Many drinking establishments will have closed by then, and many more bartenders will have moved on to other industries, but we expect to once again drink in bars in 2021. The backbar and service style may look a little different, but there will be cheer as America’s drink makers and their patrons emerge from the bar industry’s darkest season since Prohibition. Here’s our best guess at what’s on the menu for 2021.
1. Buh-Bye, Communal Cocktails
The antiseptic power of alcohol simply isn’t strong enough. The communal cocktail—think Scorpion Bowls and the like—served in increasingly intricate and outlandish vessels, is dead. At least, that is, until everyone receives their COVID-19 vaccine shots and we begin to inch past the collective trauma of 2020.
2. Everybody Batch Now
With the benefits of streamlined labor, safer service and expanded to-go possibilities, batched drinks have new pandemic-era appeal, and in 2020, bartenders filled any vessel they could source—Mason jars, juice bottles, plastic bags, quart containers, fifths and cans—with premade cocktails. For some, 2020 was a batching crash course, but Dante, whose bar program has always been built on batched drinks, proves the trend’s staying power. The New York City bar snagged the No. 2 spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2020, and as winter edges from 2020 into 2021, Dante is popping up on the roof of New York’s Pier 17 with a menu of batched drinks served in bottles and Yeti thermoses. We expect other bars will continue to follow suit.
3. Endangered Local Spirits
In March 2020, America’s craft distillers stepped up to supply the nation’s health care workers, first responders and everyday citizens with hand sanitizer. It was a vital act followed by a press bonanza followed by a precipitous crash in sales. Even after pivoting to make up for tasting room closures and flagging on-premise business, an estimated 41%, or $700 million, of craft distillers’ sales have dried up. Without additional support, those kinds of losses will lead to distillery closures, industry consolidation and fewer interesting regional bottles on backbars and bar carts.
4. Escaping Tiki
While the canon of Tiki drinks will live on, Tiki bars, as we know them, are fast on their way to extinction as the industry continues to recognize Tiki’s problematic history and misuse of Indigenous iconography and language. Leaders such as Shelby Allison at Chicago’s Lost Lake have ditched the word “Tiki” altogether in favor of “tropical.” Newer bars are embracing grass-skirt-free tropical and nautical themes, and establishments like Sobre Mesa in San Francisco and 14 Parish in Chicago are telling stories of the Black and Caribbean diaspora through rum drinks and palm-frond-decked spaces. We’re escaping Tiki and entering a much more interesting period of drinking escapism.
5. Wobble Wobble
The last time most people were this excited about Jell-O shots was during their college years. But this year gave us a far more sophisticated and artful Jell-O shot courtesy of Jena Derman, formerly of Momofuku Milk Bar, Jack Schramm, formerly the head bartender at the late Existing Conditions and their company, Solid Wiggles. The duo suspends milk jelly flowers in shot form and larger jelly cakes, and the aesthetic—vintage, trippy and vibrant—is ready-made for Instagram fame. Wobbly copycats are sure to follow.
6. Pop-Up Glory Days
During the summer of 2020, the Death & Co team traded its windowless East Village flagship for a residency on the beach at the Sound View hotel in Greenport on Long Island. With Better Sorts Social Club on hiatus, bartender Naomi Levy is hosting the third season of her Hanukkah pop-up, Maccabee Bar, in Boston, and Double Chicken Please wrapped up three years of mobile bartending with pop-ups at Hunky Dory and Patisserie Fouet in NYC before finding a permanent home on the Lower East Side. Liquor brands, world-class bars and corporate cash fueled pop-up bars before the pandemic, and now free-agent bartenders and shifting real estate are expected to sustain the trend for the foreseeable future.
7. Let’s Hear It for Terroir
Terroir, that concept once relegated to high-minded wine talk, has thoroughly infiltrated the spirits world. We saw it first with rhum agricole and mezcal and now with whiskey, Korean sool and eau-de-vie. Even vodka, whose reputation thrived on neutrality, has claimed terroir as its own. In an increasingly competitive market, terroir gives products a story and sense of place—that je ne sais quoi imparted by soil, microbes, yeast and weather. Even as some distillers, such as High Wire and Firestone & Robertson, work to more clearly express terroir in their products, we can expect marketers to misuse the term and apply it to double- and triple-distilled spirits stripped of character and produced far from the fields in which their base grains/sugar cane/agave/potatoes have been harvested.
8. Bring On the Flair
Approximately 350 million people have downloaded TikTok this year, bringing global users to 850 million. While we were all stuck at home, the video app brought us the #wapchallenge and revived Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” TikTok also introduced young users to flair bartending with pros like @annelise_bartender7, @valentinluca, @yochew13_ and @flairbartendress twirling bottles, juggling shakers, balancing tins on their elbows and perfecting the forehead pour. Will the kids take flair bartending mainstream, for whenever we all can sit at a bar again? We sure would like to see that.