In the Face of a Never-Ending Pandemic, Bartenders Turn to TikTok
With the bar industry at a standstill, the demand for virtual booze content has never been higher
I’m gazing out the window with my eyes fixed on a sunsetting New York skyline while Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” plays softly from a speaker. Smoke lingers as someone places a sprig of torched rosemary into a rocks glass. In a separate but equally chic tall glass, an ounce of sweet vermouth, Campari, gin and a half-ounce of rosemary syrup are neatly stirred together. The mixture is then poured over a mammoth-sized ice cube in the smoke-filled rocks glass and garnished with an orange peel and rosemary.
No, this is not some fever dream from my pre-pandemic days of fabulous cocktail-bar hopping. It’s October 2020 and we’re nearing record levels of COVID-19 infection rates as an impending second lockdown looms, and I am scrolling through TikTok.
Booze content on the video-sharing app is thriving, with career bartenders and newcomers alike finding virality. It’s a mixed bag — many accounts post fun but straightforward cocktail recipes, others give inside scoops on the industry (and how not to be an asshole customer), while still others home in on the aesthetics, like the soothing rosemary negroni recipe from TikTokker @evieisntreal I’ve just described.
That particular cocktail video now boasts more than 10 million views and 2.5 million likes, while the account itself has garnered almost half a million followers. As many fans of the account have noted, you could spend hours watching these vintage New York-style cocktail videos: the backdrop, the romantic old school music, some very stylish barware and an unidentified floating hand mixing cocktails — it’s all very relaxing.
Evie Negri-Albert, the owner of that hand and TikTok account, tells InsideHook she only recently started making cocktail videos in October 2020. After getting sick with a non-COVID related illness but still having to go on a mandated 14-day quarantine, she was bored in her New York apartment and decided to film herself making a drink with her new bar equipment, because the sunset looked nice.
“I didn’t expect anything of it at all. I chose a random song from TikTok’s sound selection, edited it and then it kind of just blew up overnight and that was that,” says Albert.
While Albert’s current job has no relation to the food and drink industry, she grew up working at her family’s mom-and-pop restaurant in Pennsylvania, where she learned how to make classic drinks like Manhattans and Jack & Cokes. Later she moved into fine-dining restaurants, where she learned a bit more technique from watching other bartenders mix drinks.
“I never really got an official bartending license or anything like that. It’s not a requirement in Pennsylvania. So I just learned as I went and then I had a passion for it and I started growing my bar because I liked doing it at home as well,” she explains.
License or not, Albert’s cocktails are enticing, and spending a night creating aesthetically pleasing concoctions for you and your pandemic pod is even more appealing now, since there’s not much else to do.
“Now that it’s more difficult to go out and get these drinks because of COVID and restrictions, my thing is you don’t have to be fancy or have all of this insane knowledge, you can make this a reality in your own home, as long as you have the ingredients at hand,” she adds.
The “vibes,” as the TikTokkers say, are also a major draw into Albert’s growing account. She believes people really enjoy the vintage ambience and calming effect her TikToks evoke.
“I do think people like the alcohol content as well, but I don’t think that plays as much as a part in why it draws people in. Because I even get comments from people who don’t drink that say, ‘I don’t even drink, but I love your videos because they’re so calming to watch.’”
Aesthetics also play an important role in another popular booze TikTok account. Imagine Ava Gardner took you inside her lavishly decorated mid-century modern home, mixed you cocktails and schooled you on hosting etiquette. Those are the vibes of Hannah Chamberlain’s TikTok account @spiritedla, which currently claims almost 200K followers thanks to instructional videos like How to Make a Cider Rum Punch That Will Get People to Like You or How to Day Drink at Afternoon Tea.
Unlike other cocktail content producers on TikTok, Chamberlain tells InsideHook she’s never been a bartender, but about five years ago started getting into cocktails while living in L.A. She began running a cocktail Instagram account called @spiritedla, and in 2019 started posting on TikTok under the same name.
“It [TikTok] reminded me of the old internet, like Vine, where it was less about things looking cookie-cutter perfect, like the ideal photo of some inaccessible, otherworldly life. It was more about fun and personality,” says Chamberlain.
She soon found her content on TikTok was garnering a bit more success.
“The very first video I posted, the likes still aren’t that high, but it got 500,000 views in no time. It was just a simple citrus garnish technique. I had never had something get that many views on Instagram. My mind was blown.”
Chamberlain’s earlier TikToks, she notes, were a bit more silly — concerned with challenges and drinking humor rather than service. And while those videos did well, she noticed many of the comments she was receiving were questions about educational matters: how to make better drinks, what bar equipment to buy, why gin versus vodka, what are bitters, etc.
“I kind of started moving more in that direction once I started seeing how much of a thirst, so to speak, there was for drink knowledge.”
As noted, with many bars and lounges closed due to COVID-19, building your own home bar and learning how to make your favorite fancy cocktail is a more desirable skill than ever. “Before quarantine, you could go out to a bar, you could get a really nice cocktail made for you … But now, since we’re all isolated and at home, learning to do those things is much more important,” says Chamberlain.
Arguably, the knowledge wouldn’t be nearly as fun if not for Chamberlain’s brightly colored pantsuits, vintage-style dresses, funny mannerisms and the lively party atmosphere her TikToks exude — all of which Chamberlain notes were mostly unintentional.
“The way I would think about it is if I were going to host people at my house, or if I were to go out for drinks with friends, this is kind of how I dress, this is sort of what I do,” Chamberlain explains. “It’s like a little break from the chaos of the rest of life. I think that’s particularly appealing right now.”
Seeing an upbeat, familiar face and feeling a sense of routine are two key qualities Ashley Hupp instills in her widely popular videos as @paradisebartender, one of the top booze TikTok accounts, with some 2.8 million followers. Hupp’s TikToks resemble more straightforward how-to videos. They’re fast-paced, lively and affirmative, with a recurring pattern that always includes Hupp’s signature phrase “Shake, shake, shake shake.”
The easy-to-follow format is one of the aspects Hupp tells InsideHook she believes made her videos so popular. “I think application was key. Once I figured out there was a rhythm and a routine everyone liked, I stuck with it,” says Hupp, who says she made around 400 videos with the exact same steps and script.
“People need to go somewhere familiar,” she continues. “They know I’m going to say, ‘One, two, three, four.’ They know I’m going to say, ‘Hey guys.’ They know what to expect from me.”
Hupp, who has been bartending for eight years and now lives in Hawaii, also notes that the simple act of sharing expertise has become a kind of currency in a world where self-sufficiency is in demand. “[Bartending is] a skill that I really love having. It’s a skill I will always tend to,” she says.
Like many TikTokkers who have been shot into viral fame overnight, Hupp didn’t anticipate reaching almost 3 million followers in less than a year when she posted her first cocktail video during a slow work shift back in January. “And I’m so happy that it happened,” Hupp admits. “That’s always the main goal, right? I wanted to go viral. I wanted to be there. I wanted to show my passion to the world.”
It’s an achievement that takes persistence and a major stroke of luck — “hitting the algorithm lottery,” as Nico Desreumaux calls it.
Desreumaux runs the popular TikTok account @cointricktwitch, with more than 1.5 million followers. He takes a different approach to booze content on the app, offering insight into the industry through personal stories and in turn helping people become better patrons, all while showcasing some impressive bartending tricks.
Desreumaux tells InsideHook he was largely self-taught, moving his way up from an expo to a barista to a bartender. “The only advice I ever got when I was learning to be a bartender was from my first bar manager, which was ‘Go faster,’ and I’ve had to turn those two words into everything that I know now,” he says.
Alongside bartending, Desreumaux has been a content creator on YouTube and Twitch for years. He posted his first TikTok in December 2019, which he admits was initially a joke. “The subject of the video was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard behind the bar, and that was actually a barista story — it has nothing to do with alcohol.” Still, the video reached a million views by the following day, far surpassing any other content Desreumaux had ever made.
He continued to post storyteller-type TikToks with a level of production value he calls “algorithm-friendly.” As he generated a larger following, however, Desreumaux knew he had to be cautious in terms of what kind of content he would go forward in making. It’s why he tries to turn his annoying or embarrassing customer experiences into lessons for future patrons.
“I wrap everything up by saying, ‘The lesson in all of this is to not be this person I’m talking about.’”
Empathy for people who work in the service industry is a key element of Desreumaux’s content. “I’m trying to help pull the veil away between the guests and the workers so that it feels less like the service industry is just this vending machine where if you give it money, we’ll give you something that you want, and instead seeing the parts of the machine as people,” Desreumaux says.
With a second lockdown already beginning in some states and no relief bill in sight, the next few months look grim for the service industry, which could lose up to $240 billion and see as many as eight million layoffs or furloughs by the end of 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. The content creators we talked to all admitted that their TikTok have given them an added sense of financial security, though they’re cautious with how they approach partnership opportunities or other potential revenue models.
“I have to be very careful with the brand partnerships I take on,” says Chamberlain. “I want to make sure if I’m working with a brand, it’s something I absolutely would love to use myself. Otherwise, I would feel terrible kind of trailing people that way.”
Desreumaux also works with a number of paid partners, but plans to continue bartending so that he can maintain a sense of autonomy over his TikTok content. “Being motivated by money puts me in a compromising position where I need to take opportunities that might not be best for my content or messaging or the community that has already formed around me … I’ve loved the opportunity to support my family with the content and opportunities that my content brings me, but retaining a full-time job outside of content creation allows me to keep agency over my content.”
Hupp, another career bartender, is choosing not to touch any of her TikTok income for the time being. “As far as my job goes, it closed March 16th and I don’t have a date to go back to work,” she says. “So I’m using [TikTok] for insurance.”
What’s clear among all these overnight stars is that creating booze content for a captive home audience has proven a very successful venture. With the state of bartending shifting so dramatically, Hupp feels now is the time for other bartenders to try their own hand at internet fame.
“I think there’s more than enough room … Everybody has their own unique skill and their own different flair,” says Hupp. “I can’t wait to see the bartending community [on TikTok] grow and become bigger. With more people staying home again, we as bartenders can provide that fun for everybody on a more vital virtual level, and it’s going to change how bartending is in the future, 100 percent.”
As more bartenders pivot to online platforms, Hupp also hopes the job itself will become less stigmatized, with more people regarding bartending as a legitimate skill and career path.
“I think for the longest time, being a bartender was looked down upon like, ‘Oh, you’re a bartender, but what’s your real job?’ No, bartending is my real job. Now let me show you how to do it.”
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