For more stories on TikTok, check out our whole series here.
If you’ve only vaguely heard of TikTok, maybe from a friend, a friend’s kid, or perhaps through the thin walls of your apartment, you might be wondering why this drinks publication would care about the social media app on which teens bop their heads to Jason Derulo songs. It’s because over the past year, TikTok has become so much more than a forum for choreographed dances. Not only has it changed the music industry and given us countless viral food hacks, but, whether you realize it or not, it’s also influencing what’s in your glass.
After the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, everyone and their neighbor joined the seemingly frivolous app for a much-needed escape, spiking downloads to over 2 billion worldwide, with over 1 billion monthly active users as of 2021. And if you’re not convinced that the pandemic is to blame, downloads of the app jumped from 718.5 million in 2019 to a whopping 987 million in 2020. As a result, the wide world of TikTok grew even larger to include millions of subsections and mini-communities for nearly every interest, including beans, retail, and, of course, drinks.
Drinks TikTok, or #DrinkTok, is where you will find all content relating to beverages — the good, the bad, and the bizarre. While it might seem flooded with rainbow shots and candy-rimmed cocktails, if you wade through enough of them, you’ll happen upon talented people making concoctions you’ll actually want to drink. And in a year when the world has been shut inside and bar and restaurant culture has been all but nonexistent, TikTok and other online social settings like it now have the power to not only create drink trends but also propel the drinks industry forward.
But how did we get here? And what do actual beverage professionals think? Let’s go back a few years…
It All Started With Gen Z
Invented in September 2016, TikTok is far from a new platform. But its prominence as a trend hub, influencing everything from the way we dress to the foods we eat, only became more relevant in the past year or so as TikTok’s main user base slowly but surely increased in age. The platform has become more relevant to drinks specifically as older Gen Zs — the ones born between 1997 and 2000 — reached the legal drinking age. With their drinks knowledge (or, at least, the ability to purchase alcohol legally) and a deep understanding of TikTok’s all-too-confounding algorithm, Gen Zs started sharing the creative cocktails and drinking hacks that brought DrinkTok into the mainstream.
And as the demographic changes across the platform, DrinkTok changes as well. In the world of drinks, TikTok’s quickly expanding age range has resulted in a vast assortment of well-composed, high-production cocktail how-tos, giant punch bowls made with cheap vodka and gummy worms, and everything in between.
A Resource for Innovation
According to Shane O’Neill, lead bartender at NYC’s Quality Eats and the mind behind the account @makemesomethingfun, the key to making a drink go viral on TikTok is more about aesthetics than flavor. It’s all about colorful ingredients, bright images, and eye-catching background, he says. “You can kind of drink it with your eyes.”
While trends and virality usually go hand in hand on TikTok, they don’t necessarily mean innovation. But Jack Schramm, former head bartender at NYC’s Existing Conditions, thinks social media may be the only place where innovation is occurring in the drinks space as of late. “The trend in bars in the United States right now is hanging on for dear life and try[ing] to stay open,” he says.
While we used to turn to cutting-edge bars to know what was cool to sip, the ones that have managed to stay afloat have had to stick to more simple, run-of-the-mill libations to keep their doors open. “The innovation is ‘make ends meet and sell enough of the classics to deplete the stocks in the liquor room and try not to place another order,’” Schramm says.
Though Schramm himself is not yet on TikTok and says his bartender friends typically stick to Instagram (likely because many of them think of TikTok as a space primarily for those under 21, he says), it’s our guess that it won’t be long before more professionals join.
The number of adults using TikTok more than doubled between March 2019 and March 2020, and of these adults, over 60 percent are above the age of 25. In fact, between January and April 2020, the number of adults aged 25 to 34 grew from less than 5 million, to almost 11 million.
Of course — though it often seems there’s nothing TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t know — there’s no surefire way to track whether the ages users are inputting into the app are accurate. Still, there’s no question that the app is gaining popularity among drinking-age users. And as more and more adults make their way onto the platform, either with cocktails in hand or ready to make them for an audience, the promise of inventive drinks content waiting to be mined — by those like Schramm and beyond — becomes even greater.
The DrinkTok of the Future
While TikTok drinks fads are beloved by home bartenders and quarantined drinks enthusiasts, maybe they will never make their way to high-end bartending relevancy. Perhaps when the general public emerges from their homes with Band-Aids on their arms, and our favorite bars finally reopen, trends in those bars and online will exist on entirely different planes.
Or maybe, before then, bartenders will begin to engage with TikTok, setting the trends from both behind the bar and through their screens. “I’m gonna make a TikTok account today, actually,” Schramm says.
If other high-profile bartenders follow suit, it’s more than likely that TikTok will maintain its role of being the platform where real-life trends start. O’Neill tells me that the cocktails he develops for TikTok have begun to influence the drinks he creates for customers at the bar. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to experiment with drinks at home to put onto the menu for Quality Eats,” he says.
Whether or not DrinkTok will reign supreme in years to come, it remains indisputable that the app has been, and will continue to be, a hub of innovation, creation, and collaboration for those who love drinks, in a time when those things have otherwise been next to impossible.