The first sign that American drinkers were honing their bartending skills as they hunkered down in quarantine came in mid-March — the same time the pandemic became a national issue. During the week of March 16, a surge in alcohol sales and deliveries coincided with a remarkable spike in Google searches for the term “Quarantini.” Overnight, users began attaching #Quarantini to social media posts with photos of their homemade Martinis, Margaritas, and Daiquiris.
But to determine whether home bartending is indeed on the rise, let’s look at the data. One of the clearest indicators is the increased sales of vermouth — essential to making Negronis, Manhattans, and Martinis. During the 12-week period ending May 23, off-premise vermouth sales (sweet and dry) saw a YOY increase of 59 percent, according to Nielsen data.
“A bottle of vermouth wasn’t necessarily something the average consumer would have on hand to mix into a drink in their own kitchens,” says Cherie Koster, brand director of French vermouth brand Noilly Prat. “Due to stay-at-home mandates, that is no longer the case,” she adds. In the U.S. market, Noilly Prat has seen overall 9 percent sales growth since April — this despite the complete loss of the on-premise market.
Sales increases of bitters, an essential ingredient in the preparation of drinks like the Old Fashioned, provide further evidence. During the 12-week period ending May 23, bitters sales spiked an incredible 83.6 percent, according to Nielsen. As for cordials — a category that includes lower-ABV aperitivos and liqueurs like Campari and triple sec — they’re up almost 50 percent compared to last year.
For the industry, some logical next questions arise: Is the rise in home bartending temporary or here to stay? And if the latter is true, how will this development impact the future of U.S. cocktail culture?
Committing to Home Bartending
The sales increases of liqueurs, vermouths, and modifiers are notable. But what’s perhaps more interesting is the extent to which home bartenders are embracing their newfound hobby, investing time and money in developing an extensive cocktail repertoire.
Prior to Covid-19, New York City-based bar tool and glassware retailer Cocktail Kingdom sold its products almost exclusively to the trade. But that’s no longer the case. “The majority of our business for the last couple months has been home bartenders,” says Greg Boehm, Cocktail Kingdom’s founder.
Sales of 6-packs of 6-ounce coupe glasses (typically used for classic cocktails) increased 221 percent in May compared to the same month last year, Boehm explains. Meanwhile, sales of the Cocktail Kingdom Essential Cocktail Set — a kit that contains all the basic tools needed to mix cocktails — have “skyrocketed,” he says.
That consumers are buying the ingredients to mix up a Negroni and make it themselves is one thing, but the cocktail set retails around $100, while the 6-pack of coupes comes in at over $30. These are not-insignificant financial commitments, suggesting that home bartenders are stocking their bars for the long haul.
Strong consumer attendance of paid, virtual cocktail classes indicates a similar trend. One company hosting such experiences is New York City- and Nashville-based Liquor Lab. Through its online platform Liquor Lab Live, consumers can attend bartender-hosted virtual cocktail classes for a $10 fee. Class topics range from “Summer Tequila Cocktails” to “Iconic NYC Cocktails.”
Reservations currently average between 150 and 250 per class, says Owen Meyer, Liquor Lab’s president. But the actual number of attendees is higher, given that multiple users can watch from one computer. There are also many returning users, who attend third, fourth, and fifth classes, Meyer explains. “We have some [users] who have done 10-plus,” he says.
What Does This Mean for the Bar Industry?
The rising interest in home bartending is certainly encouraging for liquor brands and barware retailers, but this trend also impacts the bar industry. Once bars are allowed to reopen at full capacity, drinkers could perhaps be reluctant to pay $15 for a Negroni, now that they’ve mastered the cocktail at home. Could this change the way consumers order when drinking out or — worst case scenario — could this put home bartenders off craft cocktail bars altogether?
Richard Boccato, owner of renowned New York City cocktail bar Dutch Kills, does not see the rise in home bartending as a threat to his business. “I think this is a good thing for the bar industry,” he says. “[It] could be a catalyst to bolster consumer and home bartender knowledge, and appreciation of spirits, cocktails, and bars in general.” Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, Plymouth Gin’s global brand ambassador, agrees and says, “Most of us in the industry have been doing this for so many years, it’s easy to forget that the average consumer doesn’t necessarily know what vermouth is.”
Others say this newly gained knowledge of spirits and drinks will in turn drive innovation on cocktail menus. “When [consumers] return to their favorite bars, they will have an arsenal of conversation about new drinks, techniques, spirits, and books to chat their bartender up with, and challenge us in new ways,” says Kellie Thorn, Hugh Acheson Restaurants’ beverage director.
Mary Palac, bartender at San Jose’s Paper Plane, agrees there will be a need for innovation when a more educated consumer base returns to bars. “For home enthusiasts coming out of this with brand new skills, there will be a thirst for creativity past [simple drinks like] the Old Fashioned,” she says. Palac says this innovation could revolve around the ingredients used in cocktails. “Everyone’s been emptying out their pantries; when guests come back to the bar, they will be looking for ingredients they haven’t been using up at home,” she says.
Of course, any future creativity falls against the backdrop of the financial strains of Covid-19 closures. To maintain tight margins, reopening bars will have to shrink their menus and cut back on labor-intensive cocktail prep, explains Julian Cox, beverage director for Tartine Bakery in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Doing so while also being attractive to newly knowledgeable consumers could force bars to look past classic cocktails, offering experiences that are unique to their locations. Bar-specific riffs on the drinks consumers are now familiar with could provide the “home run” combining all of these considerations, he says.
Ultimately, bars will always be able to offer one thing that mixing cocktails at home can’t. “There is a sense of community that people get from bars that you will never feel at home,” says Adam Robinson, owner of Portland cocktail bar Deadshot. Thorn agrees. “Consumers don’t really come to bars for the drinks, they come for the atmosphere and social interaction with the bartender and other patrons,” she says.
America’s bar industry undoubtedly faces significant challenges in the coming months and years — but perhaps in this case, necessity will prove to be the mother of invention. As Plymouth Gin’s Hamilton-Mudge sees it, the coexistence of home bartending and high-end cocktail bars is the “next phase” in the evolution of cocktail culture.
Published: June 8, 2020