I am here for the stupid sweaters that I used to get from my mother’s closet, but now can be found in a hundreds of online stores, each of which reps a very specific niche in the ugly sweater game. And I’m here for the nutty light displays, and the pun-tactic drinks, and the excuse to drink thousands of calories of egg nog just because it has mezcal in it. And I understand the tea leaves reading of our collective American psyche and how we are currently, consistently being bombarded by a dumpster fire of stressful news and hot takes and cancellations, and sometimes it is nice to just escape all of that for a moment to take a picture holding a mug shaped like Santa’s pants and boots. And I also understand that our American obsession with the celebration of Christmas culture has been around at least since the late 19th century, when famous cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the now iconic image of “St. Nick,” a Turkish monk who was apparently nice to children and sailors. Nostalgia, escapism, ritualized customs, and alcohol are a powerful combination.
But the most fascinating piece of this whole Holiday Pop-Up Bar craze to me is the fact that it came from, and proliferates through, one of the most self-serious sub-groups in the whole food/drink industry: the craft cocktail bar community. I know a little something about this. I wrote a book that documented the rise of that culture, and spent a ton of time talking to those folks, and most of them are dead fucking serious. So to see this entire kitsch craze blossom through their bars is fascinating. To help me make sense of that, I asked a few of said bartenders what this whole holiday bar thing might mean for the industry.
Andrew Volk, owner of Portland, Maine’s beloved Hunt and Alpine Club, thought there were really two angles to come at it from. The first, he said, is that it could indicate “we’re finally not taking ourselves too seriously.” He laughed, “Isn’t it great that we’re at this point and we can actually have some fun and not beat ourselves up about it?” But Volk’s second angle was also important. “Look, the bar game is incredibly hard right now, so if I’m putting on my hard nosed capitalistic hat, I think bar owners are looking at the numbers Miracle is doing, and they’re thinking ‘Damn, well, let’s make some fucking money too.’”
Over in Portland, Oregon, Clyde Common and Pepe Le Moko’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler agreed with Volk’s first point. “The cocktail community has always been so ‘cool’, so the fact that folks are finally coming around to the notion that people want to celebrate the holidays and drink some damn egg nog and have a little bit of fun is a sign that maybe we’re relaxing a bit.” He paused for a second. “I mean, hopefully this signals the end of the era when the cocktail world was so disconnected from the rest of humanity. Any sign we’re joining the rest of the world is great.”