Cocktail culture is on the rise in the UK.
What is cocktail culture? Think of the smart, swanky bars that are designed almost entirely around cocktails as an ‘experience’ and not just a means to the end of ‘getting absolutely rat-arsed’. I’m not talking about pub cocktails; cocktails in your local ‘Spoons are usually little more than 3 shots of alcohol (if you’re lucky) plus enough fruit juice to dilute it down so you actually need 5 of them to feel any sort of buzz, if that’s what you’re looking for anyway. Which, if you’re in ‘Spoons, is exactly what you’re looking for. No, cocktail bars are another beast entirely. Here, the cocktails cost upwards of £8, often have brands of alcohol that you can’t even pronounce, let alone know what they are, and fruit juice is replaced in favour of syrups, purée or more daring things like ‘smoke’ and ‘infusions’.
They’re not somewhere to go if you want to get a lot of drinks in – unless you don’t mind splashing the cash in which case, take me with you – but I’ve reached the stage in my life where I would rather trade 1 good cocktail for an entire evening spent in a pub or club drinking the watered down house spirits. I would be willing to bet that a vast number of people around the ages of 22-27 are in agreement; we’ve done the youth binge drinking, falling out of a club backwards, black out drunk thing and we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just Not That Fun. Maybe it’s something to do with our inability to wake up the morning after happily hangover free, but in all honesty it’s because we’re reaching that point in our lives where we want to feel just a bit more sophisticated and have real conversations with people. Not just repeatedly shout over whatever dance track the DJ is playing, then give up and just nod like we know what the other person said.
But what about existing cocktail bars?
Big metropolitan cities like London and Manchester have always had a prevalent cocktail ‘scene’ because, well let’s face it, they have pretty much everything. Hip bars which exclusively serve new and innovative alcoholic creations have always existed, but just how common are they becoming? I live in Huddersfield, Yorkshire which is at heart a University town so although you would expect it to be almost entirely made up of cheap and cheerful drinking spots to fit the student lifestyle, over the past few years – and certainly since I left university – I couldn’t help but notice that a surprising amount of focus has been put on to cocktail culture. Indeed, one of the new bars that has opened is called simply ‘The Huddersfield Cocktail Club’ and prides itself on the fact that you can order off-menu cocktails by simple asking the bartender to make it. Is it a step in the right direction? Absolutely, but unfortunately it seems to be falling victim to a lack of advertisement and looks pretty empty every time I pass, which is a shame because they do certainly seem knowledgeable. With fancy cocktails now becoming more accessible, it seems to be harder for independent bars to get a good following as chain cocktail bars are popping up left right and centre. It seems you either have to unique selling point or spend a lot of time, effort and money-making sure people know you exist to get a decent footfall through the door, and for small indie bars it just isn’t feasible sometimes. (UPDATE: Since this article was first drafted The Huddersfield Cocktail Club has closed and been reopened as Infusions. It’s built on the same premise though; creative cocktails charged at a premium, but I can personally attest that they are worth it. Their White Chocolate Pina Colada is simply to die for).
Chain cocktail bars have existed for a while now, and one good example of such are the Revolution bars. They’ve forged out their own niche that revolves around the idea of a ‘vodka’ bar so you obviously know what to expect when you walk in. Revolution is an interesting example; although they serve cocktails, and some unusual ones at that, their main focus is the vodka element – in fact, they’ve even started selling their handcrafted vodka flavours to the public in 70cl bottles and there are LOTS of them. According to their website there are 30 flavours to try which is simply staggering, and honestly I can’t blame them for being all about the vodka. If you peruse the cocktail menu at Revs however, I can guarantee you’ll recognise around 60% of their cocktails as being the classics and probably another 15-25% are their twists on other well-known recipes. Is Revolution a cocktail bar? Sure, but it is a chain at heart. If you walk into any Revolution in the country you’ll have the same experience as you would in another branch, and although they do update their menu every now and again it’s the same 15 cocktails that are popping up in every bar or good pub. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that the truly special cocktails they make tend to be discreetly removed from the menu after a while (RIP Peanut Butter Martini, you were too good for this world) as the ingredients are too expensive to be sustainable long term.
Despite all this, Revolution has paved the way for cocktail bars up and down the country by introducing them to a previously untapped demographic: students. Aside from students visiting them during their university years, as the same students leave university and start earning wages that allow them to go out a spend a bit more there’s a good chance they’ll be inclined to go to a cocktail bar over a cheap pub. It’s all to do with creating and sustaining an image of being a successful young professional, and it’s hardly easy to sell that if you’re out on the lash at your local every Saturday night.
I remember one of my first experiences of a posh ‘chain’ cocktail bars was at The Alchemist in Manchester. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love The Alchemist but again it is a chain; the moment they put one in Trinity Leeds right next to Yo! Sushi and Next, it solidified its status as a chain brand. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing (I love the Snowball cocktail and anything that has their amazing white chocolate foam), I’m just using it as an example of how cocktail culture is becoming accessible on a widespread level. It’s confirmation that it’s far trendier for young professionals to go out to a cocktail bar for some drinks than a local pub where the drinks are much cheaper.
Where do we go from here?
The reality is that all too many establishments rely on the well known recipes – Cosmopolitan, Sex on the Beach, Espresso Martini etc – to draw in their clientele and although a cocktail culture revolution is happening, it’s still just on the fringe of becoming a mainstream social experience. However, it’s only a matter of time before this changes. It’s obvious that we’re at a tipping point in how and where people drink; it’s a lot more socially acceptable to day drink outside of being on holiday, and places like The Alchemist and Revolution are lapping up this change. Both chains offer comprehensive food menus at different times of the day, but when you go to a cocktail bar or self-proclaimed ‘vodka’ bar, is it not reasonable to assume that you’re going to enjoy a libation whilst you’re there? Not only that, but the ‘ladies who lunch’ stereotype is making a comeback with young professionals especially as they’re keen to spend their hard earned money on more than just survival. With chain cocktail bars becoming the norm for more and more people, I predict that we’ll start seeing successful but more importantly independent cocktails bars before long.