As New Orleans Cracks Down, the Rest of America Discovers the Beauty of To-Go Drinks
How bars have gotten creative and why takeout drinks might be here to stay.
It's so run-of-the-mill in New Orleans that when, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he headed out to see some friends at Longway Tavern en route to the Mississippi River, he didn’t think twice. But then, everything had changed and in New Orleans, one of the myriad ways you could tell was the crackdown on to-go alcohol.
“That was a pretty sad moment,” recalls Hannah, one of the city’s premier bartenders, who helped reconnect New Orleans with its storied cocktail history after Hurricane Katrina. “It didn’t dawn on me until I got to the front door that I couldn’t take a drink and walk away. It was like they took away my normal rite of walking around on a day off.”
Hannah’s habit had long been an institution in New Orleans, where locals parade in the street and tourists’ eyes grow wide at the sight of takeout drinks. But as the pandemic’s impacts became clear in the weeks after Mardi Gras in 2020, local leadership shut the lid on sales of go-cups, as to-go drinks are known here. Though they enjoyed a return in the months since, they’ll be gone again for the final days of Carnival season. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced February 5 that, citywide, bars will be closed and to-go alcohol will be prohibited.
But even as New Orleans’ restrictions have tightened, loosened, and look to tighten again, the rest of the country has caught on to the joy of a go-cup, embracing the creativity and the, well, freedom that comes with a takeout drink. “It gives me an outlet to be creative,” says Roger Gross, the bar curator at Sherkaan Street Food in New Haven, Connecticut, “and has helped me get through these tough times.”
By the summer of 2020, well more than half the country had embraced “on-demand alcohol laws,” according to an ABC News report, as restaurant and bar owners struggled to find ways to stay open. With business models reliant on people getting together, in the era of social distancing, there were few options other than to open the tap on alcohol sales.
“Legislators have been forced to recognize, especially independent bars and restaurants, as participants in their economy as opposed to things that need to be regulated,” says Jabriel Donohue, the bar manager at the Mountaineering Club in Seattle. “There’s this ingrained assumption that the reason that particular regulations exist is because there was a good reason for them, and when you dig into why some rules exist, most of it has to do with either something more puritanical or things that have happened because of geography.”
That’s exactly the case in New Orleans. As local geographer and associate dean for research with the Tulane School of Architecture Richard Campanella explains in Bourbon Street: A History, go-cups were the result of enterprising club owners who in 1967 sought to solve their biggest challenge: “Instead of convincing people outside to buy drinks inside, why not sell inside drinks to people outside?”
Eventually, the city codified the practice, but the impact on the local landscape was almost immediate, with “window hawking” changing the face of the city's biggest tourist destination. The drinks themselves changed, too, as did the vessels that carried them.
“Spiked beverages became increasingly gaudy, colorful, beachy, tropicalized, oversized, and extra-powerful—enter the daiquiri—while the containers grew ever more outlandish, molded in the form of hand grenades, penises, fish bowls, and footballs, some equipped with neck straps,” wrote Campanella.
Nationally, with to-go getting the ok, the approach during the pandemic has been slightly more utilitarian: Drinks are coming in plastic bottles, cans, reusable glassware, and coffee cups. At the Mountaineering Club, director of food and beverage Steven Sue says choosing a receptacle was “a little of the tail wagging the dog,” when he and Donohue found a glass canteen that fit the bar’s aesthetic.
“I like guests being able to control when they’re going to start adding chill and dilution,” Donohue added. “But at the same time, our drinks are such that if you want to walk down the street nipping out of a flask, you can do that, too.”
At the Capo Deli in Washington DC, the pandemic forced a creative shift for the speakeasy-style bar. When local laws first permitted to-go alcohol there, Malhotra says, he simply transitioned his bar menu to takeout containers. Between divining themes out of the news of the moment and a vendor who dropped off a bunch of drink pouches, Malhotra struck social media gold: The Fauci Pouchy.
“We did a post on Instagram and next thing I know, I have a ton of notifications,” Malhotra says. The to-go lineup at the Capo Deli still includes the Fauci Pouchy, which Malhotra described as something of an homage to “voice of reason” of Dr. Anthony Fauci and rotation options like Biden Bubbly, Harris Hot Chocolate, Flu Fighters, Mike Penicillin, and Joe Imbibin.
“We’re trying to have fun and make the best of this unfortunate situation,” Malhotra says.
Of course, what’s in the drink matters, too, and Hannah, who has years of experience under his belt shaking and stirring up his cocktails for the outdoors crowd, describes transitioning a drink for takeout rather simply: “It is all math.” While crafting a drink meant for immediate consumption walking around the French Quarter means little to no alternation, Hannah says, batching cocktails for home consumption essentially translates to honoring proportions while super-sizing. “One drink goes from two to eight,” he says.
These kinds of large-format cocktails were quickly popularized during the pandemic, and the trick for bars and bartenders became how to recreate the experience of sitting down for a freshly made, well-crafted cocktail once someone actually made it home.
In New Orleans, which enjoys warm weather for much of the year, that translates to more frozen cocktails, like the daiquiris Hannah’s team sells at Manolito, which could be consumed almost immediately. For Gross, at Sherkaan Street Food, that meant considering the stability of a cocktail once batched.
“That’s why I stuck with two stirred drinks and punches and sangria,” he says. “They will stay more stable than if I tried to do a sour cocktail because the citrus will show a lot more.” Consider, for example, Esteban’s Sangria at Sherkaan, which comes in a small bottle with a label offering light guidance: “Pour and enjoy, or sip straight from the bottle like no one’s watching.”
Many also started selling full-blown cocktail kits to avoid any chance of degradation altogether, while also giving customers an entirely new experience. At Hidden Harbor in Pittsburgh, you can get a cocktail subscription, and at the Hunt and Alpine Club in Portland, Maine, Briana and Andrew Volk even started selling specialty ice.
“You’re basically taking your craft and putting it in [a customer’s] hands and giving them a recipe guide, and they’re immersed in the experience,” says Gross, who created make-at-home versions of his drinks by selling sealed liquor bottles alongside mixers and his own syrups. “They get to take that home and technically make a restaurant-quality cocktail.”
The one thing no one’s making for to-go cocktails? A Ramos Gin Fizz, which requires egg whites—and a lot of patience. “If someone can figure that out, I'd love to talk to them,” laughs Malhotra.
It’s unclear what the long-term plan for the loosened alcohol restrictions will be nationwide, but many agree the genie’s been let out of the bottle. “This one is out of the box at this point, and Pandora's not putting it back in,” Donohue says.
The carefully crafted at-home experience, Gross says, is one of the reasons he hopes to see takeout sales of alcohol stick around long-term. “It creates a better guest experience, and I think that’s the whole point of commerce and restaurants,” he says. “Creating the comforts of a restaurant while allowing people to stay safe.”