We drank copiously, if often in our own homes, in 2020. Even as the industry crumbled and hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs, the generosity and genius of the bar community continued to fill our proverbial to-go cups. We secured koozies around our Old Fashioneds. We tipsily Zoomed at happy hour and mixed cocktails just a screen away from some of the world’s best, and newly unemployed, bartenders. Now, let’s pour one out for all that was lost in 2020 and reflect on how we drank through it all.
1. Goodbye to the Bar Stool
Remember what it felt like to sit at your favorite bar, on an actual stool, facing a real live bartender? Or to meet new people through proximity and the warm glow of booze? Or sing a great song with 50 strangers? Or order just one more drink because you can’t tear yourself away from the night? This year gutted humanity from the bar experience. Doors closed, plexiglass barriers rose, and stools went into storage. Lots of folks continued to drink well, but without spaces to gather, camaraderie, solace and joy went missing.
2. Death of Great Bars
Global pandemics and landlords are indiscriminate in the bars they hobble and kill, and since March 2020, nearly 6,500 bars—dives, historic haunts, World’s 50 Best contenders and media darlings alike—have closed permanently. Storefronts are empty, and many thousands of workers and owners have been thrown into financial uncertainty. We can all hope that the spirit and culture of these third spaces will regenerate as bartenders return to work and new bars open. But there will never be another Saturn Bar in New Orleans or The Grey Lodge in Philly. Natasha David has laid to rest her firstborn, Nitecap. And the estimable team at Existing Conditions has scattered. RIP.
3. To-Go Drinks Here to Stay
In at least 30 states and Washington, D.C., to-go cocktails have been a lifeline for struggling bars, allowing them to rehire staff and limp through the pandemic. This summer, at least, the drinking public lined up, took over sidewalks and drank (often illegally) in the streets. They also took to “walktailing,” a phenomenon once reserved for nights out in New Orleans. While bar owners faced mercurial city mandates and policing, the to-go format unleashed innovations in packaging, batching, service and delivery that will outlive the pandemic.
4. All Hail the Canned Cocktail
Hard seltzer was a practice run for America’s full embrace of canned cocktails. Joining big brands such as Jack Daniel’s and cachaça maker Novo Fogo, Julie Reiner of Clover Club and Leyenda in Brooklyn now has Social Hour Cocktails. With LiveWire in Los Angeles, Aaron Polsky is partnering with top bar talent to develop, can and distribute cocktails to a national audience. To fuel their to-go programs, spots such as Travel Bar in Brooklyn, Contigo in Austin and Last Word Bar in Ann Arbor have started canning cocktails in-house.
5. Simpler Drinks for Trying Times
This was not the year of the nine-ingredient cocktail. With our brains busy trying to make sense of epidemiology and social upheaval, Americans wanted comfort food and drinks. And that suited bars just fine. As they cut back on labor and tightened budgets, streamlined Negronis, Old Fashioneds, Margaritas and Highballs emerged on nearly every corner, not to mention on the menus of some of the country’s best bars. The No. 1 seller at Occidental in Denver was a basil-cucumber Margarita riff. Clyde Common served frozen white Negronis, while at Katana Kitten, Masa Urushido poured Shiso Gin & Tonics and spiked Yuzu-Shio Lemonade.
6. Quarantini and the Home Bartender
In mid-March, the word “quarantini” felt depraved, like a craven attempt to offload booze onto a panicked public. But as Americans started to realize that bars in many areas would be closed for months and that they’d be stuck at home for just as long, the Quarantini, in all its varied forms, became a liquid salve for a bitter spring. Stanley Tucci shared his controversial shaken Negroni, and Ina Garten poured herself a massive Cosmo using a full bottle of vodka. Mail-order cocktail kits filled bar cart gaps, and bartenders found a new hustle and a way to help with virtual cocktail classes.
7. 0% ABV
We’ve come a long way from O’Doul’s, baby. With a public thirsty for complex booze-free drinks, the n/a/mocktail/zero-proof nonalcoholic category just keeps growing and getting more interesting, even if no one can agree on a name for it. Riding the bottled- and canned-cocktail trend, brands like Curious Elixirs and Casamara Club developed single-serve ready-to-drink mocktails. There are now whiskey substitutes, n/a aperitifs and a growing number of 0% ABV craft beers, and this year, Julia Bainbridge published “Good Drinks,” a guide to making alcohol-free drinks at home.