Ghosts of Christmas Past & Future

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I spent yesterday evening packing for another weekend run down to Los Angeles, continuing the transition from north to south as I prepare to start my new job. On my agenda was organizing the bar, not only filled to capacity on the surface, but also bulging internally as well. I opened the cabinet door and began sorting the bottles—keep, finish, or pour out? At the very back, behind a number of old sherry bottles, was a nice surprise: about four ounces of Faultline Gin Batch #1, the first ever bespoke gin project I helped create in as the buyer for K&L. Dave Smith, the distiller for St. George, and I created a few recipes together over the years, but the original was always the fan favorite. Smelling what was left in the bottle brought back some very happy memories (celery seed!), and I ended up drinking two Faultline gin and tonics while packing the remaining bottles. It is nice every now and again to revisit the past, remember the old times, and kindle that nostalgic spark with an old bottle or two. That being said, it was also a giant pain in the ass to clean out that bar and moving forward I think I’d be happier with less stuff, even if it means fewer surprises down the line.

Past and future trends of alcohol have been on my mind lately, especially after taking a consulting call yesterday afternoon from a brand owner looking to bring some new projects to market. The advice I gave him for 2019 couldn’t have been more different from the direction I steered a number of brands only a few years back. In discussing pre-mixed, ready-to-drink cocktails, I was far more optimistic for the future of RTDs than I’ve ever been about the genre. Cocktail culture from about 2007 to 2017 was centered around the pre-Prohibition renaissance, effectively bringing quality-oriented, historically-accurate ingredients back to bartenders around the globe, and focusing on the craft of the cocktail itself. It was a rejection of all things lowbrow, critical of drinks that were nothing more than an alcohol delivery device, and it challenged bars and restaurants everywhere to be better. At that time, RTDs were about as cool as wine in a can, but today things have shifted again.

While the upscale movement absolutely achieved its goal, it also created unintended friction. As consumers became enamored of recreating the past, they found themselves buying too much esoteric booze in order to do so. Many ingredients offered little utility beyond one or two recipes, and quickly lost their luster once another new product came along. Remember when the U.S. lifted the ban on absinthe? One minute we were celebrating the return of a lost legacy, the next minute we were wondering how in the hell we were going to drink all this high proof, anise-flavored hooch. I remember gushing over the emergence of real orgeat, grenadine, and the endless volume of flavored bitters that never stopped flowing. But as time went by, I wound up throwing much of those bottles out as they either spoiled due to disuse, or crowded what little room I had left in the bar. As the days grew busier and life became more hectic, I began to value convenience more and more when it came to my cocktails. I still wanted the quality I had become accustomed to over the last decade, I just wanted an easier way to enjoy it. Today, high-quality convenience shapes almost every decision I make, from what I drink to what I buy.

Convenience isn’t just going to dominate cocktail culture in 2019, however; it’s going to dominate every aspect of alcohol appreciation, from the way we talk about booze to the manner in which we shop for it. Talking with specialty retailers over the last week, it’s clear this evolution is already well underway. A number of buyers told me their December sales were up, but their foot traffic was way down. Why? Because more orders were being placed online and then scheduled for delivery, rather than in-store pick-up. The sales staff members were quietly stocking the shelves, while the operations team ran frantically to prepare orders for the queue of waiting delivery drivers. In the age of Instacart, Doordash, and Uber delivery, consumers are choosing convenience when it comes to drinking booze, as well as purchasing it, opting for the comfort of their couch and ease of their laptop over the well-curated aisles of their favorite store. Bars and restaurants are also getting in on the convenience angle. One brand owner told me his high-quality mixer sales were way up this year as a result of on-premise accounts looking to cut back on labor costs. If the cocktails are pre-mixed or easier to build, the less you have to spend on veteran talent.

But can you really maintain quality while improving convenience? In certain cases, yes. Fever Tree is a great example of a brand that has improved the quality of my homemade gin and tonic or Moscow Mule, while making it easier than ever to mix. In other cases, however, something has to give. Opting for convenience can have its own unintended consequences, taking away the romance or enjoyment of the very thing we’re enamored with, or even the ability for the brands we love to remain operational. Simply put: any company—be it a brand, a bar, or a retailer—that cannot adapt and find a way to make consumption easier, while maintaining both its standards and its profits, is going to be in serious trouble in 2019. It used to be cool to wait ten minutes for a cocktail at a fancy bar, watching the bartender meticulously add each layer, and stir the drink by hand. It was like a ritual, magical and alluring, but over time the novelty has been lost. I don’t have the desire or the patience to wait like that anymore. When I’ve spent an hour at the gym, ten hours working, two hours commuting back and forth, the last thing I want to do is wait—be it in line at the liquor store, at my local bar, or in the kitchen when I get home.

The internet has created a number of consumer expectations over the years. Increased access to information. Increased access to people. But, most of all, increased access to convenience. As I finished packing up my bottles, I took a few snapshots of the remaining bar and dining room furniture I planned on donating, and texted them to the tech start-up that promised to bring them to Goodwill for me. In the past, I would have had to borrow a friend’s truck or rent a U-Haul to get rid of all that stuff. With today’s technology, however, difficult tasks have been simplified. Moving has never been easier or more convenient.

-David Driscoll