The world of pop-up bars has hit a fever-pitch. Almost daily, drinkers across the country are beckoned into another pop-up bar. Some of these ephemeral experiences herald in new products or announce new incarnations of existing ones. Others spread holiday cheer—Greg Boehm’s Miracle concept commandeers more than 95 bars across the world each December since its first inception at NYC’s Mace in 2014 at its original Ninth Street location.
Others cater to pop-culture fandoms. Washington, D.C.’s Drink Company has hosted both a “Game of Thrones”–themed pop-up bar and “Stranger Things”–themed PUB called The Upside Down. The company also transformed D.C.’s Mockingbird Hill into a “Super Mario Bros.”–themed bar and created its third-annual Cherry Blossom PUB this spring. The Rookery in Chicago has had a “Big Lebowski” pop-up, and the former Eat the Rich space in D.C. has hosted a royal-wedding-themed PUB. There has even been the pop-up Arctic Bar in the North Pole, and coming up this summer in Denver is the Lego-themed Brick Bar.
More serious cocktail bars see pop-ups as a PR move, using the activations to fuel their campaign for some of the industry’s top accolades. Dante, The Dead Rabbit and other top bars pack their shakers and send their staff out into the world—some to more than 20 locations a year—to preach the gospel of the bar. The efforts bring the bar to a global audience, helping propel them from a bar to a brand. Which leaves the question, have pop-up bars become a necessary part of the cocktail landscape?
Opening a bar can be an intimidating process riddled with uncertainties: Will the menu work? Will you be able to introduce your concept to a new neighborhood or city? Can you manage the overhead?
Before opening Death & Co‘s second location in Denver, the team workshopped in 10 different cities before solidifying a new home, testing the crowd, market and location options in each one. Toronto’s Mother opened this spring, with a menu built around the concept of fermentation, an unsexy topic to the average imbiber. The menu was test-driven when the team took over a nearby bar weeks before opening, calling upon the discerning drinkers of the city.
“We’re looking for any feedback from the event regarding everything from operations to drinks and guest experience,” says Mother proprietor Massimo Zitti, formerly of BarChef. “We want to grow and get better at the things that we do, and pop-ups are great spaces for that.”
As The NoMad team prepared to open the brand’s Los Angeles incarnation in 2017, it was a three-week pop-up that helped test the waters of the new market. The location: the much-revered Walker Inn. “That pop-up took all of the elements that make NoMad the NoMad and brought them to a place that was familiar to and beloved by people in L.A.,” says The NoMad L.A.’s bar manager Adam George Fournier. For staff who had uprooted from New York to join the opening team, the pop-up helped them acclimate to the city.
The pop-up format worked for The NoMad team in L.A. Now, weekend nights are reserved for the themed takeovers of The Lobby Bar. In April, the Mamma Guidara’s pop-up (a nod to NoMad owner Will Guidara’s mom) paid homage to classic New York red sauce joints. With a NoMad twist, naturally—drinks included limoncello fountains and Sno-Cone Negronis. May brought The Derby Bar, serving Georgia julep milk punches and Armagnac juleps. This month, a day at a baseball game is the theme—think large-format drinks served out of baseball helmets.
The whimsical menus aren’t as serious as the regular bar’s menus, but coming up with irreverent theme-appropriate cocktails every month, especially to The NoMad’s rigorous standards, keeps the team on its toes. “We make sure that the drinks are delicious, deliberate and thoughtful,” says Fournier. “There’s a sense of playfulness. In a way, it feels less like trying to create a NoMad menu and more like inviting you into the NoMad R&D process.”
Across the country, PUB has made pop-ups its bread and butter. After Drink Company (proprietors of D.C.’s Columbia Room and Reverie) hosted the very first Miracle location outside of New York in 2014, the experience was irresistible. “We’ve always created great cocktail bars,” says co-owner Derek Brown. “Now we get to do it many times a year. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding. We create something festive and beautiful, then we close up shop and start all over again. Now, I almost feel like we’d get bored doing one concept year-round.” Drink Company’s “Stranger Things”-themed pop-up included an animatronic demi-gorgon. There were lines around the block.
PUB now employs two designers to help bring each concept to life. For its “The Game of Thrones” pop-up, Drink Company transformed three of its spaces into scenes from the show, complete with a massive Weirwood tree and 3D dragon. The event brought in 90,000 customers over the nine-week run time. In PUB’s main location this spring, the Cherry Blossom bar served guests Japanese-accented drinks like Toki Highballs or Calpico Coladas under a canopy of tens of thousands of cherry blossoms. Currently, it’s The Lemon Grove bar.
At New Orleans’ Couvant, a pop-up was a perfect solution to an excess of space. The beverage team got its hands on the restaurant’s unused verdant courtyard and opened Bisous Wine Garden. It highlights off-the-beaten-path wines from sustainable or small-scale vineyards.
A big draw to pop-ups is that they can make a bar a media darling. “We’re always looking to expand the brand and expose more people to what we do,” says Death & Co’s Tyson Buhler. Touching down in a new city, if only for a few nights, brings Death & Co to an audience far beyond the East Village.
Liquor brands, too, have caught on to the fact that pop-ups can spark a media frenzy. Brands are clamoring to get more creative with their activations. Scotch brand Craigellachie has a tiny traveling bar to introduce the new 51-year-old expression. The bottle is unavailable to purchase and can only be sipped if fans can track down the bar.
Monkey 47, a bartender-loved German gin, launched a wildly immersive pop-up-bar-slash-retail-experience in New York City this spring to introduce itself to target consumers. Visitors could sip on gin cocktails but also engage with educational touchpoints, purchase merch or hop in the social-media-friendly photo booth. Often brands bring in noted bartenders as a draw.
Though rigorous menu design and staff training occurs at each of Death & Co’s pop-ups, they need not be for the overly serious. “We’re essentially just throwing a party, whereas opening a permanent location is building a business and all the trappings that go along with that,” says Buhler.
This is amplified by the sense of industry camaraderie. “There are amazing bars all over the world, and while everyone does things differently, we love going to places that share our values and understand what we do,” says Buehler. “When we get together with a bar that has the same goals as us. It can be an incredible experience for the guest.”
The fleeting nature of pop-ups also has its cons. Staffing can lead to missteps. Flying out staff pulls them away from their primary jobs, and for the host bar, bringing in a new team leaves staff displaced.
Guest expectations must be managed as well. Visitors enamored with the Death & Co brand can be disappointed when the pop-up doesn’t feel like the original Manhattan speakeasy. “Often we do events at bars that couldn’t be further from the original,” says Buhler. “But that’s part of the fun. Whether we’re at a beachfront bar in Miami or a hotel in Hong Kong, we want people to have a good cocktail and great experience. We love to be there to provide them just that.”