It started innocently enough, as a search for decent pastrami, an item not easily found in Western Europe. We were emerging from lockdown, and while my American passport had allowed me to travel back to the United States a few times for family reasons, everywhere in New York seemed closed, and I only passed through for a day or two anyhow on my way down South, where you could go out to eat, but, again, there was no decent pastrami. The pandemic was a good time to be in Barcelona, perverse as it is to say; it had been decades since the city felt normal, a place belonging to and defined by its residents as opposed to the hordes of tourists who make it almost uninhabitable. Everything was open; Spain’s willful transformation into a glorified lemonade stand for anyone who can afford a Ryanair ticket meant it had become far too dependent on hospitality money to shut restaurants down, so if you didn’t mind a bit of hygiene theater—wiping your feet on a disinfectant mat, showing your vaccination record, scanning a QR code menu—you could go out without much worry of getting turned away without a reservation.
We found a place called Pastrami Bar on Google, but when we went there, something didn’t add up: four or five seats at a short counter, an odd lack of ingredients on display. Yet the international design idiom of subway tile, black chalkboard, and white marble told us there was money behind it. My wife says that when the chalkboards appear, you know a city is over: they’ve figured out that catering to local tastes is less profitable than shilling cronuts, baos, ramen, and whatever else foodies in trendsetting cities thought was cool ten years ago. She consulted her phone: we should have known. It was a front for a so-called speakeasy called Paradiso.
The modern speakeasy is a paradoxical response to two needs: to feel you’re doing something bad in a historically permissive society, and to pretend you’re in the know when knowledge of everything is available to everyone. Still, I don’t hate these places. On one of our first dates, when we were still living on separate continents, my wife and I went to Please Don’t Tell, accessible through a hot dog shop on St. Mark’s Place in New York, where we had warm company and great drinks made by Alex Valencia, who has since gone on to become a renowned bartender and cocktail consultant. On a hot day, if I have a free hour or two, I still like to stop in at Raines Law Room in Chelsea, identifiable by a battered screen door and a porch light, where it’s cool, dark, and cozy, and their signature Whiskey Business cocktail is a beautiful blend of brooding booziness and heat. The Ranstead Room in Philadelphia, tucked away in an alley behind Market Street, remains for me the archetype of how a bar should look: with its velvety wallpaper, puffy seats, and racy pictures on the wall, you could imagine John Shaft settling into a booth to wind down.
The modern speakeasy is a paradoxical response to two needs: to feel one is doing something bad in a historically permissive society, and to pretend one is in the know when knowledge of everything is available to everyone.
It was an idle afternoon in Barcelona, and there was no reason not to drink, so we grabbed our sandwiches, which were not bad but inexcusably puny by mid-Atlantic deli standards, scarfed them down on the sidewalk outside, and returned, passing through the fake refrigerator that leads into the bar. Its interior was what I suppose a designer would call wood-forward: imagine seeing the hull of a schooner on acid, with minimalist iron stools and a jungle-themed painting thrown in. It was packed, given the circumstances, mostly with English speakers, a testament either to how many foreigners had relocated to the city or to the willingness of the stir-crazy to jump through the burdensome series of hoops Spain had instituted for travelers from abroad at the time. We were hurried to what you might call a table—a flat space between a column and a wall which, while satisfying few of the desiderata of a table, could also not be called something other than a table—where we were left a long while to contemplate our drink choices. The atmosphere was festive, with lots of noise and, inevitably, lots of people taking photos.
The server approached and we ordered our drinks. First in Spanish, because that is the language we normally use, then in Catalan, the language of the region, just to be assholes, because we knew it wouldn’t fly. I am hesitant to criticize a person for not speaking the language of a place. The issue here, however, is not the preservation of identity but the imposition of monoculture. Whereas a poor Senegalese in Spain or a poor Honduran in the United States might arrive in desperate circumstances in which language lessons aren’t the highest priority, in Barcelona, as in Berlin, Lisbon, and many other it cities, new, abstract ghettoes have arisen for the wealthy, comprising not a concrete area but disparate bars, restaurants, and boutiques united by online review culture where the lingua franca is English, and the distinguishing mark is a “price point” three to four times higher than what a local can reasonably pay (by local, I mean a person with roots there, not a remote worker who can pack up and move somewhere cheaper—and in case the hypocrisy is growing too rank here, I include myself among the latter).
Once the drinks were in, we waited. And waited. At this point, the complaint is pedestrian. The cocktail revolution, like the third-wave coffee revolution that accompanied it, is premised in part upon the notion that the transfer of liquids from one receptacle to another and the chilling, whipping, and so forth of ingredients is a delicate operation requiring up to fifteen minutes per serving. I despise neither a good coffee nor a good drink; I have a fancy espresso setup of my own at home, and I bartended long enough to know the many hitches, unseen to the customer, that can slow a drink order down. Still, I challenge anyone to take even a complex drink recipe and stretch it out for fifteen minutes. Chill your glasses; hand-cut your ice; do a dry shake, a wet shake, a reverse dry shake; double strain; make a funny pattern with drops of bitters on top. It still won’t take fifteen minutes.
But whatever. We were used to this, and we like each other’s company. Our server eventually returned. I don’t recall if he had a tray or an assistant; what I do remember is my wife being handed what looked less like an inebriant and more like a rejected idea for a He-Man playset. My own drink was so clogged with frondage that the liquor itself was inaccessible; lacking garden shears to cut through it, I tossed the plant matter aside in its entirety. My wife’s drink was smoked. If you’ve never had a smoked cocktail, don’t. They taste like they’ve been filtered through a Backwoods cigar, and waiting while your server operates the dinky machine is as awkward as sharing an elevator with a person with an erection.
The drinks were fine. They were drinks, and tasted like the things that go into drinks, and by extension, like a few elements of the relatively paltry palette of things the relatively impuissant human nose and tongue are capable of perceiving (dogs, bears, elephants, and sharks all exceed human olfactory competency by many orders of magnitude, and no doubt the cocktail support animal will soon be the baller’s accessory de rigueur). An aside here: research has shown people can identify a maximum of four to five aromas in a mixture. This includes so-called “poor blenders,” those readily identifiable standouts like bad breath and airplane glue. Winemaker and psychologist Frédéric Brochet found that tasters will praise cheap wine when served in expensive bottles, will say white wine tastes like red wine when it’s dyed, and that olfactory and gustatory perception in general are as much a matter of context as of acumen or discrimination.
This is not to argue that there is no difference between good spirits and bad, or between a well and poorly crafted drink. I thought big ice was stupid until I moved to Spain, where a gin and tonic is served with impossible-to-melt cubes the size of charcoal briquettes. I can now say big ice is definitively not stupid. The push for fresh herbs and juices, the revival of long-obscure ingredients, the addition of dignity to a formerly ill-regarded profession: all these things have made drinking better. But there is a point past which it ceases to be about what’s in the glass and becomes about how much mystique you can create. And that mystique serves two major purposes: charging more money, and widening the divide between connoisseur and ordinary schlep.
The Premiumization of Pappy
What’s behind all this is difficult to say. One factor is what the Wall Street Journal called “the well-educated barista economy,” a misnomer that conceals a broader truth of underemployment among college graduates, particularly in the humanities. This lumpenintelligentsia finds itself “fighting a war on two fronts,” in Klaus Theweleit’s formulation, struggling to distinguish itself from those below while also seeking the respect and acceptance of those above. With their leather aprons, sleeve garters, waxed moustaches, and tattoos, there is a class of bartender at pains to let you know they’re not just some jerkoff slinging vodka and cranberry. The worst of these people come off like a parody from Portlandia, but those who know often know a lot, and this makes them useful to the wealthy, who in America have the same status anxiety as everyone else, and may scoop a bartender to design a cocktail menu for their vanity bar or to consult with them on their liquor collection.
Craft spirits no longer dazzle, in part because lots of them are shit, in part because the term “craft” has little legal significance and is frequently on the labels of industrial grain spirits processed at a megafacilities owned by multinationals.
Then again, all subcultures are underexploited market opportunities, and it was inevitable that the cocktail revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s would prove useful to restaurant groups and multinationals and wind up packaged for mass consumption. Obscure spirits people used to have to bring back from Europe or South America have now been sucked up by megaportfolios like Diageo and Pernod Ricard (who are currently developing an “authentic and deeply rooted” brand of sotol, a liquor from the desert spoon plant, with Lenny Kravitz); big name mixologists (a word coined in jest and now taken seriously) fly across the globe giving seminars and designing drink lists for major resorts. The nice thing is you can get a good drink almost anywhere. The bad thing is it’ll cost you fourteen bucks, plus tax, plus tip, on average, and the price doesn’t vary much from New York to Hamburg. (Apparently in Belgrade, which the New York Times has dubbed the “new cocktail capital of Europe,” you can find a decent tipple for seven euros, but expect that to go up, as it always does when the Gray Lady tips its readers off about the new place to be.)
Call it the gentrification of drinking. It goes hand in hand with gentrification proper. The abandonment of downtowns after the Second World War allowed cheap watering holes to thrive. With the revitalization of urban cores, few of those places have survived. Most bar owners aren’t making a mint, despite prices seeming to go up a dollar per drink per year: even with inflation, the issue is less cost of goods than rent, plus a labor shortage (aggravated by the ongoing effects of a massive expansion of ICE raids under Trump) that has led to sharp rises in the hourly pay of back-of-the-house staff. One might hope the impending commercial real estate crisis will provoke a correction, but as New York’s thousands of vacant storefronts show, landlords may just warehouse their properties in expectation of higher-paying tenants in the future instead of making concessions to lower-paying ones now.
Cocktails, like much else, have given the lie to competitive pricing. In the classic image of the capitalist economy, whoever offers the best good or service for the best price wins. Post 2008, somebody just decides something should cost x, and everybody else follows along. I say post 2008 because that was the easy-money era of quantitative easing, which Jerome Powell is now determined to strangle to death despite a persistent YOLO mentality on the part of consumers, and much of what’s happened in America over the past fifteen years can’t be understood apart from negative interest rates. The same low borrowing costs that caused startups and real estate to balloon also funded an explosion of microdistilleries; as traditional investments turned anemic, VC money poured into bars and restaurants, and a steady stream of mergers and acquisitions has made liquor resemble tech, with a small number of corporate behemoths constantly gobbling up their smaller rivals.
Beverage even has its equivalent of the NFT in high-end bourbon, which recently set a new milestone for insanity when a set of five unreleased bottlings from an abandoned United Distillers project was auctioned off at Sotheby’s for $187,245. It is hard to convey to those who aren’t fans of bourbon how radical its co-optation feels: imagine, say, you’d always worn Converse All Stars, and over the course of a few years their price rose from $60 to $700, and you had to drive across several states to maybe get a pair, and they were all being bought by people who didn’t wear them. I remember a night with a friend not so long ago, when we ended dinner with two glasses of fifteen-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. At $35 a shot, it was a stretch, but we were celebrating after not seeing each other for a decade. In 2023, the cheapest bottle I can find online is $2,000. Pappy is an outlier, but it’s not entirely unrepresentative: Booker’s, Weller’s, Blanton’s, and many other once-affordable bourbons are now something the casual consumer is likely never to taste.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve already watched something similar happen to my favorite wines, the dynamics behind liquor and wine culture being the same. I first tried López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia Rosado in 2008, and you could reliably find a bottle in New York for $20; in Spain, nobody liked it and you could get it for $12. Now it costs $100. To the credit of my friend María José, one of the owners of the winery, they’ve made efforts to keep their rarer wines affordable for longtime drinkers, but once they leave the winery, it’s out of their hands, and secondary sellers buy and hoard these bottles until they can get the price they want. It might be a bubble, but there are millions of new millionaires every year, and Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, and single malt Scotch are already spoken for. It’s just as likely that “premiumization,” an industry buzzword, will expand onward to newer and more obscure wines and spirits; already, there are rumors that Armagnac might be the next big thing.
In the meantime, cocktails themselves seem to have stalled out. Craft spirits no longer dazzle, in part because lots of them are shit, in part because the term “craft” has little legal significance and is frequently on the labels of industrial grain spirits processed at megafacilities owned by multinationals. Fat-washing is cool: you emulsify lipids into the spirit, freeze it, and scrape off the sludge, and you are left with a whiskey with faint notes of olive oil or foie gras. But it’s one of those things you try and think, OK, great, whatever. In the attempt to answer the eternal, perhaps quintessential American question—how can I make the moral the byproduct of marketeering?—barkeeps are now turning to issues of diversity and sustainability. There have been tormented reassessments of tiki culture, Substacks on decolonizing rum, and pragmatic steps to allegedly reduce bars’ carbon footprint by using local and seasonal ingredients or super juice, which maximizes the yield of lemons and limes, stays stable for longer than fresh-squeezed, and is destined in this way to play its small part in saving the earth through finicky consumption.
None of this is bad, or none of it is worse than anything else, but it’s strange, in 2023, to see idealism still shackled to consumerism. Researching this essay, I read an exhortation to consider the hardships of cane cutters when drinking cachaça. But should I? Do those people profit by my feeling a little bad as I swill down the undercompensated fruits of their labor? Should I feel bad for banana pickers, for iPhone makers in Zhengzhou, for textile workers in Bangladesh, for avocado growers murdered by gangsters in Michoacán? My humanity says yes. My reason tells me feeling isn’t action, and that this nugatory penance is a cheap way of wiping the slate before doing whatever we want, which is what everyone seems to be doing irrespective of their politics.
For those uninclined to fret over these things, there’s always Paradiso, where you can Instagram yourself to your heart’s content in front of a drink shaped like a pipe, or another that looks like a spaceship, or another that comes in a glass encrusted in a fluorescent blue, glowing glacier. There is a QR code waitlist system. It now takes around three hours to get in. It has just been named the best bar in the world.