Cocktail professionals discuss how their business changed in the digital landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how those lessons will shape their futures.
Read time: 8 minutes
It became rapidly clear when the COVID-19 pandemic began locking the world inside that humanity’s digital side of life would take on a significance never seen before. What no one could have guessed, however, were the countless shapes and expressions that online life would take. The global cocktail community was, of course, no exception.
For example, when Becky Paskin, co-founder of OurWhisky, found that all in-person whisk(e)y events were canceled, she took to her laptop. OurWhisky’s mission is to dispel the myth that whiskey is meant to be enjoyed only by a narrow, privileged spectrum of society.
“And I thought, why not take that online – why not launch an online whisk(e)y festival?” she said, joined by eight other cocktail business professionals in a roundtable discussion presented by Pernod Ricard as part of a series of Spirited Awards programming held within Tales of the Cocktail®’s 2021 hybrid conference. OurWhisky was the first in the UK’s history, sold out in a matter of days, and raised tens of thousands for those in the hospitality industry who needed help.
Across the ocean in Montreal, Kate Boushel of Barroco Group in Montreal said one of the key lessons of the pandemic’s digital side came after the initial crisis wore off. “When we came back (from initial lockdown) we realized the extent to which our staff had been yearning for connection that entire time,” she said. To fill that need, Boushel created a full educational digital platform, open to the front and back of the house. Tasting kits were organized and distributed to staff, who joined weekly tastings to hone their skills in relative downtime and buoy their collective spirits as a group. Now, those sessions are available on Google Drive for future employees.
Education comes as part of the core mission for Tres Monos bar and studio in Argentina. “From the beginning, we thought of Tres Monos not only as a bar but also as a school,” said Charly Aguinsky. During the pandemic, they too took the opportunity to launch an online education platform, with the dual benefits of expanding their brand voice throughout the continent and also lending a hand to struggling colleagues in the industry. “Those pay-per-view workshops helped us maintain all the jobs we have in our company as well as help us contribute and financially support other bartenders (turned instructors) that didn’t have an income.”
Similarly, Angie Jackson, the Traveling Elixir Fixer out of Kalamazoo, invited furloughed bartender friends to stage cocktail-making demonstrations on social media for venmo-ed virtual tips. This was part of an extended lighthearted approach focused on shared humanity. “On Facebook Live and Instagram I went on and did live sessions that are ‘forage the fridge’ – grab the jam, we’re gonna show you how to make a syrup out of this – we did MacGyver mixology,” she said. In addition to an approachable model for the average viewer, Jackson also found this tactic to be a salve for people struggling with pandemic-induced stress. Thus began the Google Meet-based “Toddy Tea Time,” she said. “(People) were able to talk about what they were feeling, learn about different toddies and teas and just have a sounding board. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years; I will listen, we’ll talk and even grasp that little bit of emotion you can through the virtual aspect.”
That kind of inventiveness was essential for Kailee Asher of Barter & Shake Creative Hospitality in Phoenix. Asher opened a new bar just five months before lockdown. Given those circumstances, she had to act fast. “The most important parts are one, continuing to engage with our customer base and two, providing some education and finding some kind of alternative revenue stream,” she said. That alternative became selling cocktail kits using one of the largest collections of single barrel whiskey in the country. “We were sitting on all that product,” Asher said. “We essentially wanted to focus on how to monetize.” The virtual aspect helped achieve both aims of connecting with customers, educating them, and generating revenue.
Another aspect of the hospitality lockdown’s virtual side was an increase in conversation between far-flung bar professionals. Yao Lu of Union Trading Co. in Shanghai said he received an influx of communiques from people around the country once the pandemic started. Union Trading Company was faring better than many other bars around the country. “Why not share the love, travel around China,” he said. “The lesser traveled cities of China … who might be looking for help.” He identified the bars that needed help, shared how his bar navigated the situation and held seminars and fundraisers for those struggling.
Ebenezer Tetteh, CEO of House of Mixology Ghana, traveled as well, though in a different sense. He spent time interviewing bartenders and trendsetters across Africa on social media. He too noticed many questions from fellow Africans regarding the world of craft mixology. But Tetteh’s mission went beyond sharing barroom techniques and tactics. “I really want Africans to see this is an African person who’s really making a wave outside the continent or even in Africa,” he said. “I want them to see them, to be in their own image.” In this way, Tetteh sought to inspire others to take pride in their identity as African bartenders and show the world what they can do.
That kind of inspiration and how far it can travel online is a key benefit to maintaining a healthy digital presence. For Lauren Paylor, owner and director of programming at Focus on Health, it was also a way to spread an overall message of health and wellness to the global cocktail community. Based in Washington DC, she co-founded the health-focused program in 2020 just before the pandemic. Now she collaborates with a host of health and wellness professionals. “We’re food and beverage professionals but we understand the areas we need help and support and by collaborating with health and wellness professionals, we came up with an array of programs we were able to offer virtually,” she said. The company is looking forward to hosting its first in-person event in 2022. Paylor added a sentiment that covers all of the digital experiences shared during the round table, and something for any cocktail professional to keep in mind as they look at the virtual horizon. “If you have an idea and you’re really passionate about it, you will make it happen,” she said.
Stream the entire 2021 Spirited Awards Regional Roundtable Discussion: Digital Experiences presented by Pernod Ricard on the Tales of the Cocktail YouTube channel HERE.
2022 Spirited Awards nominations are open February 15 – March 8, 11:59 PM EST. It only takes one nomination to be considered!