of ways to entice the modern American diner. It means a looming bartender crisis on the same scale as the cook shortage, which I reported on last December. It means novel cocktail recipes are harder and harder to come by. It means the inevitable dilution of quality and technique, and more bars closing. It means genuinely influential and innovative new spots that push the national cocktail conversation forward no longer consistently open (and arguably haven't in years).
As the cocktail revolution evolves into -- let's call it cocktail statehood -- and that scrappy band of geeky bartender revolutionaries turns into wealthy cocktail statesman and (brand) ambassadors, a question emerges: Are we witnessing the death of the craft cocktail renaissance, the last throaty cries of an unprecedented, gloriously creative time? Or is this the iron price the cocktail industry has to pay for permanence, a licensing fee on a guaranteed future?
In case you haven't been paying attention to the explosion of well-stirred booze in the modern American bar, here's a woefully streamlined primer (for an excellent, extensively detailed explanation, I highly recommend Robert Simonson's book, A Proper Drink). In the 1980s, restaurateur Joe Baum is reopening The Rainbow Room, a classic 1930s NYC haunt, and he tells his bartender, Dale DeGroff, to check out Jerry Thomas' How to Mix Drinks, a cocktail book first published in 1862. DeGroff reads it, gets hooked on the history, and works up a list of "post-Prohibition" classics using quality liquors and fresh juices, years and years before these things catch on elsewhere. When The Rainbow Room opens, DeGroff and his concoctions quickly become famous, if not quite influential. Yet.
Fast forward to the mid-'90s. While everyone is watching Reality Bites and drinking Boku, a small bar in Manhattan's East Village called Angel's Share opens, showcasing exacting Japanese bartending techniques centered around presentation, served in an almost monastic atmosphere. The bar catches the eye of an NYC native named Sasha Petraske, who offers his own take on that style with a tiny bar he opens in 2000 called Milk & Honey. Featuring no sign, eight tightly enforced house rules (No. 1: "no name-dropping, no star fucking"), a puzzling, frustrating reservations policy centered around a constantly changing semi-secret phone number, and God-cussingly delicious, well-composed drinks, Milk & Honey unwittingly kicks off the modern "speakeasy" movement and becomes arguably one of the most influential bars on the planet.
Over the next few years, a handful of DeGroff and/or Petraske proteges (and a few others) open five other ultra-influential NYC cocktail bars, each with its own spin on the movement. Julie Reiner's Flatiron Lounge introduces quality cocktails to the masses; Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club creates intensely vetted classics; Dushan Zaric's Employees Only gives drinkers a free-pouring, more laidback party spot; David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi's Death and Co. is a bartender-driven cocktail Voltron putting out modern classics; and Jim Meehan's PDT is like a cocktail mad scientist lab, where stuff might actually blow up.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a similar movement happens along a parallel timeline, centered mainly in the Bay Area. Though people like Julio Bermejo (creator of the fresh Tommy's margarita), Paul Harrington (Townhouse, in Emeryville) and Marco Dionysos (SF's Absinthe) were early adopters, it wasn't until the mid 2000s when a truly distinguished scene started to emerge, primarily led by Thad Vogler (Slanted Door, Beretta, Bar Agricole, in SF), Martin Cate (Alameda's Forbidden Island, then Smuggler's Cove), Duggan McDonnell (Cantina), Dominic Venegas (Range), Scott Beattie (Cyrus, in Healdsburg), and the original all-star bartending crew at Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco's controversial first foray into the NYC-styled speakeasy scene.
By 2010, with both coastal cities acting as creative cocktail cauldrons, the industry exploded. Helped along by the parallel Good Food Revival Movement in the restaurant world, acolytes on both coasts set out to spread the cocktail gospel, positioning their cocktail bars next to the new wood-fired pizza places, ramen shops, and upscale barbecue joints of towns all over the country. Early on, you could often trace the origin of most cocktail bars in new cities back one or two degrees to New York or San Francisco, either in style or, quite literally, in employment (a noted exception is Houston, where Bobby Heugel's influential Anvil helped spark the city's own cocktail renaissance largely on its own).
LA's first neo-speakeasy, The Varnish, was opened by Milk & Honey alum Eric Alperin alongside Petraske. Influential Chicago cocktail bar The Violet Hour came from Milk & Honey (and Pegu Club) alum Toby Maloney, who then helped revitalize the New Orleans scene through Kirk Estopinal at Cure, Louisville via Susie Hoyt of Silver Dollar, and was an opening partner in Nashville's original modern cocktail joint The Patterson House. Death and Co. helped open another early prominent LA bar (Honeycutt) and consulted on Philadelphia's Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. "You can see New York's influence all over the country," affirms Trevor Frye, co-founder of DC bar Dram & Grain and the recently opened Five to One. "The list goes on and on."
Following the NYC cocktail blueprint (and hiring the bartenders who created it to help consult on the project) ensured a certain level of quality and consistency to the cocktail bar pioneers in these other cities. But it also created a template, and as soon as the template was in place, innovation suffered. As classic cocktail bars sprouted up all over the country, many of the original bars, looking for new projects, found themselves gravitating towards niche corners to separate themselves out. For some, this meant bars centered around specific liquors like mezcal, gin, amaro, even Central Mexico's strangely milky pulque. For others, it meant focusing on older, more obscure drinks like punches, cobblers, slings, or shrubs. A proto-tiki resurgence emerged. Mixologists dabbled in molecular gastronomy. Fancy Jello shots were back on the table for some reason. "It was like the cocktail world version of the free love '60s," says Scott Baird, co-owner of SF cocktail bar Trick Dog and a Bay Area cocktail bar veteran. "Everyone was trying everything to stand out."
2012/2013 were halcyon years. With the 24/7 food media fawningly covering bartenders as celebrities, big bar openings (like SF's Trick Dog in 2012 or NYC's Dead Rabbit in 2013) ended up as international news. "Ten years before, you could have a really good bar in a big city and the chances of anyone outside the city knowing about it were basically zero," says Jim McCourt, beverage director at Prohibition in Charleston, SC. But by 2013, the combination of social media, and food journalists frantic to meet #content quotas gave bars instant exposure and made any good bartender willing to return a call a household name.
The next few years "were just a huge boom," says Pamela Wiznitzer, creative director of New York bar, Seamstress, and president of the New York chapter of US Bartenders' Guild. "The growth of programming on the Food Network, the rise of Instagram and Pinterest, Facebook, food blogs, you could just see everything everywhere. And that was great for a while."
She pauses. "And then suddenly it wasn't."
Here's where it started to go wrong.
The popularity of the craft cocktail movement created more and more demand for cocktail programs -- on behalf of everyone from independent restaurants and restaurant groups, to upscale movie theaters and bowling alleys, to the chain hotel I spent two nights at in Kansas City where the desk clerk slyly pointed out that the facility featured a "speakeasy serving pre-Prohibition cocktails" behind an unmarked door to her right. This drove demand for bar managers to unprecedented heights. Which meant more and more inexperienced bartenders were, and are, being hired away from name cocktail bars after only a few months and asked to run bars and create restaurant cocktail programs.
"When I first worked it was at least three years at the bar before you got a management job," says Caitlin Laman, beverage manager at the Ace Hotel Chicago and former Trick Dog bartender. "Now it's barely six months." Nathan Gerdes, president of the Oregon chapter of the US Bartenders' Guild (and 'tender at La Moule in Portland, OR) goes further. "You'll see new cocktail places hiring literally anyone who has worked at a top bar, even as a barback."
Although these bartenders may be perfectly functional "behind the stick" (bartender slang!) and creative in their own right, most have no experience actually running a bar, and thus they're more likely to do something stupid like, as Gerdes said, "blowing their budget on rare spirits that'll never be drunk," or "creating an incredibly labor intensive cocktail menu that will make ticket times go through the roof" or just "not knowing how to properly manage staff."
But on top of that, this mass recruiting drive has a trickle-down effect on the industry. Less experienced bartenders and managers opening more and more bars means an increase in bar failures, but it also means even the high-quality bars are forced into hiring less qualified staff and training them for a shorter period. Which means more operation and execution issues and inconsistency, even from top places.
"It's just what happens when you have people who aren't qualified playing with other people's money and checking a box," says Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of New Orleans cocktail bars Cure and Cane & Table. "Cocktail programs have become an amenity. But it's like a bad Xerox. When you keep doing it over and over and over, the quality starts to go."
As for what this means for the average guy/gal who just wants to go out on a weeknight, get a couple of cocktails, and try to forget about the crushing monotony of an unexamined life? Well, two things. One, the maddeningly sprawling dictionary cocktail tome era seems to have receded. Even Death and Co. cut back their sprawling menu by nearly 50 percent last year. And two, most of the newer crop of top quality bars like Sweet Liberty in Miami and NYC's Suffolk Arms seem focused on more streamlined drinks with fewer ingredients. "'The next big thing is a regular bar with great cocktails' is the most trite and overused phrase currently going around the industry," says Clyde Common's Jeffrey Morgenthaler, an Oregon bartending legend. "But it also might be right. The ability to do great things in a simplified manner is an entirely underrated skill. We've nailed the $16 cocktail," he says. "Now how about doing the same with the $8 version?"
Intentionally streamlining is one thing. Being forced to squelch creativity and get more and more basic because you simply can't trust the people you work with to execute more complicated drinks is another. And as more and more of the best bartenders are pulled into showtime before they've really had any sort of chance to understudy and learn the trade, the aura of a place claiming to serve "craft cocktails" is fading, the term bleeding into all the others that've died in the mainstream before it, like "farm-to-table," or "artisanal," or even "gourmet."
The cocktail revolution was a sexy thing -- it involved unlocking a history we'd forgotten, improving ingredients, mastering techniques, and occasionally lighting citrus on fire. People wore suits and old timey hats and talked in hushed tones. Bars felt secret and special. If you were into it early, you were part of an underground culture -- the real life, boozy equivalent of a subreddit.
But cocktail statehood means all of that has changed. The drinks are out from behind the false bookshelves and unmarked doors, available at bars with big windows and bartenders in T-shirts. LA bar Harvard & Stone's Aaron Polsky has been experimenting with draft cocktails for years, and told me he just served "consistent, high quality drinks" to 10,000 people in a weekend at Coachella. Even explaining all of this feels like the "Where Are They Now" at the end of a movie based on a true story.
What's more, creativity seems to have become... a little scattershot. Maybe even a little desperate. Perhaps that's because there are more bartenders with less experience, or maybe it's just because there are a finite number of good ideas out there. "There are only so many cards you can play before you start seeing repeats," says Andrew Volk, owner of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in Maine.
"At the beginning, there were a lot of great original ideas, but it's become harder and harder to find them," says Bodenheimer. "It's a hard truth to confront, but you can only have so much creativity before you hit a quieter time. And I think the cocktail bar industry is currently in its Baroque period."
Because I am not as learned a man as Neal Bodenheimer, I had to look up his reference, but the point is spot-on. In architecture at least, the Baroque period was characterized by, to quote the unassailable knowledge fountain that is Wikipedia, "its eccentric redundancy and noisy abundance of details, which sharply contrasted the clear and sober rationality of the Renaissance."
Redundancy. And abundance of needless detail for detail's sake. Could this be the reason we're seeing cocktails painstakingly produced in elaborate light bulbs? That many of the old NYC legacy bars like Death and Co. and Employees Only and Attaboy either have expanded or are in the process of expanding to other cities, and newer successful ones, like Miami's Broken Shaker and Chicago's The Aviary, are doing the same? That currently, nearly everyone I spoke to referred to "bar experiences" and "pop-ups" and "road shows" as the way things are going?
"A cocktail menu alone will no longer bring and keep people at your bar," says Polsky, possibly while making 10,000 drinks at once. "There's gotta be something else."
So what is that something else? Does it mean everyone will be following the examples set by NYC East Village cocktail bar Mace's insanely popular, month-long Christmas-themed pop-up bar, Miracle on Ninth Street? Or Derek Brown's Drink Company in DC, which rolls out a new pop-up bar quarterly, and currently has an elaborate Game of Thrones version? Or Chicago Athletic Association’s series of pop-up bars set up in its old pool room? Or will more and more spaces opt for bars-within-bars like Over Proof inside San Francisco's ABV, which transforms into a new single-spirit-focused bar every quarter?
This is the current state of the cocktail world. When you can take for granted that nearly every bar is now going to be serving quality drinks, the level of play (or maybe just the marketing) has to be higher if anyone's going to attract the press and/or shares cocktail bars have grown accustomed to getting. The details need to be Baroque, showcased to you in illustrated graphic novel menus or through an entrance that looks like an exact replica of the light fixture in Big Boy Caprice's Club Ritz office.
Now that even your morally casual aunt, who used to subsist entirely on frozen mudslides and appalling secrets, is lecturing you about refrigerating your vermouth, simply having great, conscientiously made cocktails isn't enough to stand out. Thanks to the Good Food Revival Movement, quality is assumed and implied, taken for granted. And it's certainly not enough to attract the perpetually divided attention and fickle patronage of young people, most of whom have given up dreams of establishing enough equity to purchase cars and homes in exchange for toast topped with mashed fruit, and ephemeral, Instagram-able bar "experiences" to check off. There is a certain irony that, as they chalk up the likes posing with their thoughtfully composed Dothraquiri cocktail on an exact replica of the Iron Throne, no one bothers to ask whether the drink is balanced, or even good. That's not the point.
So what do we want here? Was the point of the cocktail renaissance to ensure we're able to go anywhere in America and drop $20 on drinks we've never tried, pulled from World Book-sized cocktail menus separated into old classics, new classics, bold classics, and blue classics, then silently wait 10 minutes to sample it while the mixologist properly massages the marjoram? Do we really want to be this passionate about drinking for the rest of our lives? Do we need to be?
After all, did American revolutionaries dump tea into Boston Harbor so they could spend years shooting at people with bad teeth? Of course not. They did it to bring about an enlightened new order. Sure, it wasn't going to be as exciting as those heady early days taking potshots from behind Buckman Tavern, but it would be stable, safe, permanent. Cocktail statehood, just by the fact that we've gotten to that point, is not nearly as sexy as the revolution that brought us here. Multi-thousand dollar classes to learn proper drink-building and spirit recognition techniques pale in comparison to origin stories that involve nerdy Indiana Jones-styled enthusiasts searching old libraries for dusty tomes and experimenting with those recipes in their mother's basements. Legitimately secret bars are cooler than market research driven "secret" bars. These are just facts.
But maybe, just maybe, we can be OK with this. We can enjoy that bars, once polarizing spear tips in the battle for American drinking culture, are starting to return to their natural state as neighborhood spots, only improved. "Once the buzz dies down and the press goes to cover the new openings, you just become a neighborhood bar," says Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn. "And if your regulars are happy and your staff is happy and people still want to come to your place, that's pretty good."
Later that night in Omaha when I realized the revolution was over, I ended up in a bar called Nite Owl. They had a punch on tap, and a gin & tonic on tap, and many things not on tap, like a list of cocktails conceived by their own bartenders, plus a reserve list of classics from people like Marcovaldo Dionysos in SF and NYC's Don Lee. I asked my bartender, a jovial man named Gunnar, what he thought of Omaha's cocktail scene. Regrettably, I may've used the word "burgeoning."
Gunnar never answered my question. He just poured me a perfectly balanced Negroni, and moved down the bar. He had more drinks to make.
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