The coronavirus has taken cocktails to a new frontier: off-premises.
Of the big three alcoholic libations, spirits poses the most difficult challenge for restaurants and bars when it comes to off-premises business. Beer can be packaged in cans or growlers, and wine is sold by the bottle. In many states, alcohol sales are heavily regulated with consumers only able to purchase hard liquors through ABC stores. But even in more lax areas, it’s rare for consumers to make a beeline to a restaurant or bar to buy a bottle of gin. Guests at restaurants often order a concoction they couldn’t easily mix at home rather than a neat spirit.
But cocktails don’t go beyond the four walls of a restaurant or bar, right? Not necessarily.
“Everything is changing by the minute. It’s kind of the Wild West,” says Kyle Noonan, co-owner of Dallas-based restaurant group, FreeRange Concepts. In early April one of the group’s brands, The Rustic, added cocktail kits to its to-go options. In less than two weeks, the move had already made a significant impact, namely doubling sales at The Rustic’s three locations.
As with any beverage program, no one size fits all for off-premises. Laws vary widely by state, often limiting what types of cocktails and spirits operators can offer. In March, Texas temporarily loosened its liquor regulations to allow for takeout and delivery of such beverages from businesses beyond government-regulated ABC retailers. That said, the drinks in question had to remain sealed, making ready-prepared cocktails out of the question.
So while the margarita kit may be a hit with The Rustic’s customers, Noonan imagines prepared drinks could do even better. “I know we Texans would really love to see frozen margaritas to-go,” he says, adding that when the governor first announced the changes, there was some confusion around the particulars. So for about a 48-hour period, several Mexican restaurants were selling carryout frozen margaritas, with lines out the door, before lawmakers clarified.
Beyond the more conservative South, states like New York rolled back their regulations to allow for pickup and delivery of mixed drinks, provided the businesses also sold food. In Manhattan, gastropub and cocktail bar The Jeffrey pivoted to sell craft beer by the can and growler, as well as nearly a dozen signature cocktails.
“Our philosophy is, ‘If you can’t come to The Jeffrey, we’ll bring The Jeffrey to you,’” says partner Colm Kirwan. “We basically went through our inventory and curated our initial menu based off of what we had on hand. When we made the decision to make the cocktails to order, it was easy to expand the menu.” Thankfully the restaurant was preparing for a busy spring and had plenty on hand.
The drinks range from the classic Negroni and Manhattan to house specialties like the Fuzzy Magic Buzz (tequila, Campari, grapefruit, and bitters) and the Banana Stinger (rye, chili and banana liqueurs, and mole). For The Jeffrey, figuring out the best carrier for its concoctions was the biggest hurdle to clear. Ultimately it decided on 5-ounce swing-top bottles for the cocktails along with garnishes packaged separately.
The bottled cocktails are made fresh-to-order with the intention that customers would enjoy their drink soon after, although Kirwan says they can be refrigerated for a couple of days, depending on the cocktail.
In Chicago, 16” on Center was one of the rare hospitality groups that already had an off-premises alcohol program prior to COVID-19. When Revival Food Hall (one of the group’s properties) shuttered, 16” on Center moved its Pocket Cocktails from Revival Café-Bar to sister concept Dusek’s Board & Beer, which continued offering elevated comfort fare via takeout and delivery.
Since introducing the Pocket Cocktails two years ago, Revival has sold about 2,000. Despite the change of venue, demand for the pocket cocktails remained robust—thanks in part to the added delivery option. By mid-April, Dusek’s had already whizzed through 200–300.
“As a happy hour bar, Revival Café-Bar has these high peaks of service, and I was trying to figure out ways to give a great-quality product,” says bar manager Mark Phelan. “Cocktails in general are always something that are memorable when they’re a little more tactile. … If you can give someone a flask that has our branding and logo on it, there’s added value there.”
At any given time, 16” On Center offers two varieties of Pocket Cocktails. The perennial Rhuby Slipper features strawberry-infused bourbon, Fernet Jelinek, Fino Sherry, and Amaro Meletti. The second cocktail changes with the seasons and was most recently Sweater Weather (cinnamon apple–infused bourbon, Palo Cortado Sherry, Fernet Jelinek, and Cynar 70). Revival Café-Bar had also been tinkering with a lighter, gin-based cocktail for spring right before the dine-in bans took effect.
Unlike the to-go libations at The Jeffrey, Revival’s Pocket Cocktails are prepackaged and less perishable. “We thought, ‘How do we make something that is highly drinkable, so not quite as boozy as an Old-Fashioned, but also something that is shelf-stable and maybe even gets better with time?’” Phelan says. After sampling the first batch of cocktails each week for three months, the team agreed that the drinks did in fact taste best toward the end.
Like the Pocket Cocktails themselves, Phelan hopes the off-premises program continues to improve with age. “The thing that excites me the most is the opportunity to make these drinks for people and package them up and deliver them but maybe take that a step further,” Phelan says. He envisions 16” on Center sending bartenders off-site to demo how to make various cocktails. “You’re bringing your vibe to that place and adding a little bit more value,” he adds.
In more alcohol-restricted markets, operators like Noonan and Kirwan would like to see the temporarily eased regulations become permanent.
“Carryout is here to stay because I think the consumer is waking up to the convenience of it, and I think the restaurant industry as a whole is waking up to the additional revenue stream,” Noonan says. “I’d venture to say the state will see the additional revenue that [off-premises alcohol] can generate, and as long as it’s keeping the public safe then I think they’d be hard-pressed not to allow it.”