Ryan McBrearty might not be able to travel anywhere with his family, but he can still walk to his local bar, escaping with the stroller and kids.

“A silver lining to this crisis is that my wife, Sara, and I have gotten to spend a ton of time with our boys,” said the Houston lawyer, who takes frequent walks with his family during the day. “The after-work walks are when we go to Cantina Barba. We get chips and guac for the boys and a margarita for me … and then walk home while jamming out on our stroller speaker."

Like other bars in the nation, Cantina Barba developed cocktail kits not only to help them survive, but also as a way to take customers away from everyday coronavirus worries. These bars have been getting creative, making easy-to-put-together kits that still fall within guidelines of state liquor laws.

“We know everyone is going to struggle one way or another during this. All we can do is at least try to supply some sort of fun for everyone,” said Kristine Nguyen, Cantina Barba’s beverage director, whose frozen house margarita has been popular. “I’m trying to do more simple, classic cocktails and anything outside of classics. I try to make with stuff that’s easily obtainable or what a lot of our cocktail nerds have around the house already.”

Getting into the spirit

Tropical drinks seem to be a go-to for many of these bars.

“There is something comforting about classic tiki cocktails that makes for an easy ‘escape’ while staying home and safe,” said Annie Blake, partner of Death or Glory in Delray Beach, Fla., which sells classic cocktail kits like the mai tai. “Tiki brings to mind beaches, warm weather, palm trees, coconuts and fresh juices.”

While some of these cocktails feature easy-to-find ingredients, other spots showcase regional ingredients, like Charlotte’s Bardo with its raspberry mojito, made with Charleston, S.C.’s Cannonborough raspberry mint craft soda. Other bars also feature local and international flavors, like the Shiso Ume Lemonade from Redfish Poke Bar in Honolulu and D.C.'s Service Bar with its Toki-O highball made with Suntory Toki Japanese whisky and cherry blossom kombucha.

To reflect the mood, Service Bar divided its menu’s cocktails into three categories: “I Got a Zoom Party Tonight,” “Pretending I am On Vacation” and “Drinking to Forget.” The bar is going forward with a planned cherry blossom menu, sourcing gin and whisky from Japan’s Suntory and Nikka distilleries and other ingredients from a local Japanese shop, Hana Market.

Neighborhood bars are selling kits and cocktails to go that offer an escape during this period of social distancing. (The Washington Post)

Surviving through spirit

While Service Bar is trying new flavors, Buena Vista Cafe is depending on its staple cocktail, Irish coffee. The San Francisco institution has been around since 1867 and is known for introducing the drink to America. It used to serve an average of 2,000 Irish coffees a day but now sells 125 on weekdays and 450 on weekends. Those sales are making up about 95 percent of the cafe’s income.

“We will stay open as long as we can. Because, you know, we want to support our neighbors, because everyone’s gone through a hard time,” said general manager Kevin Jones, who went from 59 employees down to four and has lost more than $331,000 in the past few weeks.

Luckily, the Buena Vista has two liquor licenses, enabling it to sell to customers to drink on-site and to take away, but other bars have been figuring out that balance. Each state has a different policy, so bars end up selling their drinks with airplane-sized mini liquor bottles, like Cantina Barba and Buena Vista, or selling just the mix, like Bardo.

“After all, our audience at home may not have very much for tools, and the benefit of the carryout was to take most of the thinking out of it,” said Trevor Scovel, beverage director of Fort Wayne, Ind.’s Copper Spoon & Sidecar, who went through many iterations of cocktail kits, from sealed batches of to-go cocktails, which was shut down, to a “make-as-they-go method” that proved too complicated. They finally settled with one-step kits, like their Old Fashioned mix of bitters, sugar syrup and water for dilution to add to a 375-milliliter bottle of bourbon.

Scovel had the help of another bar, Seattle’s Navy Strength, which has been posting recipes and how-to videos on Instagram. They’ve been selling cocktail kits for four weeks and found that about half the people want to make drinks out of what they have at home and the rest want to try something new. Their menu is focused on travel, with flavors from India, the Philippines, Peru, Morocco and Oaxaca, Mexico. One of their main drinks is the tropical Mystery Cove cocktail, made with blueberry, lime and ginger.

“People definitely want to mentally escape this pandemic hellscape. Traveling in spirit is part of that, the seasons changing is another big part. But the biggest is, people get excited about things that they wouldn’t normally do for themselves at home,” said owner and beverage director Chris Elford. Elford says the kits also help keep the grocery list down; people may need to buy three or four bottles of spirits for one cocktail.

Delivering some spirit

Due to staff limitations, many of these bars offer cocktail kits only for pickup. Some, like Bardo, Columbia Room and Service Bar, deliver within a couple miles. Others use a third party to deliver, like Grubhub for Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash’s tiki drinks and DoorDash for Miami’s Broken Shaker’s take on classics like Thai Tea Old Fashioned.

Another option is ordering online through a service like Cocktail Courier, which ships kits across most of the United States within a week. Their cocktails are by bartenders from all over the nation, made into kits that take about four steps to mix together. They feature a drink called “the Industry Standard,” made up of mescal and cider, where all proceeds go to the United States Bartenders’ Guild’s bartender relief fund.

If you don’t want to drink alone, The Virtual Beer Festival will be happening in Las Vegas on April 24, San Diego on April 25 and San Francisco on May 2. Pre-order the beer from local breweries through the festival for delivery, then at a specified time fire up a recorded video of local bands performing while chatting in real-time with the breweries.

“It just seemed like everyone online was just bored. They kept complaining about nothing going on, and so we just kind of came with this idea,” said the festival’s director of sales and marketing Ryan Wieczorek. “We still want people to look forward to something cool … to be excited about something again.”

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