Our Here, Now column looks at trends taking hold in cities around the world. Given how different the world looks these days, we’re focusing on the feel-good moments emerging in between.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced bars and restaurants throughout the world to shutter or reduce their services to take-out or delivery. While selling drinks this way is a novelty in places like the U.S., it’s a tried-and-true concept in China—and one that has become even more popular over the last few months.
“Delivery is such a way of life here in China,” says Shanghai-based Chris Lowder, an American expat and cocktail industry consultant who has also bartended at some of Asia’s best bars. “People expect anything, goods or a service, to be available for delivery in 30 minutes or less.” Craft cocktails, he says, are no exception.
The craft cocktail concept has been popular in China for at least five years, and from the get-go even the swankiest bars weren’t sniffy about offering off-premise drinks. And though this style of cocktail delivery can be found throughout the country, it’s very much based in Shanghai, which has established itself as the de facto capital of contemporary cocktail bars in the country (most point to the opening of Swing Low, Shinko Gokan’s speakeasy-inspired joint that opened six years ago on Fuxing Lu, as the kickoff).
In China, a cocktail delivery usually come with more accessories than Barbie’s Dream House. (It’s no wonder drink unboxing videos can often be spotted on popular social media platforms Weibo and WeChat.) Perhaps there’ll be a small shaker so you can refresh the drink before you pour, plus vacuum-packed garnishes and ice for serving. If the drink arrives in a bottle, it might be branded with a wax seal of the bar’s logo; it will certainly be beautiful enough to keep and reuse.
Sometimes, there will also be a card explaining how the drink should taste alongside a scannable QR code—which might launch a video of the bartender explaining the drink, or a playlist to recreate the bar’s vibe while drinking at home. Additional collateral often shows the drink photographed not in a studio or bar, but in a home setting, like a lavish magazine spread on home entertaining. (The intention, of course, is to inspire the customer to snap their own well-positioned photo to share on social media.)
During the pandemic’s initial spread and the consequent lockdown, such deliveries continued. “It’s not just the actual drink that people want—they want an escape, a feeling they’re still in society even when they’re stuck in their home and haven’t showered for days,” says Lowder. More than ever, that bar playlist or over-the-top garnish became more than an accessory to a great drink: it was a method of transportation.
Support for those behind the cocktails has been far stronger as well. Tipping is not culturally expected in China, but delivery apps now have a donation option for drinkers to support their favorite bars. Some spots are also including photographs of the bar and bar team, signed on the back with a note of thanks. Others throw in snacks, like little savory bags of crackers.
Bars got especially creative with the bits and pieces that could be delivered alongside the drink itself, with some resembling more of a grab bag with a bonus bottle of booze. But the whole idea was to create an ongoing, consistent relationship. “These bars were not looking for people to buy one thing, one time,” Lowder says, “They wanted people to do it weekly, on a Friday night as a treat while they were in quarantine.” And, of course, the hope was that they’d continue coming for their drink in person once constraints were lifted. While here’s no industry data on sales during the shutdown, anecdotally, it’s proven a lifeline for Shanghai’s bars.
Locked-down spots in New York City are already following suit. Dante in Greenwich Village, which recently topped the World’s 50 Best list, began offering delivery of its food menu a few weeks ago. As soon as the restaurant shutdown happened last week, owner Linden Pride pivoted to both food and drinks, sending their signature negroni out for delivery.
“Our first question was, How do we package this to create meaning when people open the bag?” says Pride. “How do we bring life and love into their homes right now?” Random bunches of daffodils and fun coasters and stickers have been making their way into Dante’s deliveries. And while these add-ons aren’t quite the same as Shanghai’s, they delight in a moment of need all the same.
Across the U.S., an increasing number of bars are setting out on the same path, making it possible for American drinkers to experience the at-home joy found in Shanghai. See Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance, owned by bartender and spirits writer St. John Frizell, or Austin-based Mexican restaurant El Arroyo, which is delivering its signature margaritas. You can also dial up a mai tai from Kon-Tiki in Oakland, or order a make-it-yourself cocktail kits from The Bitter Cube in Milwaukee.