The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down bars and nightclubs nationwide, leaving Americans without their favorite watering holes to socialize in. But creative consumers have found ways to recreate virtual bar life with “Zoom cocktail parties,” “quarantinis” and a new outlook on social drinking. Digital drinking might not replace the traditional bar scene, but it’s at least finding new ways to put money into bartenders’ pockets while they await a return to their normal jobs.
Consuming alcohol has always had a lot of questions built into it that most of us probably never noticed: Red or white? Shaken or stirred? Single-malt or blended? On the rocks or neat?
That’s because for most of us, those questions are a convenient shorthand for personal style and preferences.
A person who likes pina coladas and taking walks in the rain can, in theory, be different than someone whose preferred drink is whiskey by the shot in a dimly lit, out-of-the-way bar. In fact, urban legend holds that a good bartender can learn everything he or she needs to know about a person simply by what a customer orders when they belly up to the bar.
But since mid-March, U.S. bartenders have been unable to deploy their amateur profiling skills because bars and nightclubs have closed their doors. Customers have been left with but a single question to replace the many permutations and personalizations they placed into their drink orders: “What do you like in your ‘quarantini’?”
The “quarantini” is by all accounts not a specific drink recipe. Yes, some purists believe that based on its name, a quarantini must be made like a standard martini — vodka or gin and a dash of vermouth and decorative olives. However, those purists seem to be a small if vocal group.
There are also quarantini recipes out there like this one from the Industrious Spirit Co. that start in the same gin-based place as a typical martini, but fancy things up considerably with the addition of homemade mint syrup and lemon juice.
But a quarantini isn’t so much a specific kind of drink so much as it is a specific idea about social drinking. It’s a drink you mix up when you’re drinking alone — but together with others during a virtual happy hour on Zoom, Skype or Facetime in place of catching a drink at the local bar.
For TV actress Lisa Rinna, her quarantini of choice is a Belvedere vodka and soda with three lime wedges. “You have to use Belvedere,” Rinna cautioned. “I am not a paid spokesperson, though I would like to be. … Belvedere does not give you a hangover, and that is per Kris Jenner.”
But the internet is overflowing with quarantini options that feature honey lavender, blood oranges, bacon, coffee, passion fruit and even Mountain Dew. It’s reasonably safe to assume that you can name any ingredient humans can safely consume and any alcoholic beverage legal in America and someone has mixed the two together while hanging out with friends during a digital happy hour.
In fact, it’s even possible they got a bartender’s help in creating that cocktail. Bartenders furloughed from their regular jobs have increasingly moved online to host virtual classes and happy hours for patrons looking for a place to hang out and maybe learn to mix better drinks.
For example, pro and amateur bartenders gather six nights a week at Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour to trade mixology tricks. “You don’t go to a bar for the alcohol, you go to a bar for companionship. You go back to the bar for the bartender,” said Jackie Summers, who co-hosts the events with writer Daniella Veras and bartender Lauren Myerscough.
Such events also offer bartenders a chance to make some money during this very down time. Attendees send gratuities via apps like Venmo and bartenders keep 100 percent of their tips.
“It’s a virtual space with real tips,” Summers said. “We’re literally putting food in the hands of people out of work right now.”
Will this new virtual bar culture hang on even as the world begins to recover?
That’s hard to say. Virtual happy hours seem to have created genuine connections and enjoyment for some participants, and the events are convenient — no need to worry about a ride home.
They’re also inexpensive compared to bars, and there’s no dress code. Drinking in your pajamas is totally acceptable.
Additionally, these events have been the source of some truly outstanding online content, like when late-night funnyman Conan O’Brien crashed his millennial employees’ virtual cocktail hour. O’Brien shared that his quarantini is a very buttery chardonnay, that his preferred social-distancing program is “Say Yes to The Dress” and that the secret to successful dating is hitting a club early and getting home by 10 p.m.
However, others have complained about the institution, noting that while drinking in groups is fun, a bar’s real thrill is in picking up a hot date there — something unlikely during a quarantine. Others argue that virtual socializing is much more tiring that the real-word version.
Slate recently reported that when employers host virtual happy hours to build team spirit remotely, employees feel pressured to take part even if spending more time in front of a screen with their coworkers doesn’t really appeal to them. “It’s fine to offer virtual happy hours and Zoom scavenger hunts and pet challenges and all the rest as long as there’s no pressure to participate and people can easily opt out without penalty,” the publication said.
Still, virtual substitutes for the bar scene have mostly received praise from those who participate, although it seems unlikely that consumers will give up on real bars over the long term. Early reports from Southeast states where reopenings are further along indicate crowds in bars are already starting to emerge, raising concerns among public-health officials.
But until wider reopenings occur, many Americans will be sitting up and sipping their quarantinis, waiting to see what comes next.