On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Zach Geballe and Tim McKirdy investigate a trend of bars offering “elevated” takes on lowbrow cocktails like the Screwdriver and Long Island Iced Tea. Do these drinks serve as valuable enticements that bring in would-be drinkers via social media or press coverage, or do they serve to confuse drinkers who find the rest of the bar’s offerings to perhaps be incongruous? Tune in for more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
Tim McKirdy: I’m in VinePair’s New York City headquarters. I’m Tim McKirdy.
Z: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Tim, another week, another episode. Got lots to get into but of course, as we start all Monday episodes, what have you had recently that you loved?
T: I’m glad you’re asking me that today, Zach, because we have had a very exciting time in the VinePair Office recently. It’s Chardonnay season. We are doing our annual roundup. Keith Beavers doing the hard work there and Hannah Staab also assisting him with that. We’ve been having some really, really fantastic wines arrive at the office. A lot of familiar old friends there. Mayacamas, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap. I am, Zach, a person who does enjoy Chardonnay that’s seen some time in responsible oak usage. I will add, but the Chardonnay specifically that I want to call out today — interested to see if you’ve had this or hear your thoughts on it. It’s called Corey Creek Coquillages. This is a 100 percent Chardonnay from the North Fork of Long Island, I believe, fermented on wild yeast in stainless steel, but most importantly this wine ages in contact with seashells which the French speakers out there might have known from my terrible pronunciation of the name there, which means seashell. I found it interesting where there’s this thing in wine that people say, whether it’s grown by the sea or vinified by the sea or aging by the sea. You pick up some of that salinity in the sea air and I don’t know to what extent that’s true scientifically. Our minds certainly go there through some kind of — I don’t know.
Z: Power of suggestion.
T: Power of suggestion, indeed. Thank you for helping me with that. This wine definitely did have pronounced mineral notes of saltiness to it that worked really well. Again this is not a wine that I would want to see aging in oak or anything, but a very interesting type of wine and definitely the first I’ve tasted that’s aged on seashells.
Z: I don’t know that I’ve ever tried a wine like that but now I’m curious. I’ve certainly had wines that were vinified with lots of seashells in them and stuff like that, but that’s definitely taking it to a new level. That’s super cool.
T: How about yourself, Zach? What have you been enjoying?
Z: Since we’re talking Chardonnay, I did have a beautiful bottle of 2014 Ridge Chardonnay from down in the Santa Cruz mountains the other day. I’ve spoken before on the pod about my general respect for and appreciation of the winemaking across the board at Ridge. Chardonnay is not a big part of their production. Obviously, they’re much more well-known for their Cabernet-based wines and Zinfandel-based wines and stuff like that — always a really beautiful bottle. Caitlin and I had gotten it when we were visiting probably in 2016. It must have been 2016. It was fun to open that and have that with her a few nights ago. Then on my trip to Portland, I had a few cocktails, not a lot. I was down there with my son and my dad. It was a three-generation Geballe trip but I did sneak away once the young and the old were asleep. I got to go out to just the hotel bar. It was a nice bar called Swine Moonshine and Cocktails. They had an interesting drink that the bartender made for me called Terry’s Pelota, which was a tequila-based drink that used Amaro Nonino, Licor 43, Ancho Reyes Poblano, and some chocolate bitters. It’s my nightcap. I wanted nothing super sweet but a touch of sweetness and really good. The Ancho Reyes brought some spiciness to contrast the sweetness and the chocolate notes, so a vague nod to that spicy chocolaty thing. Even if I think the inspiration for the drink as the bartender was describing to me was like those — I don’t know if you’ve ever had one before, Tim — the chocolate oranges that you can find here. I don’t know if they’re a widely distributed thing, but they’re in the shape of an orange and they’re chocolate.
T: Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
Z: Exactly. That’s the Terry’s Pelota. It was good, a fun drink, and not what I probably would’ve gravitated towards on the menu otherwise but sometimes it’s nice when you just put yourself in the hands of the bartender and let them do what they do.
T: Not only does that sound like a delicious drink, it’s also a very natural segue into something we’ll be talking about today at least.
Z: Exactly. Let’s get to it. You brought to my attention and I’ve seen this before that we were talking about some of these, I guess you’d call them, they’re not new drinks. In fact, their whole point is that they are much more elevated if you can put it that way, an expression of not exactly classic cocktails. I don’t know, simple cocktails, bar staples, dive bar cocktails maybe you’d put it that way. Tim, since you’re the man who is in the midst of this more than I am, you want to lay out what a few of these are then we can talk about what this trend might mean.
T: Definitely. Actually, we spoke about him recently, I believe it was on last Monday’s show, but a recent trip to Shinji’s and some folks might have read about this online too. They have a Screwball that’s served inside an orange.
T: Sorry, a Screwdriver. I always forget that we don’t use that name in the U.K. for that drink by the way. It’s just like orange juice and vodka. The first time someone ever mentioned that to me, an American friend, I’m like, “What the hell is a Screwdriver?” I was going to call it a Screwball again but anyway. I’m getting off-topic here. The Screwdriver is served inside an orange with a straw. To my mind, it had this Creamsicle flavor to it and it was very delicious. Again that cocktail program is very highbrow. There’s a lot that goes into these drinks but this is definitely the one I think that I’m seeing most online when people are visiting there and posting about it too. There’s some other examples that I think speak as well to this trend of nostalgia that everyone’s been talking about post-pandemic but there’s a bar down in the Lower East Side called Lullaby and they have a Dole Whip cocktail. It’s interesting actually. They shake half of the drink and then top it with the Dole Whip and mix it all together. Again when that bar launched just over a year ago, that was the one drink that got all the press and then one that maybe flies a little bit more under the radar but a porch light here. They have an elevated version of the Long Island Iced Tea where they’re making their own cola, carbonating it, and doing all the bells and whistles that come with that. I find it interesting that we’re seeing these highbrow versions of lowbrow drinks and this trend that’s developing.
Z: I think it’s really interesting for two reasons. The first is that I think we see this same trend and you’ve probably seen it at least as much as I have, Tim, in food where we can go through this phase where people are putting — it’s almost impossible to pick out just one example. Some restaurants will have an elevated Sloppy Joe or they’ll have their take on the Twinkie or whatever, all these kinds of things where there’s this attempt to draw on flavors that are perhaps yet nostalgic or immensely recognizable to people. To say we’re going to make this version of it that is far more sophisticated, far more complex, and candidly, far more expensive than the version that you might have encountered before. I think that’s a thing that is always going on but I think it has its moments where it steps more into the fore and then that trend recedes and something else takes its place and then that style of approach to food or drink comes back. I do think it’s interesting to discuss whether this post-pandemic nostalgic wave is driving this or whether for lack of a better word, are people trying to drink these ironically. Is that what we think is going on, because I think a lot of the people driving this trend are not themselves people who are nostalgic for these cocktails. These cocktails predate them. They really predate you and me. I think they certainly predate a lot of people who are the audience for this. The Screwdriver, the Long Island Iced Tea, those were really 1980s drinks. I was born in the 1980s. I was not drinking cocktails in the 1980s. Again, you have to be at least a decade older than me or more to even really have a lot of points of connection to these cocktails. I’m not sure whether it’s so much that people are like, “Oh man, I remember this drink from my youth,” or as much as it’s just like, “Wow, look at this goofy thing that people used to drink but now we’re drinking a really fancy version of it.”
T: That’s a great point about the people that are maybe ordering these and drinking them. I do think there is a touch of irony there. I don’t know. I think we also see that maybe in fashion at the moment too with people returning to the ’90s trend. I don’t know. I don’t think that was the best era for fashion but again listen, that’s not my lane. I’ll leave that to Adam whenever he comes back. I think it’s also interesting that oftentimes these drinks that are appearing on these menus don’t really capture the essence of the bar and the rest of the bar program. Down at Lullaby, I’ve gotten to know the co-founders there, Jake and Harrison, and I think they have a wonderful cocktail program there, and I hope they don’t mind me saying it but the Dole Whip is my least favorite drink on their menu. I think everything else they do speaks more to the levels of mixology that are going on in that place. Same with Shinji’s too. I think that the Vesper is a much better drink that they have there. All the other ones, I do get why people are ordering it but I have a question here for you, Zach. Do you think that’s a pro or con because on the one hand, you do have something that maybe does really well on Instagram, and social media and also media itself, publications will cover it so then people come in, but if that doesn’t really represent the rest of your bar program, then is that ultimately a bad thing?
Z: I think that’s a really fascinating question and something that in one way or another, I think we’ve tried to discuss on the pod a few times before. I think the reason we keep bringing it up is, A) it keeps being topical and B) I don’t know that we have a clear-cut answer at this point. I think one piece of it is do you as a bar run the risk of consigning yourself to a level of gimmickry and one-off patronage than you would perhaps like — if people say, “Oh, I saw that Dole Whip on Instagram or on TikTok, and it looks super cool and I want to go have it,” but they go in and they have that drink. They’re like, “I’ve done that thing.” Is that really the kind of bar you want to operate? Maybe if the Dole Whip is really profitable for you and you can crank them out and it’s OK that people are just popping in for that and then off to do whatever else and never come back. Certainly, there’s enough density of cocktail drinkers in Manhattan or whatever to make that fly perhaps but it’s a tough way to make a go of it and maybe a little dispiriting to the staff in a way. Do you want to be the bartender who makes 300 of one drink in a night and 50 other drinks, all told? That’s probably not exactly what people are that excited about. I think the other piece of it is this piece of, are you setting consumer expectations correctly because someone sees, “Oh, this bar has an elevated Long Island Iced Tea.” They might imagine a whole bar concept built around let’s do elevated versions of that era of cocktails. If in fact everything else on the list is very different and has a different aesthetic sensibility to it and flavor profile, et cetera, the kind of person who wants to go drink ‘80s-style cocktails, whether ironically or not, may be a little bit underwhelmed. I don’t know if the Long Island Iced Tea is a drink — certainly, people who have two or three of them in a night, that may not end well for them but it’s certainly been done. I do think that it’s one of those things where there’s that perennial question: How valuable is just pure exposure to a bar versus building a program that brings people in again and again?
T: Ultimately, do you want to be co-known as, “Oh, the Dole Whip place?” I don’t know. I think definitely if you’re opening up a new bar, I do see the merit in it because it is a low-lift way to get media and coverage on social media like we’ve said but then you’re catering to the TikTok crowd. Again, whether that is if you’re taking your cocktails very seriously. I don’t know whether all of the TikTok crowd is who you perhaps want to be catering to again, because are they going to try your Martini variation? Are they going to have your whiskey drink, your mezcal drink, or are they coming in to get that video and then leaving? I definitely think that trying to cater to that algorithm specifically is probably a losing battle in the long run and not something you want to be doing as a bar program. I think also, not even just lowbrow drinks, but I have seen this idea of signature drinks being pitched to myself as an editor both from publicists and writers. I’ve seen that a lot. I remember another bar that opened up in Green Point here, I’m forgetting the name of it but I remember that they had Freezling on the menu. They just kept hammering home this point of like, “We’re having Freezling.” I actually happened to stop in by chance. I was in the neighborhood and walked in, I’m like, “Oh yes, this is the Freezling place.” They actually had good cocktails and other drinks on the menu. I probably wouldn’t have gone there before if I’m like, “Look, this bar also opened in the pandemic but this was a trend from 2018, 2017, Frosé! Pinot Freez-io.” Guys, you arrived a bit late to the party but that might actually put me off as a drinker.
Z: I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of different ways to build a successful bar program. One of them can be definitely centered around your more, for lack of a better word, getting your one-off. Whether it’s a social media crowd or people have just heard about you from the one drink that you’re known for and they want to pop in and have that. You can make that work. I think it’s just when that drink is at odds with the rest of your mission in some way, that can be challenging. It can be challenging, like I said, for guests. It can be challenging for staff and it can be challenging too when that drink drops off the TikTok algorithm or when you’re no longer trendy or when the people who are like, “Oh, I got to try that,” have tried it once. It’s hard to know what you’re left with. Obviously, it’s not useful advice for me to say, “You should just build a great bar program that everyone likes and that you get a ton of regulars.” Obviously, that’s what most bars are attempting to do and there are a lot of different ways to do it. I think as we’ve talked about a bunch on the show over the years, there’s no one right approach for any bar, for any venture because different people want to drink differently and people want to drink differently, different days of the week, different weeks of the year, et cetera. Obviously, it takes a diverse ecosystem of bars to have a strong bar scene and there are a lot of different niches that a bar can fill and be very successful. I think that question of a signature drink, stepping again, as you said, outside of what we might consider more of these elevated lowbrow drinks or whatever. I don’t know. I think that there’s something about, in the same way, that a restaurant might have a dish that they’re just really well known for and that can be, again, a blessing and a curse in some sense — I’m trying to think about some of my favorite bars and whether I would say they have a signature cocktail. I don’t know. I’m going to continue to ponder this. Is that something you would say is true of the bars that you love best? Do they have a signature cocktail, Tim?
T: I think it’s kind of a 50-50 split. I think that there are bars where I’m like, “Oh, I’m in the mood for this drink. I’m going to go there. because they do it very well,” but they might not perhaps be known for it. Then there are other bars that are specifically known for certain drinks. I find it interesting as well just that idea of launching a new bar. If you’re not launching with this signature drink how else do you become known? It’s going to be that the concept is another selling point, but it’s hard to get a good concept and not feel gimmicky. Who wants to open another speakeasy? Do we need another speakeasy? Do we need another bar in the back of a pretend grocery store? That is actually a great bar, the one that’s like that in New York, but we don’t need another one. Therefore maybe you want to lean into a specific style of drinks like tiki but then you perhaps ostracized drinkers who don’t like tiki cocktails, so they’ll never cross your door. Otherwise, you just open and you’re like, “We’re just a good bar. We have a good bar program, we have a good background.” That’s a tough sell and certainly from a media point of view when we talk about coverage or just word of mouth, like, “Oh, have you been to this new bar that’s opened?” “No, what’s the deal?” “They just have good drinks.” That’s a selling point and maybe you’ll forget that but, “Have you been to the Dole Whip place,” that’s a lot more memorable.
Z: For sure. I think it also again, is a question almost of the proprietor’s ambitions. I think it’s totally plausible that you could look to open a solid well-executed neighborhood bar in the same way that we talk about neighborhood restaurants and stuff like that. Your ambition may never be, “Oh, I don’t want to be trendy on social media and I don’t necessarily need a ton of earned media publicity,” or whatever because we’re looking to meet a need that we see being unmet in this community wherever you are. Obviously, the less competitive the bar scene is in any given place, the easier it is to just open a bar that aspires to do a lot of things pretty well and perhaps be successful with it. It’s the thing that is of course important to note that especially in New York, the competition is so intense. There are so many bars and so the need for a point of differentiation, a distinguishing feature or a distinguishing drink or whatever is much more pressing than it might be in other parts of the country where just being a bar that does quality, relatively high-level cocktails well consistently, is probably enough of a selling point. I think there are a lot of places that could use more bars like that, to be completely honest. Yes, I think it’s a fascinating question of that, how do you — I guess the other piece of it is it’s also this question of, as a bar, how much do you balance burning bright right away versus sustainability? I don’t mean sustainability in an environmental sense in this case. It’s more like, can you build a successful business model that can last for a number of years? I think the downside to having a lot of stuff that gets you attention early on is that, as we said, trends change. Social media, that stuff is really fickle, and what is super trendy, and appealing in one moment, can a short amount of time later be just out the window. It’s why I think it can be — I don’t want to say dangerous. That’s the wrong way to put it, but it can be ephemeral to build a concept, or build an opening — you said it, right? The bar that was heavily into promoting Freezling, by the time they opened, that trend was already over. There’s that part of it, right? The lead time to open a bar can be long, and who knows what’s going to be trendy from the time you come up with a concept, and maybe sell investors on it, or get some backing, or just even start sending out PR hits to when it’s actually fully up and running, and people are going there. There’s no guarantee that what was trendy six months, or a year ago will remain trendy. In fact almost a guarantee that it won’t. Yes, I think it’s this interesting thing of how do you balance that desire for the immediate hit of attention and traffic, versus potentially something that is more long-term stable.
T: Yes. I don’t want to oversimplify this too. A, I don’t want to be offhand references to Lullaby as the Dole Whip bar, you know what I mean? I don’t think people are out there saying that. It’s just a very clear example of what we’re talking about here. I do think it’s also possible, though, for the bar to evolve itself. I think this is a great way to get people in the door initially as we’ve been speaking about. If that is maybe the more social media-savvy crowd in the beginning, those folks will then move on to the next spot. As I mentioned, just that Lullaby example, so they’ve been open a year now, just a little over a year. One of their co-founders, Harrison Snow, we actually included in our recently launched VinePair 50 list, because we here at VinePair are of the belief that this is a young Gen Z bartender that’s really doing incredible things with cocktails. I personally believe this will be one of the new mentors for the next generation of bartenders that we’re seeing, or one of the brightest stars of this newer generation of bartenders. I think Lullaby has established itself as this party place on the weekend, but also a spot that really does crank out amazing cocktails too, and caters to maybe younger drinkers of legal drinking age. I think anecdotally, that reputation has evolved, and you can still get the Dole Whip there, but I think it’s a credit to the work that they’ve done that they’re not just known as that place now, right? The Freezling place, I’m not so sure, but I felt like it was important to add that too. Like I said, I didn’t want to oversimplify, or throw any shade on the fine work that they’re doing there.
Z: No, I think it’s definitely true that a bar can, and should, evolve over time, and will go through iterations, and hit on different concepts. Sometimes it will be, and even as you said, can have a different face that it presents to the world one part of the week than another, or one week out of the year or another. Those are all signs that I think of a good concept, and a well-executed bar is to be able to be a lot of different things to a lot of people. I guess that to me, is the takeaway here, right? Which is, if these, whether it’s elevated lowbrow cocktails, or signature cocktails of any kind, or anything like that, are in service to this idea of allowing you to maybe reach a broader audience, help bring people like that into bars more generally. Create that space where people feel comfortable going in and being like, “I know that this drink that’s served inside an orange is going to be both delicious, and I’m going to have fun with it.” In a way that maybe some of the other stuff at Shinji’s might initially seem intimidating to people. I think the Vesper that you’ve described sounds fantastic, but for some people that might be like, “Oh, that’s a lot, I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.” A drink that tastes like an orange Creamsicle that has a whimsical nature to it just makes people more comfortable with the concept in the first place. That, I think obviously can be really good for a bar, especially bars that do have aspirations to really high-quality cocktail production. Again, we know those places can come across as intimidating to a lot of drinkers in a way that a bar that’s like, “Hey, come get a beer and a shot,” is just not going to feel intimidating.
T: Yes, definitely. All this chat of Shinji’s — I think next time you’re in town, Zach, we’re going to have to go and check it out for ourselves — enjoy one together.
Z: Tim, you and I have an extremely long list of bars we have to go to. I’m going to have to go on a very intense cleanse both before and after, but it’ll be a lot of fun.
T: Sounds fantastic.
Z: All right. Man, well, this has been great. Always a fun conversation. If you guys have thoughts on this topic or any of the other things we’ve covered on the show, please email us, [email protected]. Also a reminder, please rate and review. We’d love to hear from you all in all those ways. Like I said, whether it’s email, social media, through your podcast apps, however, we’d love to get feedback from you all. That helps us make the show better week in, week out. Tim, again, thanks so much, and speak to you on Friday.
T: Thanks, Zach. Have a fantastic week.
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