Is the cocktail bar really dead? Why are people staying home instead of going out?

Here's what I'll be looking out for in the year ahead.

Is the cocktail bar really dead? Why are people staying home instead of going out?

I’m back at the desk after something of an extended break from publishing over Christmas and New Year. It hasn’t been all holiday time, though, as I’ve been working on the behind the scenes parts to this newsletter and events business we’re building at Boothby.

I have had a couple of episodes of the Drinks At Work podcast out over the last two weeks, however; the episode with Ross Blainey, who is the creative collaborations lead and brand ambassador for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, is a favourite of mine, as we stretched the format of the show a bit and looked at the trends that we might expect to see in 2024. He’s a smart guy, and he also spoke about how he works on collaborations — there’s a lot of useful inspiration in there for anyone even considering doing a guest shift in 2024. Get that here.

I also spoke to Kate McGraw and Eduardo Conde last week, because World Class Australia is back for another year. They’ve made some changes to the way they deliver the program to give greater weight to up-skilling bartenders, and their Diageo Bar Academy Roadshow begins today in Sydney — take a look here for more dates and details.

And when I wasn’t in Portland, Oregon, this month for the Australian bar industry wedding of the century (I’m calling it!) between Double Deuce Lounge owner Sebastian ‘Cosmo’ Soto and former Host of the Year, Olivia Rockwell — it was a beauty of a wedding, by the way — I’ve been working to refine the areas on which Boothby will focus this year.

Here’s what I’ll be covering, and why:

The playbooks bars use to make money, get attention, and thrive.

Yes, you’ve got to have great drinks and service, the bar has to feel great, but is that enough? It really should be, but I don’t think that guarantees a bar’s future. And I’ve always been interested in working out what the best operators and bartenders do. But it’s given extra salience at the moment because there are some countervailing forces at play — more on that below — making it more important than ever to create something unique and meaningful.

The younger generation is going out less.

For example, this Bloomberg article suggests that “it is the youngest adults who are going out less, and when they do go out, it is earlier.” The younger generation isn’t spending money or time at bars the way people of my generation did. This, the story goes on to suggest, is a result of more technology (you can have the restaurant send you food and get your booze delivered), and the fact that Gen Z “is shaping up to the most sober generation in US history.”

The cost of everything is too damn high.

It doesn’t encourage the next generation to get out into bars if everything is unaffordable. It feels like we live in a time of ever-rising cost of living, with rents higher than ever and home ownership off the table for many. The cheap thrills and respite from the world that a night out in our bars once offered is ever more expensive, too, in no small part because of never-ending tax increases on alcohol.

You’re going to need to create something special to coax people out of their home office and into your bar.

The new temperance movement.

I see surveys that say the latest generation is all health conscious and drinking less, but I do wonder if that’s true. I think there might just be more ways to get your fix than ever before, and new illicit activities I’ve not even heard about. Visit the US right now and yeah, they might be drinking less, but they’re a lot more high a lot of the time.

That said, whilst the boom of non-alcoholic drinks and alternatives to booze might feel like it has tapered off somewhat — there was a point there in 2022 when I was getting a new non-alc product press release every week — it’s not a trend that’s going to disappear, and nor do I think it should.

Because the research that keeps coming out suggests that there may be no safe level of alcohol we can consume, and that in fact, moderation might be too much. This New York Times explainer gives a good summary of the risks and the harms that come from drinking booze, and also — importantly — puts those risks into some context.

The drinks writer Jason Wilson — from whom I lifted that new temperance terminology, I think — has an interesting summary of how we got here in Wine Enthusiast, and a look at some of the gathering regulatory forces.

The new temperance movement is here to stay, I think, and I see bars exploring these options more fully — which is a good thing, because most of the commercial non-alc options leave a lot to be desired. As I’ve said before, that the good stuff will come from bartenders.

The demise of the pure cocktail bar.

When I look back at the bars I covered in 2023, all the new bar openings — of which there were many — I see a theme: the pure-play cocktail bar, the type which is set up to sell cocktails, and doesn’t bother with food, is almost non-existent today.

It’s something I’ve been keeping an eye on since I heard RE owner Matt Whiley say it, speaking at community talk put on by Worksmith last year.

“The model of a single cocktail bar that just sells cocktails, it will die,” he said.

And I think this might be where we see all the above areas of interest — fewer younger adults going out to bars, higher cost of living, pricey booze, and the new temperance — coalesce and make a real mark.

Have we reached peak guest shift yet?

This is the stat that blew me the back of my head off last year: During the five or so days that The World’s 50 Best Bars caravan rolled into Singapore in October last year — a caravan I gladly took part in — there were more than 270 guest shifts and bar takeovers happening in town, with only 100-odd of them being official, sanctioned events.

It’s absurd. That is a huge number. If even half of that is true, it is way too many.

I like seeing guest shifts, do not get me wrong. I think it can be a great way for a bar to treat its regulars to something special and new. And if I was a bartender wanting to see the world, I think it’s a fantastic way to go about snagging some sponsored trips and broadening my mind.

And I had a great time last year at the Maybe Cocktail Festival, when Stefano Catino and the Maybe Sammy extended family brought out something like 15 percent of the world’s top 100 bars for a week of takeovers. The bars they brought out were at the top of their game, and there was a real festival feeling to things. (It’ll be back again this year, too — stay tuned for details).

But not every guest shift is worth a visit. Too often they’re just a bartender making some forgettable sponsor brand drinks in a bar they don’t know how to move in — there is no sense of the place they come from. No experience. The service of drinks is often painfully slow. The bartender on guest shift is sometimes more interested in partying than giving punters a taste of their bar. Sometimes — more often than you’d want, let’s be honest — the drinks suck, and gives you the impression that their bar sucks, too. And I also get the sense out there that bartenders at least are getting tired of the format.

What I’d love to see is some genuine collaboration when these takeovers happen. You’re rarely going to get a full taste of what the takeover bartender's bar is actually like, so why not create something new? Create a one-off spectacular, something you can’t experience ever again? Give us a reason to care.

The shock of the new.

This one might be more of a hope than a bonafide reporting beat. But we live in a time of the algorithm, when engagement means enragement, and drinks in Bratislava look like drinks in Bondi. So I’d love to see something new. It is hard to do, but I believe we might be overdue. Whatever it is that comes next, I think it will be quite a shock — perhaps we won’t like it at first.

Here’s one suggestion: savoury drinks. Now, hear me out — I haven’t met many savoury drinks I’d sip a second time, either. The memorable mushroom drinks I've had are memorable for not being good; mushroom veloute is not a drink. I do, however, have an open mind to it. And as the bars of Asia — a region far too large to categorise with one descriptor, of course — achieve more global prominence, we’ll be introduced to different drink styles, and an emphasis on more savoury flavours in drinks could be part of that.

Jay Khan’s Hong Kong bar, The Savory Project, opened last year, and celebrates savoury and umami flavours. And later last year, in Bangkok, F*nkytown opened with a menu of drinks that are each given a funk score out of five; their Som Tum achieves the full funk score of five, with spicy som tum cordial, gin, fish sauce caramel, honeyed wine, and dried shrimp among the ingredients.

How does that work as a drink? I don’t know, I haven’t tasted it. But the bartender behind it, Pae Ketumarn, has a good pedigree having worked at Shingo Gokan’s bars Sober Company and The SG Club, so I don't see why it can’t be. I think perhaps it’s more about a broadening of the palate and an increase in the range of tastes available in our bars which go beyond the traditional American Bar drinks, and the Western taste profile. And I think that’s a very good thing.

As long as it’s delicious.

Have you got something new coming along that is going to give us a shock? I’d love to hear about it — contact me on

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Thanks for reading.