Currently, many states across the country are allowing restaurants and bars to sell cocktails and bottled spirits to-go during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some states, including Texas, are also considering making these policies permanent, which means many people will be able to enjoy expertly crafted libations from their regular bars right in the comfort of home beyond the pandemic, whenever that happens.
Texans have been able to purchase takeout and delivery alcoholic beverages to-go from restaurants and bars that make more than half of their sales from food items. Originally, the initial waiver issued in March only allowed for the sale of manufacturer-sealed alcoholic beverages Then, last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott approved of an updated waiver which allowed restaurants and bars to make, seal, and sell mixed alcoholic beverages for delivery and takeout. Under these new guidelines, cocktails must be served with a lid that is sealed with a sticker noting the business name and that it is an alcoholic drink, and then placed in a plastic bag that is zip-tied closed. A food item also has to accompany all booze sales.
“Social distancing restrictions have caused a [more than] 70 percent reduction in restaurant sales,” said Chris Swonger, the president and CEO of Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), a national trade association representing America’s major distillers. This means offering cocktail delivery and takeout is a lifeline that injects much-needed dollars back into the industries.
“Cocktails to-go are a lot of fun,” Swonger added. “A lot of consumers can support their favorite bars and restaurants while maintaining social distancing.” He predicted that takeaway and delivery cocktails are going to stick around for a while.
This means that portable cocktails at home need to be embraced by people. “Our community needs to rally behind the idea that this is the new normal,” explained Matthew Bolick, co-founder of Austin restaurants and bars Better Half and Little Brother. Since dining-in is being discouraged because of how easily the virus can spread, takeout is a safer option that still supports local businesses. “This is about the community and keeping everyone safe,” he added.
With that in mind, Eater checked in with several Austin bars and restaurants to find out how they developed their to-go cocktail programs.
Though Drink.Well is currently closed for dine-in service, the North Loop bar took its time to reopen with a curbside pickup menu in mid-May, with food, beer, and cocktail.
“The ability to now sell premixed bottled cocktails, instead of cost-prohibitive cocktail kits, is a game-changer for us,” said owner Jessica Sanders, “as we try to safely service our guests.” She and the team have been developing the to-go program for months, “so that if and when it became legal, we could jump on it,” she explained.
Among the cocktails to-go offered are the classics (Old Fashioneds, Negronis, martinis, gimlets, and margaritas), and guests can specify which spirit brand they’d like to use in their drink. There’s also a rotating hand-shaken daiquiri option, with potentials such as banana, pineapple, or the Hemingway. Additionally, there are two tropical-style punches, the gin-based Singapore Sling and the house Mai Tai, made with a blend of rums. Each of the premixed bottled cocktails serves two drinks, and prices start at about $7 to $8 per drink.
To shake things up, and “perhaps most ambitiously,” as Sanders noted, the bar is offering what is being called the “bespoke” cocktail options, which are essentially the bartenders’ choices. Guests can pick base spirits, desired style (citrus, refreshing, spirit-forward, or bold), and flavor profile (fruity, spicy, aromatic, or tropical). Based on those specifications, the bar team selects classic or contemporary cocktail, mixes it up, and the bottles it.
“The bespoke cocktail is all about maintaining a personal connection with guests,” Sanders explained, “and attempting to emulate the exact conversation and service we’d offer them if they were seated at the bar.” It also helps keep the bar team engaged, as they think up different cocktails. Orders can be placed online for curbside pickups.
For a brief stint in June, fellow North Loop spot Workhorse Bar had reopened for dine-in service, but is now sticking to to-go and curbside orders. The bar now offers an array of basic mixed cocktails, from vodka sodas to whiskey-cokes, but the always-classic margarita proves to be popular. “We suspect it will probably be our fresh-squeezed lime margarita that [customers] will walk out the door more often than not,” said Brent Broyles, owner and manager of the bar.
The Workhorse margarita is available in several formats. There’s the cocktail kit, which includes a 375 milliliter bottle of silver tequila, a mason jar of the house margarita mix, two limes, and a small container of kosher salt for garnishing purposes. Then there’s the individually portioned already-mixed margarita. And then, for those who already have tequila at home, there’s the non-alcoholic margarita mixer available. Takeout and curbside pickup orders can be placed online.
Better Half & Little Brother
All-day Clarksville-adjacent restaurant Better Half has been offering to-go cocktails since the beginning of the pandemic. While it has since reopened its patio for dine-in service, the takeout menu is still available. The team “steers folks towards the cocktails we think travel best,” explained general manager Mark Stowe. There are mixed options and cocktail kits, including sangria.
The rotating frozen cocktails are popular, which are canned on demand and then placed in a koozie, noted Stowe. A customer favorite so far is the Force of Nature, a take on the Hurricane made with passionfruit.
Across town, its downtown sibling bar Little Brother is offering its take on to-go cocktails. The business had been able to stay open for to-go service despite the bar shutdown, since it’s technically designated as a restaurant, thanks to on-site truck Bummer Burrito. The bar is also operating a delivery service, using their own hired staff
“Oddly enough, we were sort of built for this moment,” explained Bolick. There’s a crowler machine, which the team has been using to can any of the cocktails, including the mezcal-based frozen pina colada, called the Mr Jojo’s Frozen Pina Colada.
For those who seek brunch at any time of the day, downtown restaurant Forthright Café extended its morning cocktail menu throughout the day. Deciding to offer brunch all day long made sense in light of the pandemic.
For the downtown restaurant, this means to-go brunch classics such as bloody marys, margaritas, and a variety of other daytime-friendly cocktails. Forthright also offers small bottles of spirits, with mixers on the side.
The restaurant also reopened for dine-in service, making use of its patio. “We are fortunate that we have a good-sized patio,” said Michael Swali, the president of the restaurant, “where guests can sit without the risk of exposure,” as compared with indoor seating. Pickup orders can be placed online.
Downtown bar Garage’s cocktail kits are available through its sibling company, meal kit platform Assembly Kitchen. Ingredients are prepped ahead of time and there is minimal at-home preparation involved, which makes it easy for people to enjoy restaurant- and bar-quality food and drinks at home.
“The best way to help us is to explore new ways of interacting through the food and beverage experience,” explained Assembly Kitchen co-founder Allison Swope. “Be willing to try something new, connect in a new way, even during this time when social distancing is so critical.”
Available through Garage’s web-store are customer picks such as the vodka-based Indian Paintbrush and mezcal cocktail Seven-Day Weekend, as well as the classic Old Fashioned and a fun daiquiri. The bar is constantly adding new drinks and taking suggestions and requests, too.
The bar is also experimenting with new ways to bring people together, which led to Assembly’s new Plans program. It allows people to organize virtual events, including happy hours and bartender-led sessions, with drinks from the bar.
Orders for pickup and local deliveries are placed online, and it also ships kits throughout Texas and the country.