Social media, discerning customers and the accessibility of supermarkets are putting bars at risk. But if any industry can fight back, it’s ours, says Nate Brown
The first cocktail I ever made was a Sidecar. I followed a recipe in Difford’s Guide that called for lemon juice, so I squished some lemon wedges with a rolling pin – I’d never even seen a Mexican Elbow. I was fresh off the boat from Ireland and had just started work in my first bar where I bought single measures of Cointreau and Hennessy. I put the spirits in a rocks glass with the muddled lemon and ice cubes, gave it a stir and had a taste. Expecting fireworks, I got a car bomb.
How did bartenders do it? There must be magic in their fingers. To put together a seemingly ghastly combination of ingredients and make something so glamorous that folks on TV sipped and smiled over it was an act far more than magic – it was art.
For decades, bartenders have earned their stripes by following recipes with awareness and insight, creating something that can’t be easily replicated at home. Add a splash of environment and a dash of hospitality and hey, presto! This is where the value of the cocktail bar is born; the value that created a culture where guests will pay for a taste of the magic. Today, however, this culture is being diminished. The greatest draw of the cocktail bar is the social aspect, but just look more at how many people are interacting with their phones than with those around them. Has our social-media addiction weakened the value of the third place? Yes.
We do what we do to give our guests that unforgettable experience
Now the other key proposition of value offered by the cocktail bar, the magic of the mixed drink, is under threat. A wave of education has empowered a new generation of discerning drinkers, who can make a Negroni or a Martini at home, who know the difference between their gins, or what a dash of bitters can add. The curtain is finally being lifted.
Consumers are able to buy Gin-for-Dummies expressions in their local supermarket or online – brands that are bright pink and promise strawberry or raspberry flavours, and they often deliver. Pair these with equally readily available flavoured tonics, and you have the equivalent of a cocktail at home in two pours. Nor does it require training to place a raspberry on top as garnish. What’s more, this homemade cocktail hasn’t cost the consumer £10, but just £1.50 per serve.
Compound this with the convenience of supermarket RTDs. These offerings take the cocktail on the road and are available at £2 a pop. How can a cocktail bar charging five times that compete? (No need to lecture me on the economics of why a cocktail bar does it, I’ve owned plenty.)
For some, visiting a cocktail bar is akin to watching a comedian tell a joke, only you already know the punchline
Social media has also brought brands and consumers closer together, at times bypassing bartenders and their role as messengers. For perhaps the first time, drinkers know what they’re drinking, and why it tastes the way it does. The confirmation bias – the pleasure found in understanding and meeting of expectations – has become more direct. In the end, for some, visiting a cocktail bar is akin to watching a comedian tell a joke, only you already know the punchline.
All that’s left for the plucky cocktail bar is the hospitality experience. Is there enough value in this to stop the guest from slipping further out of reach? Given that some of London’s finest venues are struggling, the answer might be no. The value proposition offered by cocktail bars is at risk of dissolving. As operators and bartenders we’re going to have to work damn hard not to lose our guests forever.
However, all is not lost. Our bars are wonderful places of discovery, voyage and belonging. We dance through time and space in the stories offered by exotic spirits and serves, guided by skilled hands. Where else can you live the life of a millionaire for the price of a cocktail? We do what we do to give our guests that unforgettable experience. That’s something you can’t get at home.