Food & Drink

Why Oh-So-Serious Cocktail Bars Lose Their Cool for the Holidays

In 1981, the year Natalie Portman and I were born on the same damn day, Rolf’s, a Bavarian restaurant in NYC, began its annual tradition of decorating their restaurant in an over-the-top manner for the winter holidays. Eight years later, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation came out featuring Clark Griswold, a Christmas fanatic who decorates his house with tens of thousands of lights and pisses off his yuppie neighbors, who definitely had a Peloton. And in 2014, Greg Boehm and his partners famously turned his unfinished NYC cocktail bar Mace into a Rolf’s/Clark Griswold/Christmas Tree Shop holiday pop-up called Miracle, which became a rousing success. 

And — because Boehm also owns Cocktail Kingdom, a barware maker and distributor — it also turned into something else truly unique: the first franchise-able pop-up holiday bar, with hundreds of locations in America and all over the world (like Miracle on Victoriei in Bavaria), a tiki spinoff from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry that has 27 of its own locations, and dozens of unaffiliated competitors in most major cities (Chicago, for example, has Christmas Club, Frosty’s Christmas Bar, Santa Baby Bar, Yippee Ki-Yay,  Rudolph’s, Mistletoe, Santa’s Workshop, Krampus, 8 Crazy Nights, Jingle Bell Square, something called Elf’d Up, and that’s just a start). I mean, the entire thing is likely being taught in business schools as I type. 

To say the holiday pop-up bar is a trend is almost beside the point. Thanks to Miracle’s ability to dramatically scale, Instagram’s ability to dramatically reward maximum kitsch with a consistent saline drip of likes, and our very American habit of dramatically smothering the things we love, we’ve somehow managed to hit peak holiday bar in less than half a decade. And look, I am here for it.

Nostalgia, escapism, ritualized customs, and alcohol are a powerful combination.

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.”

Maybe not taking yourself so darn seriously is good for your health.

And that, friends, is the silver lining buried inside those uncomfortable red and white polyester Santa pants. The Great Holiday Pop Up Bar movement might actually be a Bat-Signal from the cocktail community that it is OK to let down your guard for a minute and chill and have fun and enjoy this whole weird holiday ride. And maybe it’s the beginning of a new era in the cocktail world, a less serious, more relaxed, sometimes even kinda cheesy era where you can still hold onto the craft cocktail tenets that built the movement, but without stressing because you didn’t opt for the Japanese hard shake when making that Christmapolitan.  And maybe not taking yourself so damn seriously is good for your health. On that, Volk made a point that stuck with me.

“Yeah, of course it’s fun for your guests, but it’s fun for your staff, too,” he said. “This time of year, the service industry gets especially stressed, partially because people have their own baggage they bring into your bars from their holiday worries, but also because the places get so damn crowded. So if you’re able to give your staff a reason to have fun, that’s great.” 

So embrace this time of year, friends. Put on your “It’s Not Xmas until Hans Gruber falls from Nakatomi Plaza” sweater and your Santa hat and grab a bunch of co-workers and buy a round of Jingle Balls Nog and some Mistletoe shots and, as you listen to John Denver and the Muppets singing the "Twelve Days of Christmas," just look around for a second and consider that maybe, the fact you’re doing all of that from the confines of a craft cocktail bar is the real holiday miracle.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End is out now from Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.