What makes a pop-up bar so irresistible? Maybe it’s the over-the-top decor evoking feelings of nostalgia or a sense of urgency drawing us in because the fleeting experience only lasts a few weeks. Or maybe it’s the fact that any concept with long waits and that much buzz must be worth it. One thing’s for sure: Pop-ups continue to make cocktail fans giddy with anticipation.
Washington, D.C.’s Drink Company has done four pop-ups in the last year and a half, including back-to-back Christmas-themed bars in 2015 and 2016. The initial idea stemmed from the bar’s good friend Greg Boehm, the owner of Cocktail Kingdom, Mace and Boilermaker.
“He turned Mace into a yuletide dream in 2014 and melted the hearts of all the New York grinches,” says CEO Angie Fetherston. “D.C. can be a city that leaves people far from home, and we loved the idea of giving folks some warmth during the holidays.” Cue Miracle on 7th Street, during which Drink Company’s sherry-and-ham bar Mockingbird Hill was transformed into a holiday wonderland, with one bar decorated in gold, silver, white and red for Christmas and a Hanukkah hideout glowing with blue lights and a dreidel chandelier.
That first year the bar closed for three days while employees and volunteers strung lights and garland, crafted white puffy tissue paper flowers and installed a gold dinosaur nativity scene on the back bar. “We thought we would bring some increased business in a traditionally slow month, and we were really in it for the spirit of the season,” says Fetherston. They only had one bartender scheduled for the first Sunday and Monday shifts, but after word quickly spread, they had to hire and train more employees on the fly. “We never imagined how popular it was going to be.”
The whole team contributed ideas for drinks, names, glassware and garnishes. The result was nine cocktails priced at $12, all named for holiday references both obvious and obscure. The Gretchen, Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen (from Mean Girls) combined moscatel sherry with dry curaçao, spiced cranberry syrup and sparkling wine, and the ode to Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story, the You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, mixed blended scotch, pisco, Drambuie, lemon curd, pistachio orgeat syrup and gingerbread cream.
This past December, Drink Company expanded to include the two bars adjacent to Mockingbird Hill (which now touted an Icelandic theme with narwhals, a tribute to the Northern Lights and a glass mosaic menorah in the Hanukkah Hideout). Portraits of goats wearing holiday sweaters filled the walls of whiskey bar Southern Efficiency, while pitcher-cocktails-and-oysters bar Eat the Rich was an homage to Netflix’s Stranger Things, with retro Christmas lights, faded wallpaper graffitied with the alphabet and a portraits of the show’s character Barb.
“The more we do, the better we get, the higher we set the bar,” says Fetherston. So while the first year close friends dedicated endless hours turning ideas into reality, now a special projects team had two full-time employees dedicated to these installations, with planning starting months in advance.
This past spring saw a pop-up inspired by a seasonal ritual in the District. “Cherry blossom season is such a beloved celebration in D.C. we wanted to pay homage to it,” says Fetherston. But it came with an unexpected surprise. While Southern Efficiency was awash in pink paper blossoms, an origami crane chandelier draped in pink and white ribbons and a collection of maneki-neko (Japanese waving cats), Mockingbird Hill next door paid tribute to another Japanese export, Super Mario Bros., with animatronic mushrooms, glowing mystery boxes, piranha plants, green tunnels, bartenders dressed like Mario and Luigi and drinks with Japanese ingredients.
Top-sellers included the I Call Yoshi!, with sake, Midori, Green Chartreuse, melon and cucumber, topped with a Hello Kitty matcha marshmallow (the bar’s initial order of 4,000 wasn’t enough). And there’s the Neko Colada, with miso-infused rhum agricole, falernum, coconut and citrus, served in a ceramic Maneki-neko cat mug.
“Both of these drinks connected to the theme on many different levels, from the ingredients down to the glassware,” says Taylor. “All the cocktails embodied the theme, and that is exactly what we wanted.” Between 800 and 1,200 guests came through the doors each evening, and staff sold 1,000 cocktails a night. The staff, 80 percent of which was temporary, underwent three days of intense training.
Though a proposed Joe Biden pop-up proved to be an April Fool’s joke, disappointing drink fans all around the region, Fetherston hints that other themes are in the works. “More pop-ups are coming, but you’ll have to wait and see.”