For more stories on TikTok, check out our whole series here.
On a chilly Friday in late February 2020, John Rondi and his son, John Rondi Jr., made Manhattans at a stone countertop in their kitchen, then headed to dinner in Manhattan proper, a 30-minute drive from their suburban home in northern New Jersey. Their destination: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Midtown, a mid-tier favorite of bridge-and-tunnel theatergoers and corporate seafood-tower types alike, where the big reds are enormous and the bone-in ribeyes go for $77.
John Sr. went to Del Frisco’s often — or at least he did before the pandemic hit. But that night, with Junior by his side and the pre-Covid steakhouse’s dinner service abuzz, something happened. Something profound. Something that would send his relationship with his son, and indeed his whole life, in an unexpected new direction. Feb. 21, 2020, you see, was the night TikTok’s beloved booze-slinger JohnnyDrinks was born.
“That was also the last time we went to Del Frisco’s in the city,” Senior told me in a recent interview. “I guess [that date] is even more profound now.”
‘Make me a drink’
A common misconception about TikTok is that it’s strictly for nimble teens to share choreographed dances, goofy inside-joke reaction videos, and other various cultural ephemera deemed interesting by the world’s always-online youngest generation. But one of the vibrant non-teen niches on the popular app — which dominates app stores’ rankings with over 2 billion downloads and 850 million monthly users — is the one about drinks appreciation, loosely organized around hashtags like #WineTok (23.9 million aggregate views as of writing), #brewing (10.2 million), and #cocktail (1.3 billion).
Plenty of those videos are the standard college-kid fare — wizard staffs, pouring challenges, and so forth. But there’s educational drinks content on the platform, too. “I’ve seen a master [distiller] go and talk about … the stories behind the alcohol, behind how it’s made,” says Molly McGlew, an independent social media strategist who personally spends about five hours a day on TikTok and advises consulting clients on their approach to the platform. Some of that informational drinks content — a few hundred videos’ worth, at least — is coming from the well-appointed house in North Jersey that the Rondis call home. Last February, before heading out to what would soon be their final Del Frisco’s visit before the coronavirus pandemic hit, John Jr. (I’ll call them Junior and Senior throughout the rest of this piece for clarity’s sake) walked into the kitchen to find his father fixing himself a cocktail. He took out his phone.
“My son says to me, ‘make me a drink,’ so I said ‘OK, I’m gonna make you a Manhattan,’” recalls Senior, 55, who has worked as a mortgage professional for 30 years. “As he’s videoing me, I’m not thinking anything of it.” Using a handheld butane torch, he fired up a smoking plank, eyeballed some Bulleit bourbon, bitters, and sweet vermouth into a mixing glass, then poured the concoction over a hand-chiseled ice cube into a stemless wine glass. Junior, 25, videoed this straightforward exercise in home bartending, added some basic captions on TikTok (“1. Smoke da glass”), and set the whole thing to Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young.”
Content created, he posted the video to a new social media platform his 18 year-old sister had told him about: TikTok. “That was the first video I posted. I never really expected to want to post TikToks,” Junior recalls. Drinks drank, and video live on Junior’s @JohnRondi account, the Johns Rondi struck out for a big group dinner at their Manhattan steakhouse of choice.
At some point during the Del Frisco’s repast, Junior checked his phone. “We’re sitting at dinner, and my son goes, ‘You know the video of you making the drink? It’s got over a million views,’” recalls Senior. Later that night, it was at 2 million. By the following morning, it was at 3 million, then 5. The father-son pair’s first outing on the video platform had gone bona fide viral on the hottest social media platform in the world. “That was my introduction to TikTok,” says Senior, laughing. “My son, with his very entrepreneurial mind, says ‘we got to do this again.’”
The Alcohol Everymen of North Jersey
As the pandemic took hold, the Rondis found themselves locked down at home like the rest of the world. So they began to spend more time filming content for their new TikTok handle. Scrolling through these early videos, you can watch the father-son pair shape the JohnnyDrinks routine in real time. The dialogue, drinks, and music change, but the plot is a set piece that remains more or less standard, and it goes like this:
- Junior, holding the camera, wanders up to Senior, who’s either already making a drink at the family’s home bar counter, or is quickly convinced to take up a mixing tin;
- Senior names the drink he’ll be making, then makes it, while Junior films the process and provides captions to identify the ingredients;
- Drink mixed, Senior toasts the camera, sometimes clinking glasses with his son.
You get the idea. The videos are straightforward and slightly corny, straddling lo-fi and high-cringe in the style of so much successful TikTok content. The lack of depth makes the videos ideal for the platform, but that’s not to say JohnnyDrinks’ content (which has, at press time, racked up over 11 million likes across a couple hundred videos) is without substance. The pair plow through the modern mixology canon with a clunky, endearing earnestness, conduct Q/A segments with their fans, and do education sessions where Senior schools Junior on, say, what makes a stout a stout. There’s also the occasional non-alcoholic smoothie recipe video in there, for anyone following a drinks account who doesn’t drink. “Our audience is pretty broad,” says Senior.
Like all successful creators, the two have developed little gags and callbacks that function like Easter eggs for their 685,000 followers. Senior clinks his ring against pretty much every liquor bottle he picks up on camera (this is “tap the bottle,” in JohnnyDrinks parlance.) Sinatra’s light baritone scores many of the clips, giving them a patina of anachronistic Italianate lounge swank.
And then, of course, there’s “smoke da glass.” The ur-caption in the JohnnyDrinks oeuvre is maybe the purest distillation of the brand the Rondis are building, a performance that straddles the line between amateurism and expertise, between superficial consumption and actual craft. “You do things like that first, to catch someone’s attention,” says Senior, who is a longtime admirer of the technique and the spectacle it creates. After seeing a mixologist smoke a stemmed cocktail glass many years ago, he decided he would do likewise. “I said then, ‘I’m making that mine.’”
To state the obvious: Smoking cocktails is in no way proprietary to JohnnyDrinks. But while glass-smoking might be old news to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of modern mixology, it’s a novel visual for a TikTok audience that’s new to cocktails — that is, the exact sorts of viewers that the Rondis’ accessible, undaunting drinks content resonates with so well.
Plus, the theatrical flourish can also help paper over imperfections in a drink, which makes it an even better crucible by which to understand JohnnyDrinks’ everyman appeal. “We’re not experts,” says Junior. Watch even a couple of the Rondis’ videos, and that quickly becomes apparent. While Senior is clearly a knowledgeable, experienced, and curious drinking enthusiast — “I’m a savvy guy, in that there are not many liquors I haven’t tried,” he says — he is no trained professional. Ice cubes may splash, cocktails may wind up in stemless wine glasses. “You’d be able to catch on pretty quickly that we’re not as experienced” as actual bartenders, says Junior.
Senior, from whom most of the on-camera booze info flows, is quick to agree. But what the scrappy, self-taught amateur lacks in professional flourish, he makes up for with the unmistakable delight of a genuine home entertainer. He’s accessible, engrossing — even a bit adorable.
“There’s a side of me that’s creative, and I do things like smoking the glass, rimming the glass, and putting some other things [in a drink] to give it some sort of appealing, artistic look,” Senior says. “I think that comes natural to me because I like hosting.”
Building a Brand, and a Business
If Senior is the talent of JohnnyDrinks, Junior is the talent manager, looking for angles behind the scenes. The son, like his father, is obviously possessed of a considerable business acumen. But their paths diverge from there. Senior’s career traces a corporate trajectory; Junior’s professional perspective, by contrast, has been forged in the fires of online entrepreneurship.
At 25, Junior has grown up in a media ecosystem criss-crossed with blurry lines between influencer and agency, amateur and professional, personal and public. Much has been made about the “influencer economy” and the “creator class,” and Junior is clearly well versed in both. To wit, JohnnyDrinks isn’t his only hustle, he also operates an online marketplace app, STUNITED, where students at schools across the country can engage in what he calls “academically bartering.” (A disapproving professor might call it “students paying other students to do their homework”; tomato, tomato.) The app is rated well by 100-plus reviewers on the Apple App Store and recently hit Google Play.
“He’s a true entrepreneur, from high school through college,” says Senior proudly.
As we talk, a comparison to another very online, very Jersey hustler who used booze-based social media as a springboard to broader entrepreneurial aspirations comes to mind. I ask Junior: Is JohnnyDrinks a new-age version of the YouTube channel that Gary Vaynerchuk used to catapult himself from North Jersey wine salesman into A-list hustler?
“He was the person that really started personal branding and branching out from what you’re doing” into other enterprises, says the younger Rondi. “I don’t take everything he says as ‘word,’ the way I think a lot of entrepreneurs do. That being said, if I met him, I would be like, ‘You’re the absolute man.’”
No surprise, then, that when the conversation turns to JohnnyDrinks’ business opportunities, Junior slips easily into the Gary Vee vernacular that so many Fiverr strivers have made their own. He speaks about the “tailwind” the Rondis’ account enjoyed in its early days, when TikTok seemed to be “optimizing” cocktail and cigar content in what Junior hypothesizes was a bid to boost credibility among non-teen users. He muses about the value of “eyeballs” on TikTok compared to older platforms like Snapchat and YouTube (for now, “TikTok is probably the least valuable … but it’s not going to stay that way.”) As early adopters on TikTok, says Junior, “we have a unique opportunity to scale and be different.”
What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means selling merch. “Smoking da glass” makes for compelling visuals on TikTok, but it also doubles as a catchy, marketable slogan. On their website, Junior sells T-shirts emblazoned with the motto, plus smoking boards for fans who want to emulate Senior’s charring routine at home. They also sell the “Johnny Drinks Drinks Guide,” a $15 PDF (currently on sale for $9.75) that promises to “walk you through the process” of making cocktails seen on the pair’s TikTok channel.
How many have they sold? “I would say between 750 and 1,000,” says Junior. For those of you keeping score, that would be at least $7,300 in pre-tax revenue — most of which is pure profit, because as countless LinkedIn entrepreneurs and mindset bloggers will tell you, e-books are an extremely low-overhead, high-return way to generate passive income.
Another way to earn cash is sponsored content with alcohol brands, which are currently banned from advertising on the platform. JohnnyDrinks has partnered with Savage & Cooke, a boutique distillery in California’s Bay Area owned by winemaker/entrepreneur Dave Pinney (of The Prisoner/Orin Swift Cellars fame) on an exclusive blend of Burning Chair bourbon. The first barrel sold out, marking the beginning of what Junior hopes will be “a long-lasting, synergistic relationship.”
That quote comes from the bourbon’s description on Country Wine & Spirits, a San Diego liquor store that shares an investor with the tequila brand SWOL. “They asked us to try it out, and it’s definitely really good tequila,” said Junior. “So what we do is we’ll push it.” A recent video shows Senior touting SWOL as his “favorite sipping tequila” alongside offerings from Don Julio, Dos Artes, and Clase Azul.
In a follow-up to my hour-long interview with the Rondis, Junior clarifies that JohnnyDrinks takes a cut of sales on both the bourbon and tequila as part of deals that are brokered by a marketing firm he declines to name. There’s also Gothic Gin, a ubiquitous-on-TikTok clear liquor that has racked up millions of views on the platform thanks to popular drinks creators like JohnnyDrinks. “They reached out to us, we loved their gin, so we formed an agreement,” he says. “That is a promotion.” He declines to ballpark the revenue the Rondis earn through these deals, telling me he’s worried other brands might try to lowball them on future deals.
TikTok’s community guidelines don’t explicitly bar creators from promoting alcoholic beverages (only selling and trading them), but the Federal Trade Commission’s rules about influencer endorsements require clear disclosures if material relationships — i.e., business deals — exist between the promoter and the promoted. Creators often do this using hashtags like #sponsored or #ad. I wasn’t able to find such disclosures on a spot-check review of nine recent JohnnyDrinks videos that feature the brands mentioned above.
I ask Junior if he knows about the FTC guidelines, or if he’s looked into whether the account’s videos might be in violation of them. He tells me he’s never heard of the guidelines. Then he says yes, sometimes he uses the #ad tag, but usually makes those videos private after they’ve been published for awhile because they don’t perform as well as the duo’s organic content. (One such video that remains visible on the account, a partnership with Empress Gin, appears to have done pretty well, racking up strong metrics compared to other JohnnyDrinks posts despite the #ad and #sponsored tags in its caption.) “You don’t need to know about the money I’m making,” says Junior. “I don’t want anybody else getting in trouble.”
Neither Country Wine & Spirits, Gothic Gin, nor SWOL Tequila responded to VinePair’s requests to comment for this story. Lauren Blanchard, the general manager of Savage & Cooke, told me that the distillery has an informal relationship with JohnnyDrinks and has compensated the Rondis with a “small marketing fee” for their efforts to sell their branded barrels. “We are looking forward to expanding the way that we work together [with the Rondis] this year and in the years to come,” she said.
To be clear, JohnnyDrinks is hardly the only TikTok creator doing promotions that appear to skirt the FTC’s regulatory requirements. This sort of breakage, viewed charitably, is simply the inevitable byproduct of what McGlew, the social strategist, calls the young platform’s relatively “wild West” nature. Entrepreneurial creators rapidly become popular and begin cashing in before getting educated. (This is a familiar story on every emerging platform, TikTok very much included.) But they do get educated, because there’s money to be made. And not just from small spirits brands, either. One recent post from JohnnyDrinks, uploaded to TikTok after my interviews with the Rondis, is a video in partnership with a primetime show on the Food Network.
Father and Son, Having Fun
Whatever the revenue the Rondis are earning off JohnnyDrinks, it’s probably not transformative. (Also, for what it’s worth, if their videos are any indication, they appear to be a family of considerable means anyway.) But it’s not nothing, either. In our first interview, I ask the Rondis how they divvy up the spoils of JohnnyDrinks’ budding celebrity, and Senior quickly jumps in.
“That’s interesting you ask,” he says, with that pitch-perfect kayfabe irritation that, among the North Jersey baby boomers I grew up around, at least, tends to be thin cover for deep fondness. Junior is quick to counter: “He said, ‘Look, you take all the money, and I’ll take all the liquor.’ So he takes all the bottles and I take the dollar revenue. I didn’t set that standard, he did!” In the background, I can hear Senior laughing.
This, I think, is the nexus of the JohnnyDrinks magic. The top-shelf liquor bottles, colorful cocktails, and democratized demonstrations make for compelling content, that’s certain. But after watching dozens of the Rondis’ videos, I realize that it’s the chemistry of father and son, the dynamic of a 20-something striver shadowing his successful father living the good life, that actually makes the account such a fun, aspirational follow for over half a million fans.
And why not? JohnnyDrinks is a window into a halcyon world where the drinks are always strong, Sinatra is forever on the stereo, and family pride is always on display. In Del Frisco’s Double Eagle terms: Cocktail recipes are the steak, but it’s the Rondis themselves who provide the sizzle.