Under Pandemic Lockdowns, Bartending Is Illegal. Is This the New Prohibition?
What happens to bars in a world where bars as we've always known them are forbidden?
For bar culture, this is the darkest time since Prohibition.
Consuming alcohol is still legal, but bars and bartending as we have long known them are not. Pubs everywhere have either shut down entirely or found themselves limited to takeout and delivery service. The pandemic lockdowns have destroyed our ability to imbibe with friends and strangers, to enjoy the silent comforts of a cheap beer or a well-made cocktail, or to have conversations mediated by oak bartops and the taste of whiskey rather than the dim-blue glow of a screen. They have destroyed an industry—and a community.
For the bar business, the situation is dire. "Difficulty is definitely the right word for it," says Derek Brown, co-owner of the Columbia Room, one of the premier cocktail bars in Washington, D.C. For many bar staff, he says, the mindset has always been simple: When times are tight, you can always work more shifts. "You hustle a little harder, you work a little longer," he says. "But there is no hustling harder right now. There is only go home."
Across the country, bars affected by shutdown orders have begun experimenting with drinks meant to be consumed from the comfort of your kitchen table. Although pre-mixed cocktails have existed in some form for generations, and to-go drinks have been allowed in other countries for years, this is a new frontier for most American cocktail bars, in part because to-go orders weren't legal in most cities until just weeks ago.
Just as Prohibition left its mark on American drinking culture a century ago—memory-holing classic drinks for generations and ushering in the era of the speakeasy—so too will today's restrictions on bars. This is the New Prohibition.
Yet the hustle hasn't completely stopped. The loosening of legal restrictions, and the necessity of generating revenue in the worst economy for bars in a century, is already spawning innovations.
The Columbia Room, for example, is offering takeout and delivery versions of the elaborate pre-made drinks that once helped it win recognition as the best cocktail bar in the country. The current menu includes the Rugbrød Old Fashioned, a variation on the pre-Prohibition classic that mixes rye with aquavit, honey, salt, and bitters, and the Watermelon Americano, with Campari, blanc vermouth, and watermelon soda.
But the bar now sells make-at-home cocktail kits as well, consisting of bottled ingredients chosen and made by Columbia Room staff. The daiquiri kit, for example, includes a full bottle of Two James Dr. Bird Jamaican Rum, and 10-ounce bottles of house-made rich simple syrup and clarified lime juice.
The value proposition is in the selection and the presentation. Sure, you can always make a simple daiquiri at home if you've got rum, lime juice, and sugar. But would you think to make it with that particular rum? Do you even know how to clarify lime juice?
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The Columbia Room is far from the only bar to rapidly transform its offerings for a world of drinking at home. In New York, Dutch Kills, a much-lauded cocktail joint in Long Island City, has opened a to-go window and is delivering ready-to-drink, fully garnished cocktails, as well as bags of the large-format clear ice preferred by cocktail bars.
Copycat Co. in Northeast D.C. is offering to-go and delivery cocktails in pitchers, as well as bottles of house-made syrups and measured pours of obscure liquors: You may never find a use for an entire bottle of Giffard's Banane du Bresil banana liqueur, but you can try mixing it into a drink or four at home with a four-ounce pour for just $6. McClellan's Retreat, a petite craft cocktail bar located near Reason's office in D.C. is selling choose-your-own-spirit Old Fashioneds and 58-day barreled-aged Manhattans, among other tipples, for people to pick up. In addition to luxury barware, New York's Death & Co. is now offering a variety of "experience packages." For $2,500, the bar will name a cocktail after you.
These are just a few of the innovations the lockdown have spawned. As recently as two months ago, products like this simply didn't exist in most U.S. cities. Partly, this was because of legal restrictions on serving alcohol for off-site consumption—restrictions which turned out to be surprisingly easy to lift. "We were granted the ability by a very simple process—to sell cocktails, wine, and beer, for pickup and delivery," says Brown. All it took was an online form.
And some restrictions still apply. Alcohol served to-go in D.C. must be accompanied by food. That's a difficult proposition for bars with tiny food-prep spaces—but not an impossible one. McClellan's Retreat requires customers to purchase a bag of popcorn with each cocktail order. "Obey the letter of the law, if not the intent for which it was written," says McClellan's Retreat bar manager Brian Nixon.
But there's another reason these options didn't exist before: Most bar owners wanted to own bars, not boozy pickup windows. What bartenders like about their jobs is bartending.
"It's not that they don't want to be here, it's that they just can't be. And that's really hard for people in our business," says Nixon.
With the current rules in place, Brown says, "Bartenders can't be bartenders, really. They can't do what they do. Bartenders don't just mix drinks." With the spaces closed, he says, "You're taking away the ritual, the environment, the interaction." You're left with a drink—a good one, hopefully—but it's just a drink. You're missing out on something essential about the experience.
Still, a good drink shouldn't be dismissed. Which is why some bars have added teaching elements to their offerings.
The Columbia Room's daiquiri kit, for example, isn't just a package of ingredients; it's a way of showing customers what goes into an especially well-made version of the drink. McClellan's Retreat has started publishing instructional videos on Instagram demonstrating how to make classic cocktails, with the option to "tip" the bartender.
The New Prohibition, in other words, is already transforming how we drink, what we drink, and where we drink it. "I definitely see business models changing," says Nixon.
"For the foreseeable future," he says, "there are going to be major changes in bar culture, solely based on the way people are going to be allowed to interact, or feel comfortable interacting with others in confined spaces." As drinking moves into the home, he suspects that more people will be "educated on what it takes to make a balanced cocktail."
Batched cocktails, to-go orders, delivery service, craft ingredients—these are valuable innovations, but they won't save the bar industry as we've known it. At best, they will allow for a kind of economic hibernation. "This is not going to save anybody's business," Brown says. "What it's going to do is help them live a little longer." The Columbia Room normally employs 19 people, says Brown. In lockdown, they've retained just three.
He doesn't see his bar continuing to-go or delivery service after it's allowed to reopen. ("The value proposition is the environment.") But he could see other bars continuing with the option, or new establishments taking up the business model, which has already started to happen in China.
The rapid experimentation and innovation in the bar business is, in one way, a reason to hope. An industry that could have been wiped out entirely is, day by day, finding ways to survive, to serve customers, to provide something, however imperfect or insufficient, in a time of chaos and distress.
But make no mistake: Before or just after this is over, many bars will close. Servers and bartenders will lose their livelihoods. Owners will lose their investments and dreams of success. And patrons will lose places that mattered to them—places that gave their lives rest, relaxation, friendship, community, comfort, and pleasure. Bars are far from the only businesses that will be affected by the lockdowns. But for many, including myself, they are special places, and the losses will be particularly felt.
"We have taken bars and bartending for granted in some ways," says Brown. "We didn't know how much they added to our lives." The New Prohibition, like the old Prohibition, will take a great toll.
Yet the old Prohibition also offers a reminder and even a kind of hope. Eventually, it ended. And when it did, the bars came back. "That's one thing about the hospitality industry—and the bar side in particular," says Nixon. "Take Prohibition, for example. We always find a way."