There was a time in 2020 when it seemed like the to-go cocktail might become so entrenched in American society that it would outlast the Covid-19 pandemic, whenever that ended. Yet now, with vaccines widely available in this country and most areas either fully resuming indoor dining and drinking or announcing dates when that will return, the to-go cocktail seems perilously close to being just another relic of a very strange and scary time.
That’s what Adam Teeter, Zach Geballe, and new co-host Joanna Sciarrino — VinePair’s executive editor — discuss on this week’s “VinePair Podcast.” Is there a future for to-go cocktails in America? Can they compete with the rise of RTD cocktails? And will drinking in public be ticketed and criminalized again after a year or more of a virtual free- for-all?
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: From Manhattan, New York. I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Joanna, what’s going on?
J: Hi, thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
A: Yeah, we’re happy to have you. So Manhattan, New York, huh?
J: I figured I had to make the distinction, the borough distinction.
A: Let the people know you’re in the other borough, I get it. You’ve been a listener of the podcast, obviously, so you know how we start these things off. What have you been up to? What have you been drinking? And you can go further back than just a week, if you want to.
J: Oh, great. I have a whole list. Recently, I went to Essex Market on the Lower East Side, which they recently reopened. There’s a Top Hops there, which is a really cool beer store. Their location on Orchard Street, I think, recently closed.
A: It did?
J: Yeah, I think it just happened.
A: Wow, I love Top Hops.
A: Nice, that’s cool. Anything else?
A: Oh, very cool. I feel you don’t see a lot of white Rioja. Obviously, it exists and you hear people talk about it, but I definitely don’t see it on lists. I rarely see it in wine shops. Zach, why do you think that is, man?
Z: Well, definitely in terms of the production of Rioja, most of it is red wine. And then a small, small, small percentage is rosé and white. Honestly, I think the other reason is that weirdly, a not insignificant number of peoples’ introduction to white Rioja is through López de Heredia, who is a classic producer. They age their wine for a decade before they release it. That style of wine period, and especially in the white and in the rosé category, is so hard for people to get their heads around. There’s almost no fruit character. It’s very oxidized, very nutty, and salty. It’s good, but it’s a little more analogous to drinking a sherry or something like that is what most people think of as white wine. That wine has become very popular for somms to put on lists and it’s a cool wine and all that, but if that’s your point of introduction to white Rioja, you’re going to think, “This is not for me.” I don’t know the specific one you mentioned, Joanna, but there are a lot of them out there that are really good. The López de Heredia is the one that I like, but it’s not a wine I would drink very often. In general, the white wines from Spain, from Rioja, from Ribera del Duero etc., are underappreciated because they don’t have the cachet that the red wines do and the other made varieties that people aren’t that familiar with. I don’t know, I think there’s not a lot of it made and then people’s point of an introduction is a weird wine.
A: Very interesting. Zach, what about you, man?
Z: No white Riojas for me lately, honestly — although now that you’ve said it, do I have one somewhere in this house? Maybe I do. Anyhow, the thing that I had most recently that I really enjoyed was a hazy IPA. We are getting to that time of year for me. Since we started talking about them on the podcast, I became a fan and this is from Fremont Brewing. A friend of mine who works there brought over some of their Head Full of Dynomite, which is good. They do a series so every release is different. They’re all labeled under the Head Full of Dynomite labels but each one is a different recipe with different hops or a different amount of various things. I haven’t been able to bring myself to dive too deeply into that, so that was exciting. Then, the other thing, and all the listeners will get more of this down the road. I just interviewed Matt Hoffman yesterday, who is the distiller at Westland Distilling here in Seattle. I think Westland is one of the boldest and risk-taking distillers in whiskey in the world, really. And I tried their just released Colere which is a single malt that they are making based entirely on a non-commodity variety of barley. You can hear a lot more about this if you listen to that episode probably in a month, so set your calendars. It is a really interesting product designed around creating a different economic reality for farmers and for distillers around these varieties of barley that have been pushed aside because they don’t fit the commodity system, even if they have lots to recommend them. So that was really cool.
A: OK, Westland. Very cool.
Z: What about you, Adam?
A: Oh, God, what about me? So I had a really amazing experience on Sunday night, and I snagged a reservation at Gage & Tollner, which is a new but old restaurant that just opened in Brooklyn.
J: It’s so hot.
A: It’s so hot right now. It was open in the 1800s. Actually, there were people that had said in the ‘40s, ‘50s, etc., that Gage & Tollner was the reason to go to Brooklyn. It was a really famous chophouse that was located on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. Fulton Mall was the first pedestrian mall in New York, so it’s really close to downtown Brooklyn. And the Fulton Mall starts from Borough Hall, which is where the borough president lives. For those of you who don’t know, our boroughs have presidents, too, although every borough knows their president except for Manhattan. I had no clue who the Manhattan borough president was.
Z: Does Joanna know?
A: Yeah, do you know who the Manhattan borough president is, Joanna?
J: I do not.
A: Exactly, I never did, either, but once you get to another borough, they say, “Oh, yeah, your borough president is X person.” Anyways, it starts at Borough Hall and then runs to Flatbush and it’s a pedestrian mall. There is this very historic building on the mall where Gage & Tollner has always been located. It was in operation for decades, decades, decades. And then it closed, I think, sometime in the ‘90s, and it sat vacantly. As legend has it, St. John Frizell, who owns a bar in Red Hook called Fort Defiance, he was apparently in the area, and thought, “It is actually a bummer that you can’t get a really good cocktail in this area of Brooklyn.” Then he saw the space and wanted to bring it back to life. Anyway, he’s brought it back to life with the team behind Insa, which is also a really hot restaurant in Gowanus. And it is this amazing restaurant. It’s super cool. They’ve taken a lot of the classic dishes the chophouse used to have, so you can obviously think copious amounts of shellfish and steak, but they also have a lot of really modern twists on things which are really delicious. And then, of course, the cocktail program is amazing. I had two ridiculously amazing cocktails. I had a perfect Martini, which was delicious. He made it in the 50/50 style, so it was equal parts gin and the vermouth. As a perfect Martini, you split the vermouth in equal parts so it was half-sweet, half-dry. It was really delicious and the perfect way to start the meal. Then, we had actually ordered a bottle of Costières de Nîmes.
Z:Costières de Nîmes, yeah.
A: We had that wine for the mains, but we had finished our first cocktails at the bar before we were seated. And so they recommended that we get another cocktail with the appetizers. And St. John is actually known for the Daiquiri.
Z: This could be Adam’s official cocktail of the year.
A: It was really, really awesome. It is my official favorite cocktail of forever now. It makes me want to only make Daiquiris. Again, if you listen to a podcast and you make rum and you want to send me some rum to make Daiquiris with, I’m not going to say no.
Z: Does this mean you demoted the Negroni?
A: I demoted the Negroni a long time ago.
Z: Really? Huh. I believe you talked a lot more about Negronis than Daiquiris until about a year ago, which is fine.
J: It’s too mainstream now, right?
A: Also, I just got tired of it. I made it a lot and I just got tired of it. I still like it once in a while. I did have a Negroni recently, actually on Friday night, when I took my niece out to dinner.
Z: She is adorable, by the way.
A: Yeah, and it was a neighborhood Italian restaurant. And that was the cocktail on the list. I got her mocktail, and she loved it. I just don’t make them as much as I used to. They’re too boozy for me. I mean I get that the Daiquiri’s boozy, too, but I don’t know, I don’t drink them as much as I used to. I drink a lot more cocktails now where the mixer is fruit, fresh fruit juice, than I do where it’s all booze. And I used to be very much an all-boozy cocktail person, and now I’ve definitely switched to a fresh fruit juice cocktail person, does that make sense? Joanna, what do you think? What kind of cocktails do you prefer?
J: That’s a good question. I don’t really discriminate. I tend towards boozier cocktails as well. I like a drink on the rocks versus something long or up. I love a Manhattan.
Z: Maybe you can name one after your borough president, whenever we figure out who they are.
J: Gale Brewer.
A: Oh, you looked it up! I didn’t mention but I should say that the other cool thing about Gage & Tollner is that on the second floor, they’re opening this place called Sunken Harbor Club. It’s supposed to launch sometime this summer. It’s going to be a speakeasy tiki bar, which I think is going to be super cool and really fun.
Z: Are we going to talk about to-go cocktails, Adam?
A: Well, I mean, that’s what we’re talking about right now, Zach. We talked about this before, but I think it’s a good time to revisit the world of to-go cocktails and what the future for them entails. Is there a future for to-go cocktails? We’ve obviously argued a lot that they should be made permanent. I think a lot of places have or are in the process of making them permanent, a lot of states. Then, the question becomes: Was it a pandemic thing or do we think to-go cocktails are going to be something that people order regularly? And this conversation I’m interested in having. What do you think, Joanna?
J: Well, I’m actually curious to know, Adam, from you, if you’ve talked to any restaurant owners or bartenders about it and if they really think that it’s a viable or a necessary path or revenue stream at this point.
A: That’s what’s really interesting. I believe some people do, but the ones that are a fan of them, I have found, are people who are located near parks or in family neighborhoods. I’ve seen that they’ve kept their to-go cocktail programs pretty active. One of the bars I’m thinking of is Elsa, which is located on Atlantic Avenue. They created a whole to-go cocktail program, right at the beginning of the pandemic. They do a lot of frozen drinks in those plastic juice bottles you’re used to getting that used to have really sugary juices or milk. Do you guys know what I’m talking about? They’re the thin, slender plastic bottle that has the plastic top that you take the weird ring off of it.
A: They’re still doing it and they’re really close to Brooklyn Bridge Park. They’re also located in Cobble Hill where there’s a lot of families. I could see someone on their way home picking up some cocktails to take for dinner, instead of having to deal with making them. Then other places that were doing them a lot, I don’t see as much. Look, a lot who I’ve talked to have said they’re happy to continue to do anything that will bring revenue in for the business, but there’s also the question of how much do you want to take away from all the activity that is happening in a lot of these bars? Do you have time to also focus on a to-go cocktail program? I think anyone is now going to be willing to make you a to-go cocktail if you show up and ask to take something home, right? If we walk by a bar and say, “Oh, let’s just see if they’ll give us them in styrofoam cups,” most people will now. Yet, my curiosity in all of this is what about the delivery of the to-go cocktail game. Is that going to stay because we’re doing a VinePair picnic tomorrow. Sorry, Zach.
Z: That’s OK.
A: I looked for cocktails to order for the picnic, and it was really hard to find anyone in my area anymore doing large format, like really hard. And I also didn’t really know where to go look. I looked it up on Seamless and Caviar. I’m setting up for the picnic so I do need them delivered. I understand that delivery is not great for these places and that I probably should go pick it up, but I’m not going to be able to and there were a lot of singles that were pretty expensive, right? We’re thinking like $13 to $15 a cocktail. Now, there was one place which I do love, The Hi-Hi Room who was doing doubles, but they were $22 a double. I really would love to do this, but I found it a lot harder than I thought I would. I thought it would be super cool, like, “Hey guys, we’re going to have a picnic. By the way, I got a few large format cocktails from X great Brooklyn Bar.” I just didn’t find it as easily as early in the pandemic when everyone was doing that and delivering it to your home in large 750-milliliter bottles.
Z: Well, I wonder if a lot of this is just we got to the point where the bulk of the population could reasonably feel safe going back into a bar. I think a lot quicker than we thought a year ago. You know what I mean? When you and I first were discussing this, we thought that to-go cocktails become more established because we both reasonably thought that 2021 — especially the spring, summer, and fall — would be more like 2020. Sure, people would want to do things together, they’d want to go to parks, they want to congregate but it wasn’t going to be safe for them to necessarily dine indoors or drink indoors. Yeah, there were places that had outdoor bars but they were crowded. They were going to have to have social distancing in place or should try to, at least. The honest truth is we got to a point where the vaccines were widely available to people, wonderfully, a lot quicker than we thought but it does mean that to-go cocktails, I am of the opinion that they are going to, by and large have already become and will remain this interesting relic of this period. In the end, I think you made some good points out there and I would add just one more, which is in addition to the challenge of producing, staffing, and supporting a program that is not in the space that you’re used to serving people that is oriented around delivery or to-go and especially delivery that is less profitable than to-go or in-person. The other reality is, and I think we saw this, putting together to-go cocktails required a different set of potential ingredients, different styles of cocktails that could work well. I think what we’re seeing is people want the bar experience that they’ve been missing. And that is what’s driving business right now for places that are reopening. Sure, maybe there are some people who want to have a get-together in the park, but more of my friends, that’s my Instagram feed every day, are more people taking shots in bars. Both literally taking shots of liquor, but also taking pictures of themselves in bars. I think a thing that we’ve all learned out of this is that, in the end, it’s great to have the flexibility and the ability to get things delivered at home, especially when for most people there isn’t another way to consume. We also suspected the moment it became safe or at least allowed, people would beat down the doors to do what they had been missing and I think we are seeing that for sure.
A: Mm-hmm. Joanna, what do you think?
J: Yeah, I agree with all of that. I also think that, just in terms of a viable revenue stream, seeing other places keep up their to-go cocktail program, like PDT now has a cocktail club. You can pay money to have this membership and to get four to-go cocktails from PDT, which is really cool because that also brings in this element of access to places like that. Why wouldn’t you want to get a PDT cocktail at home? Yes, there’s the whole experience of going to that bar, but if you can’t, you can have it at home.
A: Yeah, I think that makes sense. Especially for the really big-name bars, are you going to fight to get in, or do you just want to be able to have their high-quality cocktails at home? I hope it stays somewhat because when I do order in, once in a while on a Friday or Saturday night, it has been fun to have cocktails with the food. That’s been a blast, especially the places that have taken it more seriously like the HiHi Room. Their cocktails come in a can that they’ve just canned before they send it out. Then, you open the can and pour it over ice, and sometimes they send a big cube with the meal, which has been cool. The disappointing experiences are when it comes in that paper, corner-coffee-cart cup and you’re thinking “OK, well, this was still $15. This isn’t as fun.” However, the places that have figured it out, I think, and package it well, I would love for them to keep it going forever. I wonder if that’s going to be more of the restaurants than the famous cocktail bars, right? The famous bars aren’t really known for food, whereas the restaurants are and happen to also have good cocktail programs. The other thing I wonder is throughout this year, we all got really excited about to-go cocktails, but we also all discovered RTDs.
J: I was just going to say this. Can these compete with this growing offering of RTDs, some of which are very good?
A: Yeah, I don’t know. Because for the picnic tomorrow I bought RTDs. Astor had them, and I bought a bunch of spritzes and Gin and Tonics. I wonder if it just happened at the same time and the RTD is way more convenient, and you can get it in a lot of different places. I don’t know, because there are some really good ones. You’re right, there are some really good ones. Zach, have you seen more RTDs near you?
Z: Oh yeah. I think the fascinating thing for me about this is it’s always a little bit hard to say where they shade into one another. What you’re describing, Adam, where the bar is canning it and sending it to you, presumably that can has a relatively limited shelf life, depending on what is in the cocktail. You could probably stick it in your fridge and have it in a week, and I would imagine it would be just fine. Some of these RTDs have a shelf life, too. Hopefully, a longer one than that, but are we differentiating these two things because of where the point of origin is? The use case and the experience are pretty similar. I think there are great opportunities for to-go cocktails from a smaller cocktail bar or restaurant in some of the situations that you described, Adam. Close proximity to places where it’s something that’s easy to get to. Something that’s close by and can give them everything they need in a single serve or a couple of serving sizes. The other big unknown about all this, and I think this is where we will just have to wait and see, is whatever laws were put in place for public consumption of alcohol were mostly not enforced in a lot of parts of America. Because, again, it was widely recognized that people are going to want to gather. They’re going to want to drink. The only safe place to do this is outside. It’s not a priority to enforce. Will that be maintained once drinking can and has gone back indoors? That is an impossible question, I think, for us to answer and of course will vary depending on where in the country you’re talking about. Yet, this very thing you’re talking about doing, having a picnic with cocktails, there are lots of places in the country where that is technically illegal. The viability of to-go cocktails is also tied into whether that primary use case is even allowed.
A: Yeah, I guess that’s a really good point because I definitely believe the only way to-go cocktails have a future is if al fresco drinking becomes legalized. If we can become more like Europe and walk on the street drinking a beer or sitting in the park having a bottle of wine or a cocktail, then I think more people will buy cocktails to-go, right? New York City was just not enforcing it, but then I was seeing on social media last week people who were saying they were getting ticketed in Manhattan. Now, that’s not happening in Brooklyn, at least not yet. But there were definitely people on the West Side Highway at that park. What is that park called? It is just along the West Side Highway, west of Chelsea and the West Village.
J: Hudson River Park.
A: Yeah, people were saying they were getting ticketed.
Z: Well, I think someone somewhere needs to reach out to Gale Brewer and figure out what’s going on.
A: Seriously, it’s a $25 ticket. Don’t the cops have more important things to do? Also, at this point, if it’s legal to smoke weed outside, then maybe we can have a drink. That also doesn’t make a lot of sense. It seems very backward. Now, we’ve legalized marijuana, and it can be consumed in New York anywhere that cigarettes are smoked, which is lots of places. I guess in city parks, you are technically not allowed to smoke, but everyone does. I smell lots of cannabis when I go outside, so let people have a cocktail. Last weekend, on Sunday, I was walking through Fort Greene Park and there was this guy who was wearing suspenders, a bow tie, one of those white Prohibition-era, short-sleeve button-up shirts, and a cap. He was pulling a wheelbarrow, and he had water in the wheelbarrow. Then, when you walk by him, he’d say, cocktails, cocktails, cocktails. I stopped him and he had, under the water, Negronis and Aperol Spritzes. It was awesome. This dude was the best and I want to write about it. I got to go try to find him again. I hope he comes back to the park this weekend. Maybe I’ll see him. It was super smart and he told me he was an out-of-work bartender. He was making more money this way than he had been working at a bar.
Z: There you go.
A: Man, that was smart. At the beaches of New York, people have been trying to sell things like nutcrackers and stuff like that for years, so let this dude sell Negronis instead. Yeah, I think that the only way that happens is al fresco, right?
Z: I can’t believe you didn’t ask him if he had a Daiquiri.
A: I should have. I feel like I just failed.
Z: You didn’t tell him that Adam Teeter says Negronis are dead and where are your daiquiris? That was a missed opportunity.
A: Adam Teeter says “Negronis are dead.”
Z: Yeah, until someone picks that up.
A: I’m going to get an email from Campari saying, “Thanks, Adam Teeter.” Negronis are not dead. I just don’t make it that much, come on.
Z: The vision I have, right, and maybe it is not exactly your very stylishly attired gentleman walking through the park. But the vision I have is if to-go cocktails have a future, it is actually like that. It’s little stands, maybe a window at the side of a restaurant or bar. It’s part of a broader landscape of alcohol consumption in this country. Walking down the street having a drink is not viewed as some great moral panic. It’s not necessarily the drunken debauchery of Bourbon Street or something in New Orleans, but it’s a thing that adults can do because we’re adults, and you’re not any more of a liability to people if you get wasted in a bar and then stagger out into the street versus if you have a drink in the street. Hopefully, people are consuming much more responsibly than that. And who knows what could come out of this? You could have one of the best cocktails in New York City from something that a guy makes at a stand in the middle of a park in Queens. That could be a really cool thing. The food truck model, but taken to cocktails. Obviously, there are issues. There’s licensing and there’s food safety. All the stuff is real, I understand that. But the thing I don’t like about saying “RTDs will cover it all” is that, as we’ve discussed on the podcast before and covered in a lot of “Next Round” episodes, any of these categories are liable to be dominated by a few big brands, and that’s fine. Those big brands have a lot of power, and they have the ability to crowd the market. But I don’t want my only options for a pre-made, ready-to-drink cocktail — whether I buy at a store or get it from a bar — to be the same six brands that dominate almost everything else. I want there to be diversity for my own sake and for the sake of people who want to come up and make a go of it. Facilitating that is, I think, something that should be considered a goal in New York City, Seattle, and in places all over the country.
A: That makes sense. I agree with you. I think it would just be nice if we allowed this stuff to happen and we allowed people to be treated as adults.
Z: Well, maybe finally, we will get to that point.
A: I don’t know, man. Every single college town with a football team turns a blind eye to drinking in public every Saturday in the fall. You know what I mean? Every place turns a blind eye every once in a while, so why is it OK then, but not OK at other times? Just let people be adults. Anyways, guys, this was fun. I mean, Joanna, your first podcast! What did you think?
J: Fun, I had a great time!
A: I mean, Zach talks a lot.
J: You guys are a riot.
Z: You’ll come back and join us again next week, we hope?
J: Yes! If I’m invited?
A: Awesome, yes you totally are. I will see you both next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.