Standby, one of Detroit’s premier cocktail spots in downtown, has been largely dormant since mid-March. Even as the stay-at-home order in Michigan lifted in June and bars and restaurants — including its sibling bar the Skip — began to reopen, Standby kept its door shut in the Belt Alley. In mid-July, Standby emerged from its self-imposed hibernation with a lineup of cocktails. But this time, instead of watching a bartender shake and stir them behind the bar, customers found that the drinks were bottled up and ready to take home. “We’re essentially having to turn into more of a retail business, especially looking forward to the fall and not knowing if we’ll be able to have any sort of dine-in at all,” owner Joe Robinson tells Eater.
In July, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill into law that made carryout cocktails legal in Michigan for the first time. The legislation was the result of a campaign led by bar owners who were only able to earn income through sales of liquor-free kits and, if they had the proper permits, beer and wine to go during the stay-at-home order. While to-go cocktails have the potential to boost sales at local bars that are currently closed for indoor service under a state executive order, bartenders are learning that making a cocktail for carryout is a very different process than serving something straight from the bar. From the ambience to the experience of connecting with a bartender to the preparation and packaging, the city’s bars are undergoing a creative renaissance.
Kevin Peterson is the co-owner of Castalia, a tiny underground cocktail bar in Cass Corridor. Since the partial reopening began in June, Castalia has welcomed customers at half-capacity (with a reservation), and Peterson has been carefully planning out an approach to carryout cocktails in his scant free time. In a dine-in setting, Peterson says that bars are able to control everything from the ingredients to the temperature and dilution of a drink, not to mention the music and lighting. The to-go drink experience is much less predictable. “Now, you don’t know if someone’s going to drink it at the beach in their house, if they’re going to remember to put it in the fridge or not,” he says. “Are they going to drink it that night? Are they going to drink it in a week?” To compensate, Peterson has been experimenting with more “spirit-forward drinks,” noting that citrus may not hold up as well if a customer lets it sit in the fridge for a week.
Robinson and his bartending team also took those variables into consideration when developing their to-go menus for the Skip and Standby. “Something like a daiquiri will never be as good as it will be in a bar when a bartender just made it for you, because they’re shaking that drink with metal tins and bar ice,” he says. “If you were to be served that same daiquiri at 34 degrees out of your fridge, it’s going to have a lot more perceived sweetness and won’t be as refreshing.” For that reason, both Standby and the Skip are avoiding most tropical-style drinks altogether and focusing on “long drinks”: high-volume cocktails with a large amount of mixer that are typically served in a tall glass.
Robinson says he experimented with the dilution by taking his drinks home and trying them out with the ice in his freezer to see how they compared to a drink served with Standby’s specialty bar ice. “We generally just under-dilute them,” he says. “Even if the bottle is a little warmer than it would be right after shaking a drink, once it’s poured and dilutes with your ice at home, it will still taste good.” For customers who’d like the full cocktail experience, Robinson’s bars also sell different styles of ice, priced between $5 and $10, and garnish to take home.
While the nature of to-go cocktails can be limiting in terms of style and ingredients, both Robinson and Peterson agree that they encourage bartenders to innovate. “I think there are probably a lot of opportunities to create experiences for people to have at home that go beyond just sort of the grocery store item,” Peterson says. “[It’s about] figuring out how to still make it special and interesting, even when it’s something that you’re doing at home and sort of losing the ambience of the bar.” That special experience can be achieved in a multitude of ways, from introducing intriguing packaging to playing with flavors. Peterson is in the process of developing a line of “intensely infused cocktails” called the Liquid Inspiration Series. “We’ve got just tubs of weird botanicals that I’ve collected from around the country,” he says. The first in the series is a limoncello-style liquor with burdock root, honey, and lemon peel.
The rules for to-go containers make it easier to adjust to the new to-go law, Robinson says, noting that drinks may be sold in a food-safe container up to a gallon in size that’s completely sealed without perforations. “[Packaging is] really just another outlet for creativity, because there’s so many different ways of packaging these cocktails to go and the guidelines are relatively loose.” At the Skip and Standby, Robinson and his team differentiated their packaging based on the identities of the establishments. “We use plastic bottles for over at the Skip and more of a luxury seal for Standby, with glass bottles and more refined labels,” he says. “You definitely can get a feel for the different bars with just the packaging.”
Peterson and his wife, Jane Larson, already had a close relationship with a packaging distributor through their fragrance business Sfumato, which made it easy to acquire containers for Castalia’s drinks. In addition to bottled cocktails, Larson had the idea to sell boozy freeze pops. Peterson plans to introduce a rainbow pack of flavors that adds an adult twist to the nostalgic summer treat. Many bars, including PizzaPlex, have begun selling drinks in Capri Sun-style pouches, while Takoi recently started canning its cocktails.
Still, the cost of that packaging adds to the overall price of the drink. “Regardless of what you use, it’s definitely a new cost that’s added into cocktails,” Robinson says. While someone might be willing to pay a premium for the experience of drinking a nice cocktail in a nice bar, Robinson doesn’t think that translates to a takeout model. “You really have to go for a resale kind of mindset and try to sell more and profit less.”
Any way you look at it, to-go cocktails are not going to be the saving grace of the beleaguered hospitality industry. “Do I think it’s ever going to be something that beats our regular bar business? Probably not,” Peterson says. “I think it’s always going to be just sort of a nice addition.” Peterson says that many of his customers still aren’t aware of the carryout cocktail law. For this reason, he’s found that the to-go cocktail option works best when paired with an in-person drinking experience where bars and restaurants have the opportunity to communicate directly with customers and upsell at the end of their visit.
That seems to be playing out similarly at the Skip, which is open for outdoor drinking. Takeout drinks at that bar currently account for about 15 to 20 percent of business, according to Robinson. In comparison, Robinson estimates that Standby is doing roughly 5 percent of its normal sales with to-go cocktails only. “It’s a Band-Aid,” Robinson says. However, he’s hopeful that in the long run, the new legislation will provide greater opportunities for recovery when the novel coronavirus in the U.S. is more under control. “Bars and restaurants in general are going to be fighting for years to make up for what this has done, so I thought it was great that [the to-go cocktail law] goes to 2025.” Having the option to eventually offer dine-in customers a drink to go, “it just can bring up the ticket sales so much.”
Both bar owners were remarkably positive about the law, because it provides a new source of revenue during an extremely difficult time for businesses. “It’s never going to be a 100 percent replacement, but it’s probably always going to be an extra 10 or 20 percent here and there,” Peterson says.
Robinson adds that it’s also allowed Standby to bring back some of its bar staff in a limited capacity. While the bar isn’t open for indoor dining, Standby recently opened a “Cocktail Confessional” as an in-person alternative to online ordering. “The idea behind that is really to get that bar experience in a to-go world,” he says. Customers visiting the Belt Alley bar can speak with a bartender through a small window in the bar’s vestibule and get details about the bottled cocktails on the menu before taking something home. “It’s a lot different than we remember,” he says, “but it’s at least somewhat reminiscent of the actual thing.”
As the summer winds down and cooler weather approaches, Robinson is brainstorming other ways to keep the business feeling fresh and provide customers with a fun, interactive service. For the past several years, the Skip has participated in a popular holiday barware pop-up called Miracle that’s attracted huge crowds. The bar has written off that plan for 2020, given the current health crisis, but Robinson is considering developing a carryout version of the pop-up. “We’ve been thinking of turning it into to-go Miracle and offering a drink with a mug to-go package and still trying to create experiences for people,” Robinson says.
“It’s just forcing people to be more creative, and I think on the other side of this, there are going to be a lot of cool, different ideas and things that are just a part of our culture in Detroit, Michigan, and everywhere that just weren’t before.”
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