Bars the world over were closed for several months this year, and are only just now opening. During that time, professional bartenders have been furloughed, at home, and unable to employ their craft. But some bartenders, like the Portland-based Jordan Hughes, better known as @highproofpreacher, have always worked from home. Over the last few years a small community of Instagram home bartenders (or “drinkstagrammers”) like Hughes has emerged, ostensibly amateurs who have built entire careers and even become minor celebrities by offering their own cocktail recipes and cocktail photography to increasingly large audiences, like Hughes’s 25,000 Instagram followers.
I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the Instagram home bartenders. I’d long theorized that their massive followings were not based on them making great cocktails or demonstrating interesting techniques, but rather in them photographing drinks well and, often, offering a pretty face behind those drinks. But, if I was wrong, and people did follow them for the recipes and bartending ideas, now should be their time to shine — everybody is at home and anybody who wants a “fancy” cocktail has to make it themselves. So just how has the Covid-19 crisis impacted home bartender influencers?
“People are on their phones now more than ever and looking for more ways to not only connect with others, but to feel some sense of normalcy,” says Jordan Hughes. “I think that’s why so many people are jumping into cocktail-making during the pandemic.” Spirits category sales data and upticks in online cocktail class reservations, among other factors, support Hughes’s assertion that home bartending is on the rise.
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And the surge in interest in home bartending is not limited just to the United States. “I’ve definitely had a spike in people reaching out [since lockdown procedures began],” says Matthias Soberon. The Belgian man is a music teacher in Ghent, but in his side hustle he’s @servedbysoberon, a home bartender Instagram account with some 56,000 followers from all over the world. While Soberon’s beer-loving homeland doesn’t have much of a cocktail culture, especially for drinks-making at home, that hasn’t mattered much. Soberon says many people have been contacting him wanting to know what cocktails are easy to create aside from the usual suspects like Manhattans. “[It’s] especially people not usually on Instagram,” he says. “A lot of people who like to go out for a drink on a regular basis.”
“Viewership has gone up for sure,” says Miguel Buencamino, the home bartender behind @holycityhandcraft, which has 25,500 followers. He began quarantining at home in Charleston on March 13. But he actually has another theory why his following has improved. “Since the pandemic hit I have been creating way more content,” he says. “Because I’m creating more content, people are engaging more.”
A software engineer who loved to cook, Holy City Handcraft had started as a food blog in 2015 before Buencamino started noticing that his occasional cocktail posts always got the most engagement. Now all his work is cocktail focused and, since the pandemic began, he’s left his day job in software engineering to devote full attention to his brand. He’s producing more video content and, instead of just the pretty cocktail photos he once posted, he’s trying to make them more instructional. “People are more curious these days,” he explains. “Before, people would just look at a photo, like it, and move on.”
But now, he says, they’re sticking around. Sticking around to see his technique for smoking cocktails or watch his #BacktoBasics video on how to make an Old Fashioned. Maybe some people like to stick around more because Buencamino has the best home bar setup of any of these influencers with a full wall of bottle shelving and a lengthy wooden bar he built himself. You almost feel like you’re in an actual bar watching him make his drinks, wanting to strike up a conversation with him.
“The amount of questions have gone up and I’ve started explaining, ‘OK, this is why I’m doing this,’” says Buencamino. “Lots of people are now trying to recreate the cocktail experience from the comfort of their own home because they don’t have a choice.”
Yet, I’d heard from industry friends that some other Instagram home bartenders were floundering, with their incomes down perhaps 70 percent. Hughes told me that alcohol company-sponsored Instagram partnerships — the way many of these home bartenders earn the bulk of their incomes — took a major dip when the lockdown first happened. Getting paid to produce content on press trips and work at branded pop-up bars are also off the table at the moment.
On the other hand, Andrew White, a private events bartender in Brooklyn, believes some Instagram home bartenders are struggling during this pandemic lockdown because, with all the attention now turned toward bartending at home, they’re finally being put under the microscope as never before. “Everyone is thinking they can do something like an expert when in reality they are only part of the way there,” says White, who briefly toyed with being a home bartender influencer himself, building his following to around 12,000 as @thecrafttender. “Being an excellent photographer and being photogenic doesn’t replace the 10,000-hour rule [of actually bartending].”
White is alluding to the fact that these drinkstagrammers are now facing stiffer “home bartender” competition. He points out that, in the past, “real” bartending pros were too busy working at their actual bars to build any sort of online presence and fame. Scour Instagram and you’ll find very few full-time bartenders with followings that creep into the five or six digits like the drinkstagrammers. Thus, many had to turn to these home bartenders to act as proxies for promoting their bars and brands on Instagram and other social media.
“But, with the absence of a bar to sell, the pros are now being instructional,” says White.
If, in the “before times,” Instagram had acted as a proxy for glamor — pretty people doing pretty things — now, during the quarantine, it’s become more about helping your followers learn how to get shit done, just like the experts. Thus, lots of “real” bartenders like Estelle Bossy and Sother Teague have begun offering instruction on, say, making a Negroni or how to produce draught cocktails. Meanwhile, publications have been hosting nightly cocktail tutorials on Instagram Live, featuring notable bartenders like Shelby Allison of Chicago’s Lost Lake and Orlando Franklin McCray of Brooklyn’s Nightmoves.
My favorite Instagram home bartender of the quarantine has been Naren Young, the award-winning former bar director at Manhattan’s Dante. “You know shit is getting weird when yours truly posts a random cocktail video,” Young wrote on Instagram on March 28 as he almost sheepishly began his home bartending career by making the de rigeur “Quarantini.” Previous to that, he’d never posted any sort of bartending tutorial on Instagram, using his account (and his modest 13,000 followers) to post images of his travels, food and drink he’s enjoying, friends he’s visiting. Two months into quarantine, however, Young had posted a cocktail video almost daily — over 40 Instagram videos in total by now.
Unlike many of the anodyne and brand-friendly home bartender influencers, Young doesn’t play it safe because he doesn’t really seem to give a fuck. He’s wildly funny, sometimes crass and profane, and often dressed in something a little bit wacky, like a bathrobe or a tuxedo jacket and bowtie sans shirt. Young’s videos offer little glamor; unlike the home bartender influencers, his videos have low-quality production values (his roommate holds his iPhone to film) and, believe it or not, he almost entirely lacks any sort of standard bartending equipment. Early on he was using sealed plastic Tupperware to mix drinks, and a novelty New York Yankees shaker to put together a Watermelon Martini.
“There are so many people out there that also don’t have any tools and therefore are probably too intimidated to make a drink, but they want a nice cocktail,” says Young, who has respectfully not posted any new bartending videos since the Black Lives Matter protests arose in early June. “So with these videos I wanted to take the stigma away that fancy drinks can only be made by professional mixologists. That’s BS. There’s a whole bunch of ‘tools’ that can be appropriated and turned into bar equipment on the fly and you don’t need to spend any money or have any formal training to execute.”
Indeed, by the end of each of Young’s videos you’ve inevitably learned something, and the drinks always look absolutely delicious. Still, Dr. Jessica Spector thinks it’s beside the point to compare these professional bartenders to the Instagram home bartenders. “These worlds have nothing to do with each other. Does it hurt home basketball players if Lebron James comes down to practice at their local Y?” asks Spector, who teaches about drinks culture at Yale University. “It’s not like Naren Young is the real celebrity and isn’t it quaint that Soberon is a celebrity in this little world?”
Spector believes that drinkstagrammers form a unique community, and their followers are specifically there for that, not necessarily to learn how to make a cocktail worthy of a slick Manhattan bar. In fact, she tells me many of her college students have told her they mainly enjoy this community aspect and would find, say, an overly serious “How to Make a Negroni” video insufferable.
“It has nothing to do with the circumstances in the world now — it was a community before this [the pandemic] and it’ll be a community after it’s over,” says Spector. “People bond more with their community in times of crisis.”
Most of the drinkstagrammers I spoke to likewise agree that all the bartending pros flocking to Instagram don’t impact them one bit. In fact, Hughes has been using some of his income of late to help out local bartender friends who are out of work, and has been trying to get them involved in his sponsored Instagram partnerships.
Buencamino, meanwhile, counts himself a fan of many of these star bartenders and is celebrating the fact they are now online more. “I’m not worried, I’m actually super stoked that these people I look up to are starting to do more content,” says Buencamino. Like Spector, he considers what they do almost a different art form, one more raw and real.
Of course, if we’re being honest, the truly most influential Instagram home bartenders of the quarantine have been neither furloughed professionals nor home bartender drinkstagrammers — they’ve been celebrities. And, even if they are making cocktails nowhere close to “correctly,” they are racking up viewership numbers way bigger than the rest of drinkstagram ever has before. Walton Goggins getting 67,000 views for making a Gimlet with the unexpected inclusion of muddled mint and cucumber. Stanley Tucci suavely shaking (shaking!) an unbalanced Negroni and still netting nearly 1 million views. Ina Garten mixing a comically gigantic Cosmo, and nearly blowing up the internet. “It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!” wrote Garten.
Indeed, whether pro, amateur, nobody, or celebrity, everyone is making cocktails on Instagram right now, but it’s not affecting the drinkstagrammers. They just keep doing what they’ve always been doing, and their followings continue to swell.
“I feel bad saying this, especially since so many of my industry friends are left without work, but ever since the pandemic hit I’ve been absolutely slammed,” says Hughes. “It’s the busiest I’ve ever been in the three years I’ve been doing this.”