I’ve been forming a hypothesis of craft cocktail bars lately based on years of scientific observation and intense in-the-field research. Quite simply, pioneering craft cocktail bars are a shitty place to meet single women.
Craft cocktail bars are founded on the traditions of the bar craft from the 1800′s and up through to the Prohibition era. After Prohibition ended bars evolved in a very different evolutionary path that culminated in the abomination that was the Screwdriver in the 1970′s, a time when a guy could successfully invite a lovely lady into his van with shag carpeted walls. Thankfully, for everyone, that phase didn’t last and bartenders wondered if there was something better they were missing. Thankfully, too, women asked the same question about men.
The lost art that bartenders found came from what would become the craft’s bible, a book written by Jerry Thomas back in the 1800′s that had elegantly sophisticated, yet simple, spirit-forward cocktails made from fresh ingredients. Things started to get a whole lot better. We now had a branch in the evolutionary tree of the bar craft. The majority of bars, bartenders and the liquor industry rolled forward as they had been and evolved the pathetically boring Screwdriver into the far more sophisticated Vodka and Cranberry. However, for the small elite that tread the craft cocktail path back through history, cocktails started to get interesting and involve things like a spirit that is made by monks that take a vow of silence and syrups derived from an infusion with exotic herbs, fruits and vegetables. Things got better, but also with great flare.
Still, the general populous that went to a bar were more than happy to feel as if they were at the height of the cocktail craft by ordering a Cosmo or Lemon Drop because they saw it on TV. That was all the knowledge that was needed. Marketing efforts flourished. The bartender was a middleman between the patron and the cocktail. They were an interruption and their skill was based on how quickly they could get out of the way of the patron not having a cocktail in front of them. But a geeky few started to seek out the practitioners of the lost history and art, and asked their, now trusted, bartender what they should try. The bartender in the craft cocktail bar is an archeologist and scholar that needed to be approached and engaged, not caught and released.
In all the years I’ve been going to dive bars, corporate chain bars, tiki bars and craft cocktail bars I am continually faced with a simple equation: the amount of flirting is inversely proportional to the quality of the cocktail craft. That is to say, the finer the craft of the fluids flowing behind the bar, the less the fluids flow in front of the bar.
I’ve asked a number of friends who have worked in both standard/dive bars as well as craft cocktail bars and they have all confirmed that there is definitely a very different dynamic at play. But why do people not go to craft cocktail bars to party it up and get lucky? All cocktails get you equally drunk. It’s not about being looser from cheaper booze. It’s also not as much about cost. The price difference really isn’t that different. I’ve gone to a shitty average bar and had a Gin and Tonic for $9. I can get a cheaper Gin and Tonic at any craft cocktail bar, or one at the same price but with better Gin and grapefruit bitters. At $10 to $14 for the average craft cocktail, you are in the same range as most standard bars’ cocktail list.
There are many variables at play and it’s not as simple as just the quality of the cocktail itself. Large metropolitan areas with a high density of craft cocktail bars tend to have a more dynamic interaction approaching that of your average meat market dive bar. There is a greater sense of “going out.” But, that too has an influence of cocktail uniqueness and what an area would deem the “standard.” As the “standard” shifts towards craft cocktails, the flirting in front of the bar shifts back into the norm. Geeks who have a side of obsessive compulsive behavior tend to flock around the craft cocktail scene as well, feeding on the arcane knowledge like a moth to a flame. But, unlike a classic “nerd” that is socially awkward, geeks are quite opinionated and engaging so it’s not like there aren’t interesting people at craft cocktail bars… quite the opposite. However, it’s that “uniqueness” of the cocktail experience that directly effects the environment. When attention is focused on the bartender and cocktail, focus is drawn away from the environment and the others around.
I’m not saying I never talk to people and don’t interact at a craft cocktail bar. Far from it. The vast majority of my social life consists of the friends I have met around a cocktail. We talk about the cocktails and all the usual things heavily drinking friends discuss… but meeting a single woman who is there to engage a single man is rare. Most of the women I meet at a bar are there with their boyfriend or husband. Craft cocktail bars are a wonderful place for date night.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my prowess with the ladies is wanting, but I’m not speaking like Nietzsche, saying all of life is shit because his life was shit. I know I’m not a lady killer, so I look to others. I sit and observe those around me, and I rarely see people flirting or swapping phone numbers. It happens. Just not very often. Not nearly as often as in other bars. It’s a very different dynamic.
Could it be that less women are found to be at craft cocktail bars?
I’m not convinced that craft cocktails are a sexist mechanism that keep women away. I haven’t seen enough to suggest that women are less likely to go to craft cocktail bars and therefor the dynamic is unbalanced by sheer statistics. Though, there does seem to be a certain level of geekiness needed that notices the difference in a craft cocktail and an interest to keep searching them out… and more men are generally more geeky like that with booze, but I don’t think the numbers are that skewed. I talk to women sitting next to me all the time… and their dates. It’s not that they aren’t lacking. Sure, the saloon of the 1800′s didn’t allow women, and it wasn’t until the 1920′s when the liberation of women finally entered the bars and made “women going to bars” socially acceptable. To be fair, in general though, bars are still a male dominated environment where the attitudes are slightly different. I’m sure I’ll get many women rolling their eyes by saying that, but there has been a long history of the bar being effectively the living room and center of the working man’s life. Immigrants would get their mail at their local saloon, they might learn English, find a job, and politicians would focus on the patrons of a bar (some even owning bars) to gain votes. Governments were built and overthrown by men in bars. It has been a man’s domain for a very long time throughout history, while women have really only come into the bar for the last hundred years. That might sound like a long enough time to wipe away the sexism, but not when you look at the deep underlying stereotypes that still permeate our society. Having said all that, I’m still not sure the difference is as simple as more women drink wine and flavored martinis and don’t tend to be in craft cocktail bars. When it is Wednesday, and it’s half off the price of wine, the bar does fill up with more women than you usually find there the other days of the week. I won’t deny that. But, they are engaging in a different product then that of a craft cocktail… so I don’t think using that as an example is completely valid. Many women are there for cocktails. I see Lemon Drops still being made all the time, but the women are engaging the cocktail as much as the men. However, what the women are engaging in mostly is what they consider “standard” drinking and are not engaged in the craft of their drink, nor the history of its preparation. I see less enthusiasm to try something different.
The simple fact of the matter is unique and interesting is not trivial or standardized. When the human mind is engaged in interesting things, it is focused. The brain creates new neural pathways. When you are not engaged, the brain uses the same neural pathways and thoughts and memories blend together with the other unimportant things your mind has experienced and forgotten about. If you are engaged behind the bar it seems people are less energetic to engage in front of the bar. When people aren’t engaged at the bar, they find other things to be engaged by.
It’s an interesting balance. A craft cocktail bar is already juggling the cost of the extra care taken in fresh ingredients, finer spirits and longer times it takes to make a given cocktail. As a business they are striving to innovate and release new and interesting cocktails. In striving to be unique, they are keeping attention directed at the bar rather than creating an environment that is ignored. Seems like good business sense. However, the other side to that is since the craft is maintaining focus, the pedestal that people try to put themselves onto as they attempt to gain the attention of others around is already being used by the bartender performing subtle flare for the cocktail they are creating. The alpha male in the room is the cocktail.
When entering a craft cocktail bar, there is an unspoken agreement between the bar and the patron, “we do things differently than the cocktails you normally ignore. Let us show you what we can do. You will not ignore our cocktails…”
It’s like walking into church. You don’t focus on yourself or the others there. You have made an unspoken agreement that your attention shall be placed elsewhere while you are there. There is a certain amount of respect that you now hold for where you are. The same thing happens during fine dining. There is a focus and respect paid to the food and the chef. That focuses conversations into discussions centered around the food and attention to the place as an experience not to be ignored. It’s like having a ray of sunshine hit your body on a cloudy day and wanting to take a moment to sense the wonder of the moment. You close your eyes, take a breath and wrap yourself into the moment. It’s for that reason that I think singles stay away from craft cocktail bars. They are more a treat and a special occasion. Again, they are seen as a different experience because what is being experienced, the focus, is elsewhere.
As I said, when most of the bars in a city step up their craft, that becomes the expected, the standard, and is now able to be ignored because it’s not new and different. The dynamic of attention is shifted back to the front of the bar instead of behind it. A new set of fluids can be focused on and things start to look like a dive bar.
I talk to people about cocktails because I want every bar to be a craft cocktail bar. I want everyone to demand this level of quality and passion for the craft. But it is fascinating to me to see such a difference in environment. I really wonder if its possible for craft cocktails to become the norm.
The environment of a craft cocktail bar may always be just a little more sacred and reserved unless the pedestals are removed. The sacred needs to be removed. But that will bring up a whole other series of questions. Is a craft cocktail bar interesting if it doesn’t have a pedestal to place it’s cocktails upon? The answer is, of course, yes. It’s not about being different… it’s about being good. It’s about the balance inside the cocktail glass. It’s about bringing that balance from within back out into the rest of the bar craft landscape.
Craft cocktail bars are still trying to find their place in the modern bar scene. I hope they become the standard for all bars. It’s a tough business with the general populous not knowing that cocktails could be interesting. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for it to be interesting. There’s much learning still needing to be done. There’s so much profit to be made by people not being focused on the quality and craft. The craft cocktail bar is an art form bringing attention back. But interestingly, that art also makes it a little more alienating from the general populous it’s trying to infect. Right now, to grab attention and focus, they are going through their own shag carpeted van phase, trying to lure people’s attention to how cool things can be. However, it creates a dynamic in front of the bar that leaves it a little dry. So to speak.
Hopefully time will pass and they will get beyond the need for the attention grabbing extremes and simply become the standard bar experience.
Hopefully, they will stop cockblocking me with their awesome.