(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on how the pandemic is altering the business of eating and drinking. For more, see Bobby Ghosh on the future of destination dining and Amanda Little’s interview with the CEO of Beyond Meat.
Who wants to sit or stand in a crowded bar, and shout orders at a bartender or try to hold a conversation above loud music while calculating the airborne dispersal pattern of coronavirus droplets? Right, didn’t think so. As lockdowns ease, Americans are venturing back to their favorite watering holes, but they won’t be drinking as usual. With margins tight and profits dependent on high capacity, many establishments will go out of business. The craft cocktail craze and craft distillery boom may all but deflate.
The U.S. has been here before: In 1920, Prohibition forced huge changes on alcohol consumption in the U.S., but it hardly stopped Americans from drinking. Instead, it sparked innovations from the cocktail party to the powder room, not to mention a burst of mixological creativity. Here, Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” and Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum: a History of the New World in Ten Cocktails,” explore the lessons of history and how Covid-19 will change the business and rituals of drinking. An edited transcript of their discussion with Bloomberg’s James Gibney:
James Gibney: Wayne, in the name of science and journalism, you’ve probably been in more bars than many Americans. What was the last one you visited?
Wayne Curtis: In New Orleans two weeks ago I went and visited Cure, a bar uptown that was the progenitor of the craft cocktail movement in New Orleans. It had been closed for a couple months and they just reopened. I went there to see what was going on.
JG: How had it changed?
WC: Very different. For starters, you had to have a reservation to get in. The door was locked. A sign said, “Please wait here. You’ll be seated.” Someone came out, checked to make sure you had a reservation. We went in. They have a nice, long bar that normally would accommodate a dozen or more people. Now they had two sets of two stools for the entire distance. The drinks list was much shorter. Everything just felt pared down.A lot of what I would call performative disinfecting was going on. When the couple at the other set of bar stools left, for instance, they picked the bar stools up and took them out to disinfect them before bringing them back. Our bartender was wearing a mask, so you couldn’t tell if she was smiling at you or not. It was almost like sitting in a theater and watching somebody go to a bar rather than being at a bar itself.
There was no that sense that you go into a bar and, you know, rub shoulders with people. It was just very distant.
JG: So what’s the prognosis you’re getting from people you speak with in the industry?
WC: It’s bleak. I hear estimates that anywhere between 25% and 75% of bars won’t reopen over the long-term. I imagine that somewhere between a quarter and a half of bars are not going to make it. I talked to a consultant a couple weeks ago who has 200 clients, bar clients, and he ran the numbers on them and he said that fewer than 10% could survive even at 80% of their previous revenue.
The numbers are tight on a lot of these bars. Yes, these are mostly craft cocktail bars, not necessarily dive bars. But they’ve got their own set of issues to deal with.
JG: Dan, you cataloged the last alcoholic, or non-alcoholic, Armageddon this country faced: Prohibition, the last big disruption of American social drinking. What happened after the saloons closed? How quickly did speakeasies spring up after Prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920?
Daniel Okrent: The first speakeasies sprang up the next day. People knew Prohibition was coming and they were ready for it, and particularly in the big cities. Any city that was anywhere near the coast or the Canadian border. And any city with a large Catholic population. Prohibition was an overwhelmingly Protestant Evangelical movement.
What was most striking about it, though, was that very soon it became a different kind of drinking. The saloon was a male-only place. Once the speakeasies opened, then, you know, the whole idea of breaking laws was that we can also break traditions, and women started to show up. Men and women drinking together in public was an absolute creation of Prohibition.
And once men and women were drinking together, well, maybe you better have some music. And that’s the birth of American nightclubs and the spread of jazz. And you need to have a ladies’ room in bars that only had men’s rooms. Well, under the stairway there was a broom closet. If we could just put in a toilet and a sink and a mirror, we’d be all set. And that’s the invention of the powder room.
So it did many wonders to improve American life.
JG: What about drinks? It wasn’t as if you were going to the store and buying a bottle of Cutty Sark or what have you.
DO: Well, Cutty Sark is a good one for you to mention because it was a brand invented by the Distillers Corporation of the UK specifically for the American market in 1922 or ‘23. It starts coming in from the Bahamas, primarily.
The quality of the booze that people drank during Prohibition was highly suspect at best, so that led — as you can read in Wayne’s book — to the popularization of such things as rum and coke, or even gin and tonic. You know, tonic had been used as an anti-malarial in India for the British. Suddenly it became a way to make really rotten liquor taste decent.
JG: Wayne, did you have a favorite mixed drinks innovation that came out of Prohibition?
WC: Basically, the family of highballs. You can find traces of highballs prior to Prohibition, but that really helped it to take off. A lot of what was sort of bubbly, sparkly and refreshing can trace its origins back to Prohibition.
But after repeal, it took a while for people to re-learn how to drink. During that 13-year break, a lot of the good bartenders had fled the country, gone to Cuba or London. It took time to retrain bartenders on how to make great drinks.
DO: There’s also the great irony that it became harder to get a drink in the U.S. after repeal. During Prohibition, if you bribed the cop on the beat, you could stay open and operate as long as you wished. There were no closing hours, there were no age limits. You could be near a church, you could be across the street from a school. A 14-year-old could walk in at 7:00 in the morning on a Sunday and get a drink. Because nothing was allowed, everything was allowed.
When repeal comes, the 21st amendment gives states the authority to control alcoholic sales and consumption. Each state is issuing licenses. And no, you have to be 21, and you can’t serve this, you can’t serve something over such-and-such proof, and you can’t do it on a Sunday. You have to close it at midnight. The bar owners now had licenses that they could lose, and to protect themselves and their business they had to abide by these rules. So it did become harder to drink than when it was illegal to drink.
JG: There’s a bit of a parallel between that and what could conceivably happen, post-coronavirus. If they start enforcing social distancing laws and things like that, and threatening bars and their licenses and things like that, I mean, you're going to see these kind of side effects.
WC: A lot of evolution has to happen in the next few years, as people start coming back into bars and dealing with this new reality. First, bars are going to have to deal with consumer anxiety. Customers want to see this performative disinfecting. They want to know that floor managers will help maintain distance between people.
As people learn more about how the virus is transmitted, these free-floating fears are going to be translated into something more concrete. Again, with an example from New Orleans, people have learned that it’s not touching elevator buttons that’s going to get you the virus, it’s sustained contact next to somebody — especially indoors, where air currents are less likely to dissipate droplets.So suddenly everybody in New Orleans is outside. They’ve moved tables out onto the sidewalks, out to where parking spaces were, even into the median strips, or neutral grounds as they’re called locally. Whether that proves to be a long-term solution for fears remains to be seen.
DO: Wayne, do you think there will be a lasting change as a result of new patterns developing? For instance, in New York, restaurants are now allowed to deliver cocktails as a way of enabling people to have the full meal and to provide a little bit of revenue for the restaurant. Is that the sort of thing that we might see in our future, where drinking will move away from bars back to the home?
WC: We’re definitely seeing that. And a lot of temporary measures put in at the outset are being expanded. In Texas and in some municipalities in California they are making them permanent. Soon we may all be New Orleans. I’m not sure about drinking in public, but certainly allowing delivery. It’s a way to instantly allow bars hampered by a 50% or 75% capacity limit to expand their capacity by sending stuff out the door.
It’s been a lifeline for some bars. Particularly in New York, a lot of bars went to delivery and cocktails to go. It enabled them to convert inventories of $10,000 to $30,000 worth of booze on the back bar into cash. But then once the inventory diminished, they got out of that business. I think they’ll get back into it if the bars reopen at limited capacity.
JG: Dan, in your book, you explored some of the innovations on the home front during Prohibition, like the rise of the cocktail party.
DO: Yes, Americans found new ways to drink. You see it in fiction from the 1920s, like the New York writer Dawn Powell talking about going off to something called a cocktail party. People would go to someone’s house to drink in a social environment that was not also a commercial environment. That was new. Prohibition changed so many aspects of American alcohol consumption, and I’d say overwhelmingly in positive ways.
Another innovation was the idea of call brands. Marshall Dillon didn’t walk into the saloon and say, “Give me a Jim Beam 12-year-old.” Instead, it was, “Give me a shot of whiskey.”
The creation of brand names and the promotion of brands proliferates during Prohibition, largely because people thought that if they were buying this brand, it was safe. It was not rotgut. It was not something that’d been made in a backwoods still.
Of course, there was an enormous business of counterfeiting brand-name labels. You could ask for a Dewar’s, but you didn’t know you were getting a Dewar’s. But that tradition, that habit of ordering by brand really begins to spread from Prohibition.
JG: Wayne, back in 2009 and 2011 you were writing columns celebrating the rise of craft distillers and also arguing that, “Finding an excellent cocktail was easier now than at any time in the past century.” Aren’t a lot of craft distillers going to get hit hard?
WC: You have to distinguish between the craft cocktail bars and the craft distillers. They’re separate industries. The craft distillers are getting hit hard, because they’ve depended on bars. Bartenders at smaller bars become their fans and their unpaid salesmen. If someone comes in, they say, “Oh, you’ve got to try this gin. It’s made just down the road and it’s using local botanicals,” and people get interested.Their tasting rooms are a huge business for them because they don’t have to pay a distributor or retail store. They’ve lost that because those have all been closed down. There’s going to be carnage in the craft spirits world. You know, it’s grown so exponentially. When I first started working with you at The Atlantic in 2005 or ’06, there were maybe 60 or 80 craft distillers in the country. Now there’s around 2,000 of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if as many as half of them end up having to shut down.
I’m not sure how things will play out in the craft cocktail world. If reduction in capacity becomes the norm, if consumers and customers are afraid to come in — the whole appeal of going to a bar on a Friday night was to get in there shoulder-to-shoulder and just be close to people.
JG: So is it too early to mourn the end of a golden age? We’re not likely to see this efflorescence of craft cocktail bars and craft distillers anytime soon.
WC: It's not too soon to mourn that. It will come back in a much deflated way. It’s been really bubbly the last few years. The cocktail movement goes through cycles. One of the last great eras was the Mad Men era in the 1960s.
It was too successful. It’s very expensive to have top-flight bartenders who are trained to do all sorts of things, including entertain guests and keep a clean shop and make sophisticated drinks and be able to talk to people while doing all that.
So you started to see a movement toward cocktails on tap, you started to see bottled cocktails, which let you make your own fancy drinks at home.
We’ve been going through sort of a similar transition in the craft cocktail world now, and it’s going to accelerate under these conditions. I think we’ll look back at 1995 to the beginning of 2020 as one of the big cocktail booms.
JG: Let’s say they don’t come up with a vaccine in 12 months. What’s it going to do to the fabric of American life if people can’t go into bars and enjoy the kind of experience they used to have? In our polarized country, bars and sports stadiums are some of the few places where people from different tribes mingle. What’s going to happen to us if we lose those spaces?
DO: I think you’re right to worry. Every aspect of our life in the space on social engagement with others has to change in radical ways. You’re not going to see people hugging each other. Hugging, you know, two, three years ago everybody was hugging people they've never met before. I think the handshake may wither away if there isn’t a vaccine soon. There are aspects of our social life, and certainly bars and cocktail lounges are part of that, that can’t survive unchanged, not because of laws but because of human behavior. We’re not going to want to do those things anymore.
WC: I agree with that. There will always be bars. I don’t think they’re ever going away, but they’re just going to have to morph dramatically. I think you’re going to see more stratification. We might see a return to private clubs, a Kingsley Amis-era sort of thing. There’s a sort of self-stratification. You’ll know who’s going to be there, and you can count on the club to be a little more attuned to space and hygiene. Even in regular bars, there will be more nooks to drink in.
There’s a bar in San Francisco, just opened a year ago, called Zombie Village — they happened to have eight tiki huts along one wall that could seat between 2 and 10 people in each of them. You reserve them in advance. That bar owner, he’s golden.
JG: Well, I hope we’re going to see other innovations in this space that'll enable us to survive a couple of difficult years until medical science solves this problem for us.
WC: Especially in the last five to 10 years, the craft cocktail world has attracted young, ambitious and super creative people. They’re going to adapt to the new environment and figure out what needs to be done.
JG: Dan, you mentioned at the outset of our discussion that Prohibition was driven primarily by Protestant Evangelicals. They’re certainly politically active these days. Is there any chance that this moment is going to rekindle the remnants of the movement that brought us Prohibition?
DO: There is still a Prohibition party. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union still has its headquarters in Evanston, Illinois. It’s open one afternoon a month. It was once the most powerful political lobby in the country.
But the largest lesson of Prohibition is that legislating against human appetite is going to be a failure. Even in the punitively driest parts of the country, people have found ways to change laws to enable people to get a drink if they want to get a drink.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Gibney is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.