Julian de Féral surveys the recently reopened-bar landscape to see how his pandemic predictions – formulated three months ago – are holding up in reality behind the bar
Tradition dictates that I should probably offer the good news or the bad news first, but in view of the exhausting twists and turns of bar regulations tentatively set in place for an intermittent future, I’ll cut to the chase: the bad news followed by the less bad news. If you think otherwise, you’re a masochistic wrong’un.
I’ve been tasked with following up my predictions about the future of post-pandemic cocktails that – although it seems like only last week – I wrote as an opinion piece for imbibe.com five months ago.
As Declan McGurk – who has left his fêted post at The Savoy’s bars manager – has just told me during an enlightening chat: ‘At this point predictions are a bit of a mug’s game.’ Regardless, not allowing those wiser than me to get in the way of a good ramble, here goes…
Investing in people
I had hoped, perhaps naively, that brands and consultancies might take to the idea that now more than ever, they need to invest in individuals who bring much-needed heart and a tactile approach as well as in-depth knowledge and experience in this industry.
Unfortunately, we are seeing an alarming number of layoffs, redundancies and resignations
I say ‘naively’ as, unfortunately, we are seeing an alarming number of layoffs, redundancies and resignations not just in bars but also global brands. Perhaps this global cull and shedding of talent have resulted in some recent missteps, such as a ‘low-alcohol vodka’ targeted at spa-going women, or even world-beating bars seemingly stripping themselves of recognised and awarded talent in order to streamline their operations.
I’d also predicted that luxury and ‘super premium’ venues might have to have a serious rethink as the proverbial hatches are battened down. McGurk – whilst somehow coming across as impossibly positive – believes luxury hospitality is, for now, dead in the water. He doesn’t see much hope of recuperating its previous stature until at least the first quarter of 2021, with potential lack of events including Christmas bookings making a final devastating financial dent – they make on average over 50% of F&B revenue per year.
This is without mentioning the significant financial blows that established central London hotels are experiencing (with unprecedented occupancies lower than 5%), local office workers being hit hard by the recession and the very sad demise of theatreland.
By Alex Taylor, Pennyroyal, Cardiff (£30/500ml)
Served straight over ice, topped with soda, as a
shot with a dash of hot sauce, or whilst sharing anti-Trump memes. Go on, make a ‘horny’ joke
Glass: Rocks (straight over block ice)/Highball
(topped with soda with cubed ice)/Shot
Method: Batched from corny kegs, or frozen in
blocks to preserve the integrity of the ingredients
whilst enabling convenient and consistent mass
batching. Serve three different ways.
187.5ml Curado Cupreata tequila
50ml Giffard Abricot du Roussilon liqueur
37.5ml Lejay peach liqueur
25ml Bristol Syrup Company passion fruit syrup
62.5ml Bristol Syrup Company 2:1 simple syrup
37.5ml amontillado Sherry
100ml kaffir leaf tea (steeped for two hours)
7g citric acid
McGurk warns: ‘Young bartenders need to get ahead of the romance of particular bars and realise that what is happening right now isn’t new. It simply shines a light on the restrictions that high-end establishments have always had to deal with… the furlough bubble is coming to an end, and our bread and butter is gone.’
Incredibly though, cocktail sales at The Wigmore at The Langham, London (better known for its Artesian bar) have boomed, with bar manager Steve Georgiou telling me that cocktails and mixed drinks are up from 5-10% to 50% compared with their usual beer sales. He says social distancing means they have seen a significant reduction in ‘lads on tour’-style pub crawls and beer binges, with an unprecedented increase in cocktails being ordered off-menu and sales of their little prebatched ‘cups of punch’.
In contrast to the difficulties faced by high-end downtown venues, suburban neighborhood bars have in fact benefited from the pandemic. Carved Dive in London’s Bromley got a steady flow of money trickling through during lockdown by immediately firing up food and drink deliveries, with owner Josh Pindard using the time to completely refit the bar for table service and increase covers both inside and outside.
By the Carved team, Carved Dive, Bromley (£10/serve)
Transitioning from Fireballs and Bud Lights to Old Fashioneds and tropical delights, a stripped-down but premium twist on the retro tiki classic
Garnish: Pink grapefruit zest (discard)
Method: Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a coupe.
25ml Plantation 3 Stars white rum
10ml Galliano L’Autentico
20ml Giffard Banane de Bresil liqueur
20ml freshly squeezed lime juice
20ml Eager pineapple juice
Dive had previously built a reputation, with DJs and bands bringing in a uniquely alt-rock crowd for the area with a penchant for sinking beers and shots. Since reopening, however, Pindard has witnessed ‘a more diverse and vibrant crowd by invoking community spirit and modernising the menus that now see cocktails outperforming beer sales two to one’. Compared with last year, his total drinks sales are up by 40%, whilst operating on half the staff.
Whilst the concept of perceived value has supported my idea that bars are making a concentrated effort to keep prices low, it has also seemingly contradicted my suggestions that bars might be more comfortable switching up the lesser-known premium brands they had previously showcased for more generic and affordable ‘speed rail spirits’.
The bar managers and owners I spoke to were keen to point out the contrary: the added value of stocking liquids not typically found in supermarkets to encourage return visits and set their bars apart from the competition.
A recent Brummie opening has geek-favourite Veritas as a house-pour rum, with cocktails featuring at least 50ml serves at a £7.50 price point. Sam Boulton, whose closure of his previous endeavor, mead-focused The Vanguard, ‘handily’ coincided with lockdown, used the opportunity to step up the planned opening of this new, better-located, independent cocktail bar The Pineapple Club.
EL POCO BAYA
By Samuel Boulton, The Pineapple Club, Birmingham (£7.50/serve)
El Poco Baya (or little berry in Spanish) was designed to embody the fun premium elements we wanted in our drinks but mixed with some ingredients not used all too often: grape soda and pear eau de vie (EDV)
Garnish: Fizzy rainbow chew
Method: Shake vodka, crème de cassis, lemon juice and EDV over ice. Strain into a wine glass with cubed ice and top with grape soda. Garnish.
30ml Kosvenkorva vodka
20ml Boudier crème de cassis
10ml lemon juice
3 dashes St. George pear eau de vie
100ml grape soda
Boulton was able to use his experience in batching and bottling to open an extra revenue stream with cocktail deliveries in lightning-quick time. ‘We already had an off -licence and were positioned as an online retailer (previously with The Mead Boutique), had plenty of sanitised reusable bottles, shelf-stable ingredients, labelling facilities, a comprehensive understanding of legal requirements and experience in label and brand design,’ he says.
‘I was able to set up the delivery business in 40 minutes flat, despite the fact that I was in Canada at the time. Being able to be so quick meant that we were able to capitalise on the panic-buying of the first week of lockdown, ironically resulting in one of the best weeks we have ever had.’
As you might have guessed from the name of the bar, whilst not identifying as ‘tiki’, the positioning of its theme as a ‘1980s Vice City tropical-disco cocktail bar’ reinforces my previous conviction that such escapist and fun libations are surely what will appeal to a disenchanted and anxious public during the months to come.
Take me away
Boulton’s story shows strong parallels to another fiercely independent bar: Alex Taylor’s industry favourite Pennyroyal in Cardiff . Whilst perhaps not as quick on the draw in setting up takeaway cocktails, Taylor instead focused on repurposing his cellar with minimum investment using a combination of corny kegs, filters and freezers to be able to offer streamlined, ergonomic and
PORNSTAR PIÑA COLADA
By Patrick Fogarty, Halulu, Teignmouth (£7.50/serve)
After exploring ideas such as freezing cocktails into Calippo-style serves, Fogarty settled on a couple of more practical slushy machines that are so popular they ‘can’t refill quick enough’
Glass: Repurposed soup pots with Halulu branding
Method: Batch in bulk and serve straight from slushy machine.
35ml vanilla-infused Bacardi Añejo
15ml Passoa passion fruit liqueur
30ml acid (citric and malic) adjusted
coconut and pineapple syrup
30ml passion fruit purée
Taylor also speaks about the importance of strengthening the bar’s brand, with the RTD cocktails and the power of social media immediately boosting sales the first week they launched. Whilst the bar’s brand is very much represented in the styling, premium spirits and some more esoteric ingredients, he was also careful to select four very different drinks to appeal to a wide range of his audience, whether tropical, herbaceous or fruity.
In a particularly innovative move, each drink has also been fine-tuned to work in a variety of formats: as a shot, on the rocks or served long with soda, empowering the imbiber to simply adapt the drink to the occasion or the season.
Fun, accessible, premium yet good value, streamlined and low-wastage (therefore minimal), yet also escapist with a leaning towards the tropical and the retro… these are the drinks that will get us through the pandemic, distract us from our woes and hopefully provide a lifeline for cocktail culture. Until then, hold the hugs and high fives.
This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.