The cocktails populating social media these days often look a bit different, presented in flask-like bottles, taped-up takeout containers, or vacuum-sealed freezer bags. With few viable sources of revenue following the nationwide closure of businesses in response to COVID-19, bars and restaurants are increasingly relying on to-go cocktails as a lifeline, both immediately and continuing into an uncertain future. Regulations vary widely by state, and while some places, such as New York, have been able to sell to-go cocktails since mid-March, others like Pennsylvania, Washington and Illinois, only recently received the go-ahead.
Facing a future of unknowns as we move toward reopening and hopeful recovery, many legislators, industry groups and bar owners are already pushing for the to-go option to become permanent—a necessary life preserver in a sea of outdated liquor laws. “What the COVID crisis has done has allowed the marketplace, and regulators, to look at age-old blue laws that have been in place for years,” says Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which has been an active proponent of to-go legislation. “It presents an opportunity for the long term to reset the marketplace for the better.”
A Cocktail, Transformed
At New York’s venerable PDT, managing partner Jeff Bell leapt into action within hours of the city’s closure declaration. He started pricing sources for to-go bottles, assuming he would sell non-alcoholic offerings and cocktail kits. When he learned the he would be allowed to sell cocktails to go, Bell and his bar team batched 1,000-plus cocktails, using up whatever they already had on hand. “All the cool stuff I’ve been stocking over the years is now completely depleted, which sucks, but it’s not exactly a collector’s item if the business goes under,” says Bell. “So we’re making some batches with bottles that we wouldn’t normally make a cocktail with, knowing that we just need the cashflow.”
But now, several weeks after a brief hiatus, Bell is dialing in a new business model, batching 1,600 to 2,000 stirred cocktails weekly, and a few hundred citrusy cocktails every other day, for freshness, then storing them all in small kegs. He’s slimmed down the offerings to a list of 10 cocktails, with five stirred and five shaken—drinks like the Shark, with butter-infused rum, pineapple, Frangelico, blue curaçao and coconut. “The margins we ran before are out the window,” Bells says. “You have to take into consideration that you’re now a retail outlet, and think about, ‘What’s the price for retail on this?’ At the bar, we charge $17 for drinks normally, but those are from a hyper-seasonal, 18-drink list, everything made to order, with cocktails served on Okamoto Ice in crystal glassware… So now I charge $12. Financially it’s making sense simply because it’s bringing in money and it’s getting bills paid. For me this is an exercise in adapting our business model to what is safe, legally possible, and a good representation of our brand.”
At Dutch Kills in Queens, owners Richard and Paty Boccato faced a similar quandary, both for their bar and their custom cocktail ice business next door, Hundredweight Ice. “It is important for us to remain consistent with our service model, no matter what the circumstances,” says Paty. “We would never serve a drink that would normally be on big ice at Dutch Kills with anything other than big ice, so we’ve developed custom ice cuts to fit our takeout cups… We charge less and we make less, but for us it is a viable means of support and, in fact, without it we would be in a much worse situation right now.”
While bars in New York state have been able to sell drinks to go since closing, others like those in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington have only just been granted the right. Some establishments that had remained closed entirely are now finally able to open for takeout with the added incentive of cocktails sales, like Philadelphia bar and restaurant Charlie was a sinner. “[We] didn’t reopen until the week before the mixed drinks to-go law passed, in large part in anticipation of it. We started by selling food, wine and beer and then added cocktails half a second after the law was signed,” says Nicole Marquis, founder and CEO of the Marquis & Co. restaurant group. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to open Charlie without the ability to sell cocktails to go. Fifty-five percent of our revenue normally is liquor sales. We depend on those sales and margins.”
It’s an argument that Julia Momose, partner and creative director of Kumiko in Chicago, has been making for months as she lobbied for Illinois to allow cocktails to go. Initially, the state was only permitting the sale of full bottles in original packaging that could be included with non-alcoholic mixers. “When I realized we couldn’t sell cocktails I was pretty devastated,” she says. “Thinking about my numbers and comparing what I would want to sell bottles for, versus what other large liquor retailers are selling for, I realized there was no competition whatsoever. It’s basically a $100-plus difference between a bottle versus a cocktail. If you’re pouring 1.5-ounce portions from a 750 ml. bottle, it’s 16 cocktails. So even on the low side, if we sold a drink for $10, that’s $160 from that one bottle. Whereas if we’re selling the bottle, it’s probably going for maybe $20 or $30.”
Momose launched a petition in mid-March, which swiftly gained traction and became the Cocktails for Hope initiative. Working with legislators to help draft regulations that address safety concerns while allowing bars a necessary lifeline, Momose and countless volunteers saw their efforts pay off when the bill was signed by the governor at the end of May. (In Chicago proper bars are still waiting for mayoral approval). The new rules require cocktails be sold in rigid containers, sealed in a way that is tamper evident, and clearly labeled with everything from ingredients to liquor license number. “Also, third-party delivery is prohibited, but it’s a good thing because it creates more jobs in bars and restaurants because they can hire back staff to be delivery drivers,” says Momose. “The other one that was a big win for me is that there is no food requirement, because that would have excluded all of our favorite dive bars. The last thing I wanted was a law that only supported fancy cocktail bars and Michelin-star restaurants. I needed this to be for everyone.”
The Future of To-Go
More than 30 states have now allowed the sale of cocktails to go, with several already considering extending the provisions or making them permanent laws even as businesses gradually begin to reopen. “Cocktails to-go are an important lifeline for these restaurants. Certainly the ramp-up and reopening will be slow because, depending on the state, they all need to follow social distancing guidelines,” says Swonger. “So the cocktails to go provision will provide support during these uncertain, unique times.”
With bars and restaurants facing some of the strictest measures for social distancing upon reopening, such as being allowed no more than 25 percent capacity in some cases, the very survival of these businesses remains in question, as was starkly elucidated in The New York Times by Toby Cecchini, co-owner of two Brooklyn bars. Having continued supplementary income from selling cocktails to go could be the lifeline that bars and restaurants need to sustain through a very long recovery. “I think there are going to be folks who will not be comfortable going out for a really long time. There should be an option for people who choose to stay at home,” says Momose. “I also think that we won’t be able to operate at full capacity for years, potentially.”
But Momose also sees this moment as an opportunity to not simply help bars and restaurants recover, but to push the industry toward a more sustainable model moving forward. “I’ve been looking long and hard at the tipped model and wage discrepancies between front and back of house and how this is a chance to just do away with that completely,” she says. “But for that to happen, we need to be selling a certain amount of product at a certain price point, and I think a to-go model could help us do that.”
While the predominant rallying cry among those in the industry has been a push toward permanency for to-go cocktails, the strict regulations on to-go drinks from state to state speak to concerns of health and safety, and any permanent legislation would likely have to create new forms of oversight. “If they allow us to do this permanently, there is going to have to be smart regulation on it. Maybe if there is a new license you have to apply for, that would be good,” says Bell. “Because this is low-hanging fruit and free money for some people who might just put yesterday’s cocktail into a bottle that wasn’t sanitized and sell it to go. If there is ever some sort of governing panel, I’d love to be able to be a part of it. Because this is cool—it’s a novelty, but how do we make it safe?”
For now, bar and restaurant owners are simply utilizing all tools available to stay afloat as they navigate continually shifting regulations toward reopening, all while trying to maintain connections with their communities. “Seeing people on social media enjoying a Dutch Kills drink with Hundredweight ice that has kept its integrity all the way from the bar to their doorstep definitely feels like a small victory in a battle that we’ll be fighting for quite a while,” says Paty Boccato.
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