Bar owners are experimenting with new interior schemes that break the barrier between bartender and customer. A well-hyped example of this is whisky speakeasy, Black Rock, in London. The space, no bigger than a large living room, is populated with communal tables, cabinets of whiskey and minimal menus consisting of no more than ten whisky cocktails. The ‘bar’ itself takes the form of an art deco drinks trolley, positioned in front of a curtained off kitchen, from which the drinks are served.
‘There has been a shift in focus,’ says Alice Lascelles, author of Ten Cocktails: The Art of Convivial Drinking. ‘In the past you would go to a bar and the focus would be on the brands behind the bar – that would be your atlas, how you orientated yourself. But with bartenders becoming famous in their own right, it is easier to get people into bars purely for the concept rather than the brands they stock.'
Black Rock is not a lone concept – the growing trend in ‘no-bar bars’ is driving brands to reconsider their approach to the on-trade. With their real-estate stripped away, booze brands will need to adapt to reconnect with their consumers.
Here are three ways ‘no-bar bars’ are changing the way we drink:
1. A Focus on Ingredients Over Brands
The disappearance of the back bar as a design element has led to a refocusing on the ingredients and the experience of drinking, rather than the brands.
At Untitled, bartender Tony Conigliaro’s latest venture in Dalston, the bar has been replaced by a long central table, with a small table-height bar at the end where a bartender subtly fetches bottles.
The menu explores flavours rather than brand names, with cocktails described in flavour notes - much like a food menu. Take ‘Snow’ for example, the flavours are clay, chalk and enoki mushrooms, while the cocktail ‘Green’ is described merely as ‘matcha’.
‘Sometimes I would read [cocktail] lists and the emphasis would be so much on the brand, rather than on what the customer wants in terms of flavour,’ says Conigliaro.
Ryan Chetiyawardana, the man behind the restaurant concept ‘Cub’, agrees. ‘There was a stage when bars felt they had to stock every single bottle and back bars became spiralling messes that didn’t help bartender or consumer’.
At Cub, the food pass and the drinks bar are one to emphasise food and drink as one experience. For Chetiyawardana, brands still have a place in this space, but he says that the ‘ones that succeed are the ones that have a true dialogue with both customer and bartender’.
2. Bartender as Host
The central table at Untitled was created in order to foster community. Commenting on the design, Conigliaro says: ‘Bars often look like stages that separate the bartender from the customer, but we wanted the bartender to be on the same level as the customer so everyone was on an equal footing.’
‘It re-emphasises the people in the space. They all sit around the table with a host – that’s what the bartender becomes. It’s the idea of collaboration. You are in the mix with the bartender – you get involved with them and they get involved with you.’
We can certainly see the appeal of this, especially for the well documented ‘experience seekers’, who are looking to reconnect with people and get away from their phones.
3. Self Service
At Bonechina in Frankfurt, there is no bar counter but a central self-service station with two hosts to guide you.
The station, which has a large 3D elephant with tonic water splashing from its mouth, has a range of house-made ingredients for guests to create their own concoctions.
There are home-made aromatic ice cubes that have been infused with flavours such as vetiver and sandalwood, as well as cordials and pre-batched cocktails to make the process both easy and experimental.
The hosts are there to help with flavour profiles but also to prepare the drinks for more reticent guests.
As ‘no-bar bars’ continue to challenge traditional relationships between brands and outlets, we expect to see brands innovating and creating new liquids, seasonally perhaps, that provide deeper ingredient stories, allowing the bartender to create fresh and new drinking experiences for their customers.
SEEN is compiled by LOVE’s Head of Culture, Kat Towers. Want to say hello, ask questions or challenge her cultural knowledge then get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org