Discover more from Ab Ovo
To-Go Cocktails are Here to Stay
States are rapidly enshrining pandemic-era rules allowing 'cocktails to-go' into permanent state laws, and they're changing the way we drink in the process.
Ab Ovo is a weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and Tim McKirdy (TM). If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
Greetings from New Orleans, where the city has warmly embraced the CDC’s revised mask guidance, bars and restaurants are looking more like their pre-pandemic selves, and to-go cocktails abound. Not that this last point is all that significant.
New Orleans long-ago normalized engaging in legal adult behaviors — like sipping a cold beer on a warm afternoon — in the city’s public spaces. The “to-go drink” is ingrained in the city’s drinking culture. For those of us visiting from the vast majority of U.S. geographies where consuming a legally-obtained beverage in the wrong public space might earn one a court summons, walking out of a New Orleans bar or restaurant directly into the streets, beer or cocktail in hand, makes us feel like we’re getting away with something.
That feeling may not be long for this world. In the past seven days alone, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Maryland have enshrined the to-go cocktail into state law, while Arizona and California advanced similar bills through their state legislatures. The week prior, Georgia, West Virginia, and Iowa signed into law their own bills legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages to-go and/or via delivery.
This list isn’t even comprehensive; these are simply the bill-signings and legislative actions that have come across my radar since the beginning of the month. According to the most up-to-date list I could locate via the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, “Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Montana, Arkansas, West Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and the District of Columbia have all made COVID-era cocktails to-go measures permanent.” Several more state legislatures have similar bills under consideration.
Taken together, the sheer number of alcohol-related bills quietly moving through statehouses around the country represent one the biggest shake-ups in beverage service regulation since the end of prohibition. And viewed in that light, all of these little changes to the way bars and restaurants serve drinks feel a little bit more meaningful.
They’ll certainly prove consequential to hospitality businesses looking to rebound from the pandemic. On-premise sales in the U.S. are surging, as every state now allows indoor service at restaurants, and almost all have allowed bars to reboot indoor service as well (albeit at varying capacities).
Yet despite the pent-up demand for on-premise experiences, restaurants and bars still do a tidy business selling bottled cocktails and to-go/delivery drinks. Consumers like options, and to-go cocktails allow them to drink the way they want to drink. When states like Texas and Oklahoma — home to some of the nation’s more restrictive beverage alcohol regulations — put aside their longstanding mistrust of the drinking public to quickly enact laws expanding those options, one can’t help but feel like a larger shift in attitudes is afoot.
Why this matters: Norms are almost always more important than laws, and the summer of 2020 brought with it a serious change in drinking and dining norms. In Brooklyn, where I rode out that pandemic summer amid all the chaos and uncertainty unfolding in NYC, those shifting norms didn’t just save summer; they saved our collective sanity.
The city temporarily altered the law to allow restaurants and bars to sell alcoholic beverages straight onto the street from their front doors, but there was no corresponding change in law that made it legal to consume those beverages on any given sidewalk, park bench, or stoop. (A quick primer on U.S. drinking law for our readers elsewhere: Most U.S. cities/towns have laws in place prohibiting the possession of open alcohol containers and/or the consumption of alcohol in public except in specified places like restaurants and bars. As such, most cafes, bars, and restaurants have historically been prohibited from selling customers alcoholic beverages to take off-premises.)
The same thing unfolded in cities across the United States and the world as indoor socializing remained dangerous. Our public outdoor spaces became the only venues in which to share a bottle of wine with neighbors or crack the occasional highly-therapeutic beer with a friend. This wasn’t necessarily a legal use of these public spaces. In most of them — at least in the U.S. — consumption of alcoholic beverages remained, strictly speaking, verboten. But with legal changes to how we procured food and (especially) drink during the pandemic came an associated shift in norms around how we consumed them.
Cities relaxed their enforcement of certain ordinances. Citizens largely took care not to abuse this new freedom. Both residents and businesses made better use of shared, public spaces, creating new places for communities to gather and socialize. Bars and restaurants tapped into a much-needed revenue stream during an unprecedentedly challenging time, helping to keep the hospitality sector afloat. And — perhaps most importantly — society did not devolve into a spasming morass of debauched immorality just because some of us enjoyed a little Riesling in the park.
That’s not to suggest every state, city, or town should implement the New Orleans model of public safety, wherein one’s public consumption of alcohol is fairly unregulated right up until the moment that it is (at which point you’re probably already in handcuffs). But whether they realize it or not, both consumers and hospitality businesses are transitioning to a new paradigm this summer as many of these new, more permanent “alcohol to-go” regulations come into effect.
The pandemic offered us an opportunity to buy and sell drinks in the ways we’ve always wanted, as evidenced by just how naturally all of this came to us when lockdowns began and how reluctant we are now to give up the convenience. With laws already changing around how we buy beverages, Americans have an opportunity to evolve the norms governing how and where we enjoy our drinks as well. So everyone be cool. I like taking my Negronis to go. — CD
What We’re Drinking
GEM&BOLT Mezcal Artesanal ($49) As the mercury rises in the Northern Hemisphere, here at AO we find ourselves reaching for the lighter spirits. And when we seek a clear elixir that delivers all of the complexity of a whiskey or Cognac, there is no better candidate than mezcal. GEM&BOLT Mezcal Artesanal fuses tradition and innovation (purists be damned) to deliver an enjoyable and curious imbibing experience. Made with 100 percent Espadín agave that’s wood roasted and mashed by Tahona stone, the spirit sees two runs through copper stills — the second of which includes an infusion of the traditional Mexican herb damiana. Historically revered for its euphoria-inducing properties, it’s up for debate whether this spirit delivers anything other than a pleasant alcoholic buzz. But the herb lends a notable botanical quality that is certain to capture the hearts of gin drinkers. And if the very mention of gin leads you to daydream about Martinis, simply mix two ounces of GEM&BOLT with a 3/4 ounce dry vermouth, a 1/4 ounce olive brine, and two dashes of orange bitters. Try and tell us that isn’t the finest darn Dirty Martini you’ve ever experienced. We call it: The Dirty Damiana.