I first fell in love with cocktail culture when shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos were still in primetime, and pickup lines from Swingers worked like magic during happy hour. It was peak season for Gen-Xers, and at the time, I hung out with a crew who took tipples so seriously that it wasn’t unusual for them to be picky right down to the cherry in the Old Fashioned. A few of them only trusted a handful of establishments in Chicago with their drink orders. This was simultaneously amusing and annoying to me.
I miss those days. I also miss the drinks scene of nine months ago. I miss sidling up to the actual bar and camping out on a barstool for hours, just watching the action. I miss the camaraderie between strangers over shared interest in a well-made drink. If I had a dollar for every person I’ve turned onto the Negroni just for its sheer beauty and marvelous ruby hue, I’d be able to buy a round for the entire bar. I once even allowed a complete stranger to sip my Negroni to win her over. I can’t do that anymore.
That’s because COVID-19 is hellbent on spoiling the fun. Gone are the days when I could call up a few of my drinking buddies for a night of shots in Untitled’s slick whiskey lounge or tiki-inspired elixirs at Three Dots and a Dash. My governor banned indoor dining and drinking throughout Illinois, and Chicago issued a stay-at-home advisory. As the second wave crashes down, more regulations have or will follow across the country. Mask deniers, half-ass mask wearers, or whatever you want to call them, have done their part to cause cases to spiral out of control, and there's no choice but to take it out on the places we love, sans a safety net to catch the industry workers who'll be left behind.
How we drink has already rapidly changed as bars adapted to this new way of cocktailing. “We are capturing people in different ways, whether it be online classes or programming, takeaway cocktails, merchandise,” says Harrison Ginsberg, bar veteran from the Crown Shy in New York’s Financial District. He cites "relaxed laws" on alcohol, like those that let bars and restaurants deliver drinks, that could last past the pandemic. "Giving people a product that they’ll be able to enjoy at home"—like his go-to, a watermelon Negroni generously portioned with six drinks per bottle—"will resonate even longer with them," he says.
In the middle of the pandemic, the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group in Chicago upgraded the pop-up bar trend, offering kitsch to pique interest, yet simultaneously featuring premium ingredients in craft cocktails. Its most recent offering, "Honey, I Shrunk the Pop-Up," paid homage to the 1980s cult comedy with themed drinks, including “Szalinski Sazerec,” a Sazerac made with the Polish Starka spirit, and a milk punch-inspired “Dad, Don’t Eat Me!” It was a hit with neighborhood residents, and owner Greg Mohr believes the group’s strength is connecting with the communities in which his establishments reside. “People are working from home and they’re staying home,” he says. “They go to their neighborhood restaurants, and that’s where we fit in.”
Because we aren't traveling far to drink, there's a new emphasis on "the neighborhood bar." And while keeping everything clean is paramount, that doesn’t mean our bar experiences have necessarily felt sanitized. Cathy Mantuano, with her James Beard Award-winning husband Tony Mantuano, opened four separate drinking venues (from a rooftop lounge to a speakeasy-inspired bourbon bar) within the Joseph, a brand-new hotel in Nashville, this summer. With occupancies obviously down, she too is trying to attract locals. That means, for example, nixing ambitious plans to outsource elaborate garnishes and artisan ingredients in favor of bartenders making their own. “We’re finding that guests want cocktails to be made to order, and the bartenders are perfectly capable of doing that and doing it safely," she says.
Still, these bars are all hanging on by a thread, and the only way to support them is to order to-go cocktails or visit one of those makeshift tents, heated globes, or igloos that many have recently pitched. For now. As lifelong Chicagoans such as myself know, cocktailing in a warm bar is one of the few great things we look forward to each winter. You don’t need a fireplace when the vibe is right: A tight soundtrack that tingles you right down to the soul, a roomful of attractive folks vying for the bartenders’ attention, and a solid drink menu are the best ingredients for a night well spent. That'll be impossible once the weather takes its first serious turn to cold.
In September—six months into the pandemic—the National Restaurant Association released a survey stating that despite their best efforts, 100,000 restaurants had closed either permanently or long term. That figure doesn’t even include bars. That’s at least three million people out of work. It honestly makes me sick to my stomach knowing so many are suffering, yet the federal government is barely helping. Yes, I put blame at the very top. We, as patrons, also needed to do better to keep them open; we needed to follow the rules. And don’t even get me started on how pissed off I am that officials can shut down restaurants and bars—places that were thriving pre-pandemic—without offering plans for survival.
Back in Chicago, Untitled had been closed since March's first shelter-in-place, pumping a lot of money and creativity into a redesign for a reimagined whiskey lounge and vintage-inspired cabaret. But unlike other restaurants and bars, there was no plan for outdoor dining or to-go cocktails when it reopened in late October. Right now, closed again, the establishment is at the mercy of the second wave.
Hoping to help independently owned establishments like Untitled is Blue Blazer, a new craft cocktail service based in Chicago that's legally permitted to sell pre-bottled drinks through delivery platforms like DoorDash and GrubHub, as well as at liquor stores, restaurants, and bars. The company is founded by hospitality attorneys Brian Troglia, Joe Kreeger, and Josh Kaplan, who’ve spent nearly two decades representing top Chicago establishments like Alinea, Lula Cafe, and Smyth and the Loyalist. Their service couldn’t come at a better time—when it’s too cold to drink outdoors in the Windy City. “This may actually be a lifeline for these guys with restrictions on indoor dining and especially as we get into colder months,” says Troglia, whose team had been working on the project since last summer.
From Mai Tais to Old Fashioneds, partnering bars contribute original recipes, and plans are underway to team up with establishments in Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, and Texas, too. “This is where the industry was going to go anyway, but it’s going much quicker now because of the restrictions COVID has put in place and forcing people to be innovative at a very quick pace,” says Kreeger. “We do think that there are a ton of opportunities for Blue Blazer to quickly fill a need and expand, because there are restaurants across the country that want to keep the lights on.”
Thankfully, there have been some bright spots in this very dark year. Collaborations and social media have been instrumental in helping furloughed bartenders find work in virtual events throughout the pandemic. New voices have gotten an ear, and a platform. With social justice issues at top of mind, bartenders from diverse backgrounds have been elevated and celebrated, and most importantly, their issues of discrimination are being taken seriously. These voices are certain to have a long-term effect on how, and what, we drink.
For me, pre-pandemic bar culture was deeper than sitting around getting boozed up. I’ve gotten some of the best advice about my career, my relationships, and even my finances over a cocktail or two. And the day I found out my mother had breast cancer, two of my best friends met me at a bar, where we had a heart-to-heart as we sipped the Last Word.
While we’re having fun mixing drinks at home—they call them #quarantinecocktails on Instagram—they’re so much better when made by the professionals. When this pandemic is finally over, I believe bar-goers will understand how important it is to stake out elbow room for a few rounds at independently owned bars. I, for one, look forward to introducing more strangers to the beauty of the Negroni at my favorite neighborhood spot.
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