Editor’s Blog: Is it time to stop looking back?

The bar industry is overly preoccupied with the past.

BarLifeUK Editor's Blog - Is it time to stop looking back?
Enough of this sort of thing.

This is a sweeping generalisation worthy of a Fox News anchor, but for the sake of argument, let it stand for a moment and consider these points:

Think about the last spirit masterclass you attended. If it was a ‘big’ brand, a good portion of the session would have been spent discussing heritage, inferring weight and substance because of roots in history. If it was a new brand, no doubt the packaging had Victorian overtones, and a marketing backstory designed to imply historical merits… it was probably described as Craft or Artesian (words designed to make you think the booze is crafted by old men using long forgotten techniques).

For a long time, almost every high-profile bar opening has had a historical leaning, be it the ubiquitous speakeasy, or a variation on the Victorian gin palace or Ye Olde Boozer.

More often than not cocktail competition entries take their inspiration from the past, both in the creation of the drink and the patter that goes with it – this is a twist on the first cocktail I ever served / a twist on Jerry Thomas’ favourite drink / is inspired by mead found in a Bronze Age burial mound.

Our most (rightly so) respected authors spend hours digging through old newspapers and books, searching for the genesis of obscure cocktails and the history of types of alcohol, and bartenders absorb this knowledge which then finds its way into ‘new’ drinks and cocktail lists.

All of this indicates a general point of view – Old is Good. New is Bad.

While this is a perfectly valid way of doing things, and one that has helped elevate the bar and cocktail industry to the position it currently holds, I wonder if we haven’t seen enough foxes wearing bowler hats and fucking penny farthings. As a species we just landed a robot on a comet, shouldn’t that be a bigger source of inspiration than the way Jerry Thomas made a Blazer?

Why do we care about the past so much?

Twin brothers start dating twin sisters, and are invited to meet the girls’ parents:

Mother: So what do you boys do for a living?

Brother 1: I’m a chef.

Mother: Ooh, that’s nice. I love fine dining.

Brother 2: I’m a bartender.

Mother: So when are you going to get a real job?

This preoccupation with the past is, I think, at least in part a hangover from the above scenario. Because bartending was seen as a lightweight profession, the industry felt compelled to validate itself by looking to the past, to prove its worth by demonstrating its tools and techniques are rooted in history.

But the ‘when are you going to get a real job’ mentality is fading. The work done by big competitions like World Class and Bacardi Legacy have increased the public’s perception of bartending as a career. Celebrity chefs are talking about cocktails. But more than that, the world is changing and what were jobs for life in previous generations simply don’t exist anymore. The service industries are taking over, and people are realising that people will always want to drink, and bartenders will always have a job.

It’s a generational thing too, we are standing with one foot in the past and one in the future. Offer a musician the choice between a beat up old guitar from the 60s, or a brand new Fender, and they will invariably go for the relic, and then spend £100 on a digital interface so they can plug it into their iPhone.

It’s this paradox that gives spirits companies such a hard time, forcing them to spend huge amounts of money on cutting edge social media campaigns designed to tell young customers about their new, vintage-inspired product that can be enjoyed while watching a new band play old songs for free, if they like the Facebook page from their iPhone.

If not the past, then what?

BarLifeUK Editor's Blog - is it time to stop looking back?
More of this sort of thing.

The basic tenets of a great bar will never change – good drinks, good service, good vibe. As they wont change for a great cocktail – tasty, balanced, moreish. Up until now, the trend has been to wrap these things up in, for want of a better word, ‘vintage’ trappings, and it has worked admirably. But times are changing, and pretty soon people will be less impressed with the fact a distillery has been operating for 300 and years, and more concerned that the sugar cane it uses is Fair Trade.

The desire to live healthily and drink without guilt are joining environmental issues in the common consciousness, and it’s a banker that young customers will be more attracted to bars that address these concerns in coming years. But are these passing fads, or will they hang around for long enough to warrant the bar industry changing its MO? It is impossible to say.

It is certain, however, that the way people use technology will define the next decade. The way our behaviour has changed since the launch of the iPhone is staggering, in just eight years everything from the the way we communicate, take photographs, listen to music, navigate and even walk along the street has been transformed.

The mobile generation are always doing two things at once, everything is logged, photographed, shared and posted. Moan about the loss of interpersonal skills all you want, but this behaviour is a fact of life now, and as technology develops it will only ever become more enmeshed in daily life. How should bars cope with this inevitable change? Will a Speakeasy fit-out and Prohibition drinks cut the mustard in 2020 (which, scarily, is just 5 years away).

The clue probably lays not so much in the technology itself, but in the way it has allowed people to alter their behaviour. People don’t listen to albums now, they listen to playlists made up of their favourite songs. They don’t wait for buses, they use an app to tell them when the next one is due. They don’t flirt down the pub, they use Tinder. In short, they use the technology to cut out the stuff they don’t want in order to get straight to the heart of the experience they do want. Given the choice, which parts, if any, of the traditional bar experience would people get rid of?

In answer to my own questions… I have no idea, but instinctively I feel that the time for looking to the past for inspiration is ending. Given the choice between a dive bar, or one designed to be appealing to customers primarily concerned with being healthy, environmentally sympathetic and Instagram, and I’ll take the former every time. But whoever comes up with a concept that nails the latter is going to make a lot of money.

Of course there will always be room for classically-styled and themed bars and drinks. And there will always be knowledge and inspiration to be gleaned from the past, but could it be that the time has come to stop looking back and embrace the changes that are happening to the world around us right now?

Edible 3D printed garnish, anyone?