For more stories on TikTok, check out our whole series here.
Within my first few hours spent on the popular social media app TikTok in early 2021, I thought I had cracked the code. That is to say, I thought I understood the formula content creators were using to make their cocktail videos go viral. Based on what I was seeing, I wasn’t impressed.
All the drinks that landed on my “For You” feed — the scrolling homepage where the app serves videos from strangers it deems the user will enjoy — were neon-colored, usually vodka-based, and invariably topped with anything from Prosecco to soda. TikTok, it seemed, had a thirst for the bright, boozy, and bubbly. These conclusions only sparked more questions: Why, in 2021, was blue Curaçao so prolific on the platform? And when did Skittles-infused vodka become a bar cart staple?
When I presented my findings to the VinePair team, those with more experience on the platform laughed at my naivete. There was and is a whole world of complex cocktails to explore, I was told, with drinks assembled by proficient home and professional bartenders. To encounter them, I simply had to spend more time on TikTok and allow the algorithm to learn more about me.
An algorithm is defined as “a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end.” With the rise of search engines and social media, the term has become commonplace in our day-to-day lingo. Most of us probably don’t have a deep understanding of exactly what an algorithm is and how they work, but might be familiar with the fact that they influence everything from the search results when we Google something to the posts that appear most prominently on our Facebook or Instagram feeds. To paraphrase that above definition for these purposes, social media algorithms solve the “problem” of figuring out what we users most want to see, with the end accomplishment of keeping us engaged on the platforms for the longest possible time.
Within the realm of social media platforms, TikTok’s algorithm garners more attention than any other. By all accounts it is the app’s major selling point — the reason TikTok broke the record for most downloads of a social media app in a single quarter with 315 million installs in Q1 of 2020, and the reason TikTok attracts close to 1 billion monthly active users just four years after it launched. TikTok’s all-powerful algorithm performs so well in recommending content that users stay glued to it for an average of between 45 and 52 minutes per day. The program not only impacts everything that users view on their For You feeds, but is simultaneously influenced by everything they do on the app. The more time you spend on TikTok, the more the invisible, ever-present force learns about you — and in turn the better curated its selection of videos becomes for you.
As a fledgling user learning these facts, I realized I could dedicate my time on the app to testing how long it would take for TikTok to learn that, among other things, I enjoy classic cocktails and fine spirits. Less blue Curaçao; more Buffalo Trace, please. Given the apparent power of the algorithm, TikTok should eventually serve me the “best” (read: most serious) drinks content. In turn, I would discover the actual state of drinks culture on the platform, and find out if there was more to “#DrinkTok” than Giggle Juice and Blue Lagoons.
Despite the mythical status of its algorithm, TikTok has published some fairly extensive literature on how it works, including a June 18, 2020 article titled “How TikTok recommends videos #ForYou.” For those looking to actively improve and train their feeds, it provides the blueprint.
According to the article, TokTok first recommends videos based on the interests users input when they sign up for the app. It then fine-tunes recommendations based on how users interact with the content featured on their For You page (FYP).
These interactions range from the videos a user likes, shares, or comments on; the accounts they follow; and the content they create. TikTok also gauges users’ interest in specific topics — such as cocktails — based on whether they watch entire videos related to that topic, and how long those videos are. The user’s language preference, location, and even device type also factor into the equation, though they carry less weight than the user’s behavior.
Interestingly, the algorithm cares little for the amount of followers or likes a creator has when recommending them to users it thinks will enjoy their clips. “While a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account that has more followers, by virtue of that account having built up a larger follower base,” the article states, “neither follower count nor whether the account has had previous high-performing videos are direct factors in the recommendation system.”
Armed with this set of guidelines, it was time to improve my FYP. I discovered new accounts by searching simple hashtags like #cocktail, #bartender, and #mixology. Adding the word “tok” onto topics I was interested in also helped (“bourbontok” and “bartok”). When I found someone whose content I enjoyed, I made sure to follow, comment, and watch multiple videos, always through to the end. Searching through the accounts they followed allowed me to discover related accounts. And when I spent time randomly scrolling through my FYP, I made as much of an effort to show TikTok what I didn’t like by holding down on a video and clicking “Not Interested.” (TikTok states this is also important for feed curation.)
Before long, it was bye-bye, blue Curaçao. After creating my first and only video — a rudimentary shot of me pouring a Martini in front of a stacked whisky shelf — the work really started to bear fruit. I discovered the online community I was looking for and found that, within what I would dub the more “serious” subsection of DrinkTok, there are multiple styles of content focusing on different topics. All will appeal to cocktail and drinks aficionados in their own unique way.
There’s @drinksbyevie, for example, who mixes classy cocktails in front of a flashy New York skyline. @SpiritedLA blends recipes and mixology techniques, while @cointricktwitch shares industry anecdotes and advice on how not to piss off your bartender.
There’s no shortage of quality content on bourbontok either, whether you’re looking for quick, lighthearted reviews (@60SecondBourbonReview) or the latest TikTok trends interpreted through the scope of America’s native spirit (@bourbonpursuit).
I had no doubt the Bazooka Joe shots and tutorials for making the aforementioned Skittles-infused vodka remained out there in abundance, but I was no longer being served them. The apparent success of my FYP experiment sparked a thought I hadn’t considered in the beginning: Were creators thinking about the algorithm as much as I had been, and were they trying to reach me as hard as I was searching for them?
Nico Desreumaux, who runs the industry-anecdote-sharing account @cointricktwitch, says understanding how the algorithm works is incredibly important to creators, but less so for viewers.
While he now shares stories about his bartending and barista career, Desreumaux has a background in film studies and has spent years creating content for social media platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. When Desreumaux first started using TikTok in October 2019, he studied the FYP to learn about the different hashtags creators were using and noting the style of videos that went viral.
This understanding of film composition and experience with algorithms helped him quickly take off on TikTok and grow his following to 1.4 million, Desreumaux says. One of his first posts, a video about “the dumbest thing he’d heard from a guest,” hit 250,000 views within 24 hours. When subsequent posts using a similar template received just as much interest, he realized he was on to something. “I realized that I’d hit the algorithm lottery,” he says.
Contrary to his advice, Desreumaux now worries more about the algorithm as a viewer than creator. There becomes a point where creators no longer need to “chase the algorithm,” he says, given the size of the following they’ve built up. But as a user, he’s judicious with what he likes and who he follows, because he knows the algorithm is always tracking. “If it’s just a video that’s an easy chuckle, I don’t want to see 15 more of those right afterwards,” he says.
Hannah Chamberlain, the home bartender behind @SpiritedLA, sees the algorithm as more of a friend than foe from a user perspective, but tries not to think about it as a creator.
Having posted cocktails on Instagram for a few years, she says it got to the point where the process felt like a job, and that she had to create content in the same curated style as everyone else to gain likes and followers. So Chamberlain started her TikTok as an escape — to have fun with cocktails again and share them in her own unique style.
Chamberlain doesn’t follow TikTok trends and isn’t worried about likes or views. Despite this, her account boasts more than 200,000 followers and 4.5 million likes. “I think the content really finds its audience,” she says. “I trust in the magic of the algorithm.”
The more time spent on TikTok, the more it seems that there are two types of creators: those who work on their personal “brand” and ignore the algorithm, and those who follow the trends and “chase” it, as Desreumaux puts it.
Kenny Coleman, who runs the Bourbon Pursuit podcast and its affiliated social media accounts, falls into the latter camp. When making TikTok content, he searches the app’s trending hashtags, music, and challenges, and figures out how he can tie them back to bourbon.
He lip syncs to songs and posts text-based videos with robotic narration — it’s a TikTok thing — but always relating to topics like annual bourbon releases and Pappy-mania. It appears to be a smart move for growing a following because it allows him to speak to two audiences: Those who are more interested in TikTok trends and those who care more for bourbon. “I just look at it as another creative outlet,” Coleman says.
Given his creation style, it’s somewhat ironic that @bourbonpursuit’s biggest video to date didn’t follow a TikTok trend. But it did start one.
On Oct. 21, 2020, Coleman posted a 30-second clip with the caption: “What does an $800 ice press look like?” The short video sees him transform a large cube of cloudy ice into a perfect sphere using a Meltdown copper ice press. He then places the ice in a rocks glass, tops it with a pour of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and raises his drink to the camera.
The video racked up 1.5 million views overnight and celebrity imitators soon emerged, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and YouTube superstar Dave Dobrik. Coleman’s original now has over 10 million views and accounts for more than half of his profile’s likes.
“After it did go viral, Meltdown’s website had a literal meltdown,” Coleman says. “It couldn’t keep up with the orders.”
That a simple video on frozen water could create such waves displays the power of TikTok’s algorithm. From a marketing and sales perspective, it must have been a huge boon for Meltdown. As for the bourbon featured in the video — not so much.
So far, Elijah Craig and its parent distillery Heaven Hill are not on TikTok. Even if they were, they wouldn’t be able to use the platform for advertising purposes or to directly drive sales. The handful of spirits brands that are on TikTok, such as Pennsylvania’s Bluecoat Gin and Kentucky’s Rabbit Hole Distillery, use it exclusively to share cocktail tutorials and educational videos on the distilling process.
When I spoke with Rabbit Hole chief marketing officer Michael Motamedi about TikTok, he seemed just as fascinated with the algorithm as I was. He described the platform as a “real opportunity” for brands like Rabbit Hole, noting that it allows them to engage with consumers “in a real way.”
Motamedi shares Chamberlain’s view that quality content on TikTok will always find an audience. “If you build it, they will come,” he says, and adds that he respects that about the platform. “You see individuals that have 2 or 3 thousand followers and [yet] they have millions of views or millions of likes,” he says. “What that tells me is the algorithm is doing its job.”
For now, and hopefully for the long run, TikTok delivers on its promise of serving the right content for you. Besides its influencers and the odd $800 ice press manufacturer, the real beneficiaries of its algorithm remain its users.
In teaching viewers how to make the perfect Martini or how to not tip like a jerk — perhaps before they’ve ever set foot in a bar — TikTok is succeeding in democratizing drinks culture. As its user base grows, there will be those who join the platform not knowing they’re interested in cocktails but soon find themselves 10 videos into DrinkTok. Others, like me, who’ve questioned whether the right content is out there, should have no doubts: Powered by the might of the algorithm, it’s only a matter of time before it finds you.