What’s shakin’ cocktail fans!
Welcome to episode 173 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Modern Bar Cart CEO, Eric Kozlik.
Thanks for tuning in to this Year in Review episode, where we recap some of the highlights from this past trip around the sun and give you a handful of things to look forward to in the coming months. And I know…we’re all a little sick of thinking and talking about this dumpster fire of a year, but if you give me a chance, here, I think I can pull out a few bright points for ya and hopefully some fun things to get excited about as we graduate to 2021.
But, before we dig into what went right in this past year and how we intend to capitalize on that momentum in the new year, let’s take a quick little pit stop so that you can make yourself a drink.
Featured Cocktail: Eeyore’s Requiem
This episode’s featured cocktail is aptly named Eeyore’s Requiem. It was invented by Chicago bartender Toby Maloney at a bar called The Violet Hour, and of course it references A.A. Milne’s profoundly pessimistic donkey who is followed around by a little rain cloud everywhere he goes. And for those of you who are wondering what a “requiem” is, it’s a formal or religious ceremony designed to remember and pray for the repose of the dead, so I can’t think of a better cocktail to close out 2020, may it rest in pieces and never return.
To make Eeyore’s Requiem, you’ll need:
1½ oz Campari
1 OZ. Blanc (or Chambery) Vermouth – Dolin makes a lovely option
½ OZ. London Dry Gin
¼ OZ. Cynar
¼ OZ. Fernet Branca
Several Dashes of orange bitters – we, of course, like to use our Embitterment Orange Bitters
Combine all these ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, stir for about 15 – 20 seconds until everything is well chilled and diluted, strain into a chilled coupe glass, and garnish with some sort of orange twist. Some recipes call for a flamed orange twist, some call for THREE WHOLE orange twists to be expressed and discarded…so I guess the moral of the story is to make the garnish orangey and over-the-top somehow.
Now, a lot of publications out there bill this drink as a “Fernet Negroni,” which I think is…kinda fair…but also a little misleading. Obviously, Eeyore’s Requiem doesn’t follow an “equal parts” Negroni formulation, which isn’t a huge problem, but Fernet’s only in there in the order of a quarter of an ounce, so I’m hesitant to make it the nominal descriptor of the drink. I think a more accurate way to look at this cocktail is to call it a “lopsided” Negroni, with the gin taking a backseat to the bitterness, sweetness, mentholation, and vegetal properties of the other ingredients. It’s a think piece, not to be sipped lightly, and its brooding flavor is just about the most apt thing I can imagine for 2020.
So, now that you’ve got your own little rain cloud in a glass to sip on as you sit at home and watch the ball drop above a mostly empty Times Square on New Year’s Eve, let’s jump straight into this year-in-review episode.
2020 by the Numbers
Starting off, I want to run some numbers by you, and we’re gonna do this a little bit like we would at a shareholder meeting, because I think of you listeners kinda like shareholders in the podcast. This year, we’ve gotten way more emails and direct outreach from our fans than ever before, and I only think it’s fair to reciprocate by being completely transparent about the state of the podcast. And for fun, we’re going to compare this year’s numbers with last year’s.
Downloads and Media Mentions
In 2020, we received almost 57,000 downloads, which is up over 70% from last year’s 33,000. This is thanks in part to our unexpected mention a few months back by the New York Times in an article called 7 Podcasts to Serve Shaken or Stirred. Of course, I’m incredibly flattered that the Times chose our podcast to honor alongside other big names like Vinepair and Bartender at Large, and out-of-the-blue recognition like this really lights a fire under me and the rest of the team to continue bringing you top-tier spirits and cocktail content.
Total Content Released
In terms of episodes, we published 48 of them in the past year (not counting this one), for a total of 2,820 minutes of audio content, which means that if you tried to listen to all of them from start to finish without any breaks, it would take you about 48 hours – that’s right – two full days. And if you assume that most podcast episodes take on average four times longer to write, record, and publish than they do to listen to, that means I spent more than 3% of my waking hours in 2020 working on the podcast.
US Podcast Chart Rankings
The last number I want to share with you in this little mock shareholder meeting is the number ten – as in, our peak position this year in the podcast ranking charts for the United States Food category according to Apple Podcasts was among the top ten. This, again, has a lot to do with that mention in the New York Times, and there’s a lot of algorithmic mumbo-jumbo associated with the Apple Podcasts ranking system, so it wasn’t destined for us to remain in the top 10 for very long – but nonetheless, it was cool to be there for a little while. My New Year’s resolution for 2021 is to see if we can consistently hang out in the top 50 Food podcasts in the United States, and the one big thing you can do to help make that come true is to recommend our show to one friend, colleague, or family member who might also enjoy it. The key metric in these ranking charts is new subscribers, so the more new listeners we get, the more we can capitalize on that momentum and continue spreading the gospel of flavorful, stimulating beverages.
Emerging Trends in 2020
Next up, just like we did last year, I want to examine a few important spirits and cocktail trends and news events that occurred in 2020.
Last year, the big ones were the rise of hard seltzer, Tiki books and bars popping up everywhere, and an important piece of legislation that had the potential to affect the craft distilling landscape.
The Rise of “To-Go” Cocktails
This year, well…the primary bar trend was the collective mourning of all those that were forced to close due to the pandemic. Many bars that remain or tried to remain open, of course, pivoted by offering “To-Go” cocktail options, which was an exercise in material sourcing, batching, and concision. And I want you to understand exactly what these bar owners and bartenders had to do to make a single “To-Go” cocktail possible. They had to:
Source some sort of glass or plastic containers with sealable tops and/or tamper-evident closures, depending on their local regulations.
Design, source, and print labels that were consistent with said regulations and also looked attractive to consumers.
Develop a recipe that would A.) please customers, B.) allow for simple batching, C.) remain profitable at a price point that customers would actually pay, and D.) actually taste good.
Oh, and by the way, they also had to find a way to reach their customers to explain how, when, and where to pick up these drinks in a way that was both safe and legal.
That is a WHOLE lot of effort compared to simply opening your bar and serving customers off a menu, and if you think about it, it’s not the just dumb, brute force effort that you can throw manpower at, it’s the kind of uncomfortable mentally-intensive effort you need to expend when a problem throws you way out of your comfort zone. So if you happened to pick up a “To-Go” cocktail in 2020 and weren’t absolutely blown away by its complexity or presentation, I hope you can at least appreciate the sheer effort that went into making that drink merely possible. So bravo to all those bars out there who are continuing to hustle in the to-go arena.
RTD and Bottled Cocktails
Another trend that feels like a logical extension of both the to-go cocktail trend and the rise of canned hard seltzers is the explosion of ready-to-drink (or “RTD”) still cocktails that hit the market. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many bottled Negronis, and Old Fashioneds, and Manhattans as I have in 2020, and Lord knows that a bunch of those companies were emailing us asking to advertise to you. My inbox isn’t always a happy place.
Now, I’m assuming that in the months to come, we’ll probably have the opportunity to taste through and review some of these bottled, still cocktails for you, which is precisely why we turned down the advertising opportunities. I’d much rather give you an unbiased look at the landscape and maintain our intellectual autonomy than get into bed with any particular brand or producer in the bottled cocktail space. So, if anyone has any brands they want to recommend, you know where to find us – [email protected]
Early Take on Spirits Trends
In terms of spirits, it’s still a little early to know exactly which categories showed growth or shrinkage this past year, but it’s probably safe to assume that cane spirits and American Whiskey showed strong growth, with gin and agave spirits showing mild to moderate growth. And I think we can also assume that most booze categories that are imported from elsewhere in the world demonstrated either stagnation or overall losses during the past year for a number of reasons, including newly imposed tariffs and the impulse for people to revert to purchasing affordable staples during the pandemic.
Passage of the CBMTRA
And speaking of tariffs and taxes, we actually have something to celebrate here at the end of 2020 with the passing of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act. Last year, I listed this as something to keep your eye on, and by some miracle this legislation passed both the House and the Senate and was actually signed into law by the current president. So if there’s one thing we can celebrate about the guy, it’s that he finally made good on being pro-business by passing legislation that would allow craft distillers to avoid ridiculously high excise taxes that would cap their growth in the years to come.
I will say that I’m grateful to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and their child organization Spirits United for providing updates on this act and for giving enthusiasts like me and you a way to easily lobby our representatives. If you want to hear more about this, check out my interview with DISCUS president Chris Swonger in episode 149, and believe me when I say that theirs is about the only mailing list that I’ve ever been excited to sign up for…and it hasn’t disappointed.
What to Expect in 20201
Now, the question remains: what can we expect in 2021?
Ultimately, I think that the current trends in ready-to-drink cocktails, hard seltzer, outdoor dining, and low consumer confidence in bars are going to continue along their current trajectory, even as COVID vaccines are rolled out. This is because operating a bar or retail operation in compliance with current restrictions has become a “known known” to both businesses and consumers. We all know what to expect, so rather than trying to pilot something new and surprising in the wake of the pandemic, most people are going to stick with what works as we all lick our collective wounds in the echoey caverns of our checking accounts.
But what about when things start to open up in earnest?
The “Return to Normalcy” (Or Not)
Well, at that point, I think we’re going to see two large forces clash in the market. On one hand, you’re going to see the brands that were either smart enough or well capitalized enough to survive the pandemic, and on the other hand, there will be a whole bunch of new money looking to take advantage of affordable rents and cheap distilling and bar equipment that has flooded the market with the closing of so many operations.
And if you’re asking me to make a projection about what that might look like, I assume you’re going to be hearing a lot of variations on two competing scripts:
The remainder of the old guard that’s left standing will be shouting from the rooftops about the “return to normalcy,” which – fun fact – was Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogan for the 1920 election exactly 100 years ago. Remember him? He cheated on his wife a lot and is almost always rated as one of the worst 5 presidents in US history. He took office right after World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, and if you’re getting goosebumps thinking about how creepily similar this sounds to our current situation – good. You should be concerned, and you should think about ways for us not to repeat history. Anyway, these folks who are gonna be stoked about things getting back to [quote, unquote] normal, will probably be marketing toward an older crowd and basically appealing to their sunk cost bias that says, “man, I spend decades going to bars and drinking this way, or going to my liquor store and purchasing this way, and it’s kinda painful to start doing things differently.” These establishments and brands are going to celebrate getting back to doing things the way we used to and the tone is going to essentially be: “let’s put all this behind us and pretend it never happened.”
As you can imagine, that approach won’t sit well with everyone – particularly the newer players trying to enter the bar space. That makes sense, right? If you’re new to a space, you don’t have a “normal” to return to, so this is where you’re going to see more risk taking and innovating going on at the concept level, probably balanced out with a healthy dose of health-related precautions. And you can think about these protective measures in two ways: A.) if you’re the opening a bar or a distillery in the wake of a pandemic, you probably know that you need to take very visible and very explicit safety precautions if you want people to be confident enough to emerge from their COVID lairs and visit your place, and B.) if you want to make an effective case against the “return to normalcy” crowd, you’re almost forced to say that the “old normal” was flawed and that your new concept is here to fix things. It’s very basic market positioning.
I’m not confident enough to get into more granular details at this time, but you can bet that I’ll be paying close attention as things hopefully start to open up as these vaccines gain wider distribution among the general population. Feel free to drop us an email and let me know if you agree with my take on the hospitality sector in 2021, or if you think I might be overlooking something. I’m always interested in hearing perspectives from folks who live in other parts of the country or the world, and who knows – maybe your note will make it into one of our future mailbag episodes.
Things to Look Forward to in 2021
For the penultimate segment of this year-in-review episode, I wanted to cover some things that I’m personally looking forward to in 2021 so that hopefully you can ALSO get excited. And let’s be clear: 2020 was great for the bad kind of excitement, so it’s time to balance that out with as much good stuff as we can muster.
New Items on our eCommerce Store!
First up, it’s time to get stoked about new products on our eCommerce store. We had a record-breaking year after the numbers were tallied from this holiday season. It started when we tripled the number of offerings on our marketplace by rolling out glassware and bar tools, and then really took off when we started selling really cool stuff like cocktail smokers and small format barrels during the holidays.
All said, our eCommerce sales were up 200% from 2019, but we’re not pocketing that cash – no, we’re taking it and reinvesting it straight into new and improved merchandise. For example, by the end of January, I’m really hoping to have some cool flasks available for you, and it’s our goal to continue fleshing out our mixers, bar tools, and glassware this coming year, so if there’s a particular product or category you’d be really excited to see featured in our cocktail marketplace, please do let us know. We take feedback from our listeners and customers super seriously, and if there’s no way we can offer a particular product, then we can certainly point you in the right direction for where to find it. Literally today we got a call from someone looking for a Lewis Bag and Mallet, which is a craft ice tool. And although this is an item that’s in relatively low demand, we were still able to help this person find a place to source it. We’re here to help, even if we can’t personally sell you the product you need.
Libbey 25.25 oz Flashback Footed Mixing Beaker
Acopa Deco 5 oz Vintage Nick & Nora Martini Glass
Libbey 25.25 oz Carats Mixing Beaker
More (And Better) Live Stream Content
Next up on things to get excited about – let’s talk about our Live Stream project. In the past month or two, you viewed or listened to our first few live streams, including our rare Chartreuse tasting, our Holiday Gift Guide, and our inaugural bottle review episode, where we actually evaluated spirits that were sent in to us and shared our findings with the world.
Moving forward, we’re hoping to do on average two live streams every month. One is going to be in the format of the bottle review episode, and the other is going to take the form of a themed tasting that dives deep into a single spirits category. Now here is where it gets really exciting:
When we do these themed tastings, we’re going to publish the bottles we plan to taste through about a month in advance. That way, should you choose, you can pick up one or more of the bottles we’re tasting and enjoy the experience LIVE, right alongside us. This is what I’ve been working on instead of trying to teach Zoom cocktail classes during the pandemic because I think it’s going to give value long after we’re all vaccinated and back to our normal lives. AND – once we have things really humming along, we’ll even provide a call-in number so that you can literally treat our streams like a live radio show and share your thoughts with the world.
Now, these streams will also appear on our podcast feed, but they’ll be differentiated from our normal episodes with an MBC LIVE tag so that you know what you’re getting into. So if you’re a fan of our interview content, but not our live tastings or bottle reviews – no worries! Those episodes will still be rolling out as usual.
The Conclusion of Breaking Bloody
Speaking of which, here’s another thing to get excited for in 2021: the conclusion of our extremely popular Breaking Bloody series, where we’ve been systematically scrutinizing every component of the Bloody Mary cocktail so that we can present perhaps the most comprehensive study on this drink ever conducted. I know this sounds ambitious, but we’ve got some really fun tricks up our sleeve still to come, and I’m super stoked for our next episode, which is going to investigate the spicy aspects of this drink, from hot sauce, to horseradish and beyond. Did we track down a real live horseradish scientist? Maybe. Are we going to talk to someone who seems to be immune to even the world’s spiciest peppers? Perhaps. You’ll just have to tune in when we launch the next installment of Breaking Bloody, which should be out before the end of January. This is a series that has really captured my personal imagination, so you can expect a lot more audio and (spoiler alert) video content coming out in the next few months.
Lastly, I want to put out a call to action for you, our listeners, to tell us what you want to hear. We get emails all the time from listeners suggesting topics or guests, but January is a great time to make yourself heard because it’s kind of our slow season, so you have a much better likelihood that we’re going to chase down leads and make it happen if you put a note in our inbox and make your voice heard now. I’m sure you know it, but that’s [email protected] for all your guest recommendations and topic suggestions.
That’s about it for this year-in-review episode. We’ve given you a complete rundown of 2020 by the numbers, looked at emerging trends and exciting legislation, and even given you some fun stuff to look forward to in the months to come. But if you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ll permit me one final segment.
A lot of the podcasts I listen to – and they are many and diverse – tend to send out a holiday message to their listeners. Not merely a summation of the year like I just did, but a sort of invocation or tuning fork for the year to come. And I like that. I think it’s fitting, so here’s my holiday message to you as we approach a new year.
My Holiday Ritual
I just got finished spending a really nice holiday break at my childhood home in Western Massachusetts. Like many of you, I got to enjoy awesome food, catch up with my family, who have also been taking a ton of precautions during the pandemic, and overall just unwind from the frenzy that my life becomes between Thanksgiving and Christmas. For me, what that looks like is spending a lot of time in the woods where I grew up, enjoying the wind and the trees and the kind of winter landscape that doesn’t need me, but seems content to let me hang out for a while and soak in the quiet.
I say this a lot, but the best way to describe my home is as a place that was ripped straight out of a Robert Frost poem, which is funny because we recently got a Facebook message from someone asking about the very first cocktail I ever invented (if you can call it that) – and this is way before Modern Bar Cart when our website was Embittermentdc.com. This drink was called the “Stopping by Woods,” after Frost’s famous poem, and it was basically just a dark rum Old Fashioned with rosemary muddled in with the sugar and bitters. Rum because it was a staple in New England early in our country’s history, and rosemary to mimic the piney scent that one might encounter in the woods on a mid-winter night, because “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is, at its core, a solstice poem.
My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmous near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.
So my mind was already on Frost as I walked through my woods like I tend to do this time every year. But like you, and like all of us, I was keenly aware that this year was just different. It was a lot. It took a toll on us all, each in our own way, but also collectively. So as I was taking time to recuperate personally, I was also thinking about what it might mean for us all to recuperate collectively from a year that threw so many unexpected challenges our way, and how excellent spirits and cocktails might play some sort of role on that path to recovery.
One podcast that I mention a lot – The Speakeasy – has been making some really great points recently about bars and hospitality venues as being really important “third spaces” – not home, not work, but a third type of place where connections can be made and nourishment of different sorts can be found. I like this. I think it’s important, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t have a good timeline for when we can expect bars to reopen again in any way that resembles what we’ve come to know in the past, so instead of focusing on these third spaces right now, I want to offer you my wish for better drinking at home, since that’s what most of us are going to be doing for quite some time to come.
And the vision I want to present is of drinking as an act of nourishment, since, after all, most spirits and cocktails arose out of a medicinal tradition. In 2021, I hope that you can approach the things you drink with gratitude and even a little bit of reverence; gratitude for the fact that we’re able to even source ingredients during these difficult times and reverence for the physical and psychological relaxation that our spirits and cocktails can offer as forces beyond our control rage right outside our doorsteps.
Lessons from Robert Frost’s “Directive”
This is the sort of thing that Robert Frost wrote about in what I consider to be one of his greatest works, a poem called “Directive,” which rarely makes it into textbooks. So I thought I’d share it with you here. It begins with the phrase “Back out of all this now too much for us,” which is just about the most fitting set of words I can imagine to describe what so many people are craving at this very moment.
In “Directive,” the speaker encourages us to imagine walking through a New England landscape and coming across the cellar hole of an abandoned farmhouse and imagining what sort of life might have thrived there just a few decades before. In the end, he presents an image of drinking as both sacred and rejuvenative – a private act of reverence that rescues something from the ravages of time and difficulty. So without further prelude, here’s “Directive.” I hope you like it.
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
The thing about “Directive” that most people gloss over is that it was published in 1946, one year after twin mushroom clouds appeared over the island nation of Japan. A year that saw evil men put on trial in Nuremburg for atrocities that most people could scarcely have dreamt just months before.
So just like earlier in the episode when I mentioned Harding’s campaign slogan in the wake of the Spanish Flu as an ominous warning against repeating the mistakes of history, I think there are also opportunities to look to other people in other times who found ways to recover a bit of dignity and mental fortitude in the wake of war or sickness.
The next time you make yourself a drink, I’d encourage you to think about it as an act of self care, and I hope you can think back to Frost’s speaker, who hid a little goblet from a child’s abandoned playhouse in the instep arch of an old cedar so that he could scoop up some clear, cold spring water and somehow find a little distance from all this that is now too much for him.
So wherever you are, and whatever grail you fill, just remember:
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you in 2021.
This episode was made possible with editing and sound design by Samantha Reed and a little bit of year summarizing, poem reading magic by yours truly, this has been a Modern Bar Cart production, copyright 2020.