Celebrating a 21st birthday by imbibing in a crowded bar with friends in a state of youthful revelry is usually a rite of passage. But the Covid-19 pandemic robbed this experience from anyone hitting the milestone during its rampage, reducing the day to a subdued affair commemorated by socially distanced beers in half-empty buildings with makeshift sidewalk patios or to-go cocktails on parents’ couches. While these low-key activities could technically be called bar-related experiences, they were akin to looking through a glass, darkly.

As Covid cases wane and bars begin to open, the time for these newly minted legal drinkers to celebrate without restrictions in place has finally arrived. While this makes for exciting times, it also thrusts these newbies into an alien landscape of packed spaces, close interactions, and wobbly barstools. So far, according to top bartenders, these newbies are handling things in ways both expected and unexpected.

Learning to Interact

It’s taking a little time for 21-year-olds to get the hang of social interaction inside bars with reduced or removed Covid restrictions. Their acclimation to the scene as it normally exists has thus far created intriguing social theater for those behind the stick. “It’s been interesting to watch them,” says Chelsea Kaiser, general manager of New York City’s Mace and The Cabinet. “It’s almost like they’re coming out of a cocoon.” And once they emerge, some spread their wings with less than grace. “There’ve been a lot of really awkward dudes,” says Trevor Easter, creative director at The Snug in Sacramento, Calif. “We’ve watched a lot of people approach other people strangely, and we’ve heard others admit that they didn’t know how to act.”

The in-person bumbling among new patrons might entertain industry pros, but it’s also inspired a renewed commitment for them to put the youngsters at ease through warm, empathetic service. “This new blood brings us back to the essentials of being a bartender — engaging with the customer, making sure they’re having a good time,” Kaiser says. “Because they’re new to the scene, we need to show them compassion and give them the benefit of the doubt.”

On Their Best Behavior

On paper, the traditional bar scene’s cacophony of stimuli could potentially encourage discourteous or deplorable behaviors among the 21-year-old set. All awkwardness aside, bar pros attest that the opposite has happened. These new drinkers brim with geeky curiosity, are equipped with a keen sense of self-awareness to read the room and behave appropriately, and approach the bar with patience, kindness, and empathy that some bartenders say surpasses veteran drinkers. “I’ve had 21-year-olds in for the first time wait patiently for their drinks for like 20 minutes,” Easter says. “When we apologize for the wait, they’ve said things like, ‘It’s okay! We know the industry’s been through a lot this past year!’ I’m like, ‘who are these people?’”

These younger customers also tend to be more conscientious drinkers, which has created an interesting dichotomy in the wake of loosened coronavirus restrictions. “Twenty-one-year-olds are caring more about what they’re putting in their body more,” says Austin Melrose, co-owner of Melrose Umbrella Co. in Los Angeles. “It’s been weird. They’ve been reckless with the mask stuff, but they’re drinking things like natural wine, low-ABV cocktails, or hard kombucha instead of, say, ripping shots of Jameson,” he says.

While there have been smatterings of delayed birthday celebrations here and there, such parties haven’t engulfed the scene. Industry pros feel these make-up events will further decrease as time goes on. “Nobody’s going to be celebrating their 21st birthday if they’re closer to turning 22,” says Ross Simon, owner of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour in Phoenix. “Just being able to gather in a public space with their friends again is cause enough for celebration.”

Entering the Scene

Even if a 21-year-old knows about the industry’s struggles or takes a more thoughtful approach to drinking, working through a bar environment can still prove to be an intimidating step into the unknown. This is particularly the case for those doing so in major metropolitan hubs like NYC or L.A., where the vast number of choices could potentially overwhelm even the most prepared of rookies.

For the nervous newcomers who haven’t had the chance to enter the scene just yet, bartenders recommend sticking to a few basics to ease this sense of anxiety. Find spots to fit the drinking mood (read: don’t go to a cocktail bar for brews with buds). Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be a jerk. Tip appropriately. And once one is comfortable with the landscape, adventure can truly take hold. “The ideal night out for 21-year-olds is to go explore a variety of spaces and have fun exploring the full scope of the scene,” Easter says. “Start at a nice bar with a cocktail. Finish at a high-volume bar. Hit a dive bar in between. And they should always make sure they’re going out to have a great time, wherever they go.”

For anyone who turned 21 during the pandemic, having a great time at a bar is not a difficult goal to achieve. After all, some of them have waited months for this rite of passage to finally arrive.