The Staying Power of Cocktail Pop-Up Bars

cocktail pop-up bars

The Upside Down pop-up in Chicago is an homage to the Netflix series Stranger Things. | Photo by Emma Janzen

Three years ago, Greg Boehm launched a special month-long holiday cocktail pop-up called Miracle on 9th Street in his soon-to-open bar, Mace. It was a good way to generate interest in the new bar while making the most of the holiday season, but the pop-up proved to be so popular, that Boehm took the concept on the road, and by 2015, dozens of bars around the world were hosting their own Miracle pop-ups. Boehm wasn’t the first to dabble in the pop-up realm. Cocktail pop-ups have been going strong for a while, but what Miracle and other more recent pop-ups have shown is that they have staying power, and that they can provide an unique opportunity to try out new ideas.

What do today’s iterations of the cocktail pop-up look like? From tiki takeovers to culturally influenced pop-ups, the concepts are getting more elaborate. In Chicago, The Whistler celebrates May 4th every year with a Star Wars themed pop-up, and last May, Howler Bar in Brunswick, Australia hosted a Twin Peaks pop-up. Last winter, Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge took over Chicago’s Lost Lake for a week with a Texas Tiki Disco, and in San Francisco, ABV launched a bar-within-bar concept called Over Proof, which changed every few months with an entirely new space and menu design.

At the Game of Thrones pop-up in Washington, DC, house banners drape one of the rooms. | Photo by Farrah Skeiky.

House banners drape the bar at the Game of Thrones pop-up in Washington, DC. | Photo by Farrah Skeiky.

Derek Brown was one of the first adopters of the Miracle pop-up outside of New York, and each year his holiday pop-ups get more involved. For the second season of Miracle, he incorporated nods to Netflix’s Stranger Things show, followed by an homage to Washington’s cherry blossom season, a Super Mario theme, and then the most popular of all: a Game of Thrones pop-up. “Every time we do it, it seems bigger and better,” Brown says, adding that his company now employs two full-time designers to plan, execute and build a set for each theme. “We built a replica throne and hired a textiles professor to build banners for every major house from Game of Thrones. Those don’t just exist, you can’t order them on Amazon,” Brown says. “Each time we’re almost outdoing ourselves.”

Hundreds of guests wait hours in line to visit Brown’s pop-ups when they appear, and Brown says they attract a wide range of people. “There’s always been this kind of nod and wink at cocktail bars, unfortunately, that they’re for a certain set of people who are young and affluent and belong to specific identities,” Brown says. “To watch the Game of Thrones [pop-up] turn into such a diverse and interesting group of people was worth it.”

At Chicago’s Emporium Popups, the sister bar adjacent to the Logan Square location of Emporium Arcade Bar, director Jared Saul and bar manager and beverage director Jorge Saldarriaga have had just as much fun transforming their space into a Fernet Branca pop-up, a Run the Jewels event, a Chicago summer block party and, most recently, an ode to Stranger Things called The Upside Down.Like Brown, the goal is total transformation, and the conversion of the bar into the alternative reality attracted so much attention from guests and national media, it also earned a cheeky cease-and-desist letter from Netflix, asking for the event to not continue after the six week mark. “It’s not just a bar, it’s an art installation,” says Saldarriaga. Each project has been a complete reimagining of the space, including a fresh cocktail menu, converted in a just week’s time. “We just want to do justice to whatever that theme is,” Saul says. “For this one, we wanted to make fans of Stranger Things feel like they were on the set or even a character on the show and help some folks have fun in our bar.”

One of the cocktails from the Super Mario Brothers room at Derek Brown's pop-up in Washington, DC. | Photo by Farrah Skeiky.

One of the cocktails from the Super Mario Brothers pop-up in Washington, DC. | Photo by Farrah Skeiky.

While themed pop-ups stretch the imagination, they also beg the question: Is it all too much? Isn’t going to a bar for a round of drinks with friends entertaining enough? Saul points out that themes have always been part of American drinking culture in some way, citing trivia nights, tribute DJ sets and drinks named after pop culture references, but for guests who line up around the block, it’s obvious these pop-ups offer a more transportive experience—total escapism as they sip from a goblet or listen to 80s-era music while drinking a cocktail garnished with an Eggo waffle.

This month, Brown’s space and the one at Emporium in Chicago will both transform into Halloween-themed bars. This teaser trailer previews Brown’s upcoming PUB Dread, and at Emporium, the main room will be dubbed the House of the Dead and include interactive installations and Halloween-inspired cocktails, all culminating with a Night of the Dead costume party on Halloween.

Does the evolution of pop-up bars speak to our insatiable appetite for entertainment? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s more about that ongoing need for the escapism, something bars have always provided. Either way, today’s pop-ups seem to be focused on making sure guests have fun, and who can find fault with that? “Every project has been so much fun for us,” Saul says. “It’s challenged us to find new ways to interact with customers and to find new ways to get the same space to feel completely different. The end product has been so much more than we could have imagined, so it’s 100% worth the effort.”


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