Back in February, I missed the opening night event for Porchlight—Danny Meyer’s laid back Southern cocktail bar in Manhattan’s West Chelsea—but casually monitored the goings-on via social media.
I quickly noticed something interesting: an obscene amount of Instagrams were coming from the venue that night, the vast majority of them shots of Gun Metal Blue. A bright turquoise cocktail made with a flaming orange peel expressed over it, it was almost like the drink had been created for the sole purpose of its Instagramability.
“Everyone turns their head to see it,” head bartender Nicholas Bennett told the Wall Street Journal two days later. “Out comes this neon-blue, high-stemmed, rounded-out elegant cocktail.”
Made with Del Maguey Vida mezcal, blue Curaçao, peach brandy, lime, and cinnamon, once I finally tried it a few weeks later, I learned it’s indeed a tasty cocktail.
Most people, though, won’t ever taste it, deriving their enjoyment of it purely visually, #nofilter on Instagram. Luckily, three months after that opening party, Porchlight customers are still Instagramming Gun Metal Blue nearly every single night.
When the majority of hip cocktail bars were windowless speakeasy-type joints and all the cocktails were amber or brown, photography was gauche if not an impossibility due to the darkness. Not any more. If today’s bars were dark and so were the drinks, then how in the heck would millenials show off their bright and beautiful libations via Instagram? And…how would bars quickly create buzz?
“I don’t know how much direct impact Instagram has on people’s (drink) choices,” Michael Neff, the beverage director and bartender at Holiday Cocktail Lounge in the East Village told me. “That said, people do sometimes show me a picture on their phone and say, ‘Can I have that one?’”
There are currently over 8 million Instagram images with the hashtag #cocktail or #cocktails. Sure, some are simply of middle-aged women getting rowdy at brunch, but the vast majority are solo shots of cocktails. Beautiful, bright, way intriguing cocktails.
If Jen Selter is the Instagram queen of taking shameless shots of her butt and Dan Bilzerian is the Instagram king of photo-documenting his enviable douchery, Caroline Pardilla is Instagram royalty for cocktails. A drinks writer working out of Los Angeles under the handle Caroline on Crack, Pardilla is out almost every weeknight tasting and, more importantly, photographing her city’s most intriguing, tasty, and, yes, Instagrammable cocktails.
“I’m not sure initially bartenders want to make their cocktails Instagrammable,” she says. “But they definitely like when people order a pretty drink and others go, ‘What’s that?’”
Neff agrees with her. A fan of adding whimsical monkey and crab garnishes to his concoctions, he told me, “They say you drink a cocktail with your eyes first, so attractive and interesting presentation is important for all cocktails we make. That also happens to attract a lot of people who share on Instagram.”
How could Padilla’s thousands of followers see her gorgeous shot of the Melone Faraglioni with a popsicle plunged in it and not want to visit The Warwick?
Or look at her playful photo of I Am Sky, garnished with a fascinator-like blue thistle and cucumber, and not immediately desire a visit to Bestia?
Or see The Bali Bali surrounded by pluming dry ice and wonder, “How can I drink that?!” I know she’s frequently made me want to book a flight to L.A. and immediately start bar crawling.
“I’ve actually tried to bring the importance of Instagram to bartenders’ attention,” Pardilla notes. “I’ll ask them, ‘Do you have different glasses? More interesting glassware than these typical ones?’ I always want the cocktail to be Instagrammable.”
Unlike other intoxicated Instagrammers, Pardilla doesn’t simply use a smartphone for her shots, pointing a Sony RX100iii supplemented by a Photojojo pocket spotlight at every drink she glugs. Does it annoy her fellow drinkers? Piss off her friendly neighborhood barkeeps? Not at all, everyone’s doing it. Often, the bartenders even help her with shots!
“I’m addicted to Instagram. It even plays into where I want to go drink. Sometimes I don’t even want a full drink and just order a cool cocktail so I can take a picture of it. If it’s pretty, I want to share it.”
But, it’s not just us Americans taking part in this burgeoning phenomenon. In Pristina—the largest city in Kosovo—stands MorenaBar. There’s truly no reason for me to know about the spot, except for the fact they continually post some of the most gorgeous cocktails on all of Instagram. I can’t help but notice them any time I’m bored and mindlessly scanning #cocktailporn.
I sent the bar a message (in English) via Facebook and amazingly that worked. Owner Lorik Qosja immediately wrote back telling me, “It is very important to us that our cocktails look good on Instagram. We started taking pictures with our iPhone first, then we bought a camera so we could do it better. We think that Instagram helps us in promoting our drinks, and we do have customers who come and taste each of our Instagrammed cocktails.”
Back home in Brooklyn where we live, cocktail legend Julie Reiner has just opened Leyenda across the street from her famed Clover Club. The Pan-Latin bar’s flagship cocktail is, perhaps not surprisingly, the highly-Instagrammable Tia Mia. This mezcal-heavy take on a Mai Tai comes with a pretty pink orchid floating atop it. How could I not take a picture of that and upload it for the world to see? (I obviously did.)
But it’s not even just the drinks any more. Unlike the dark and moody cocktail bars that dominated the aughts, these new spots like Leyenda and Porchlight are intentionally airy and bright, all the better to let drinkers photograph their equally colorful and playful cocktails.
Bennett says, “Ultimately, the important thing is what’s in the glass. Making sure that the cocktail is delicious, balanced, and what the guest wanted takes priority. Yes, presentation is important as well, and if that leads to a beautiful and Instagrammable cocktail then I consider that a bonus.”
That’s good, because, as a thirtysomething drinker, I worry today’s whippersnapper bartenders might be more concerned with making cocktails that get a lot of LIKES, above being truly tasty. Pardilla shares that fear, privately telling me of a few bars in L.A. where the cocktail presentation is certainly Instagrammable, but the taste simply isn’t up to snuff.
“There is no denying the influence that social media has on the world,” Bennett adds, “but the memory of a delicious cocktail and the way it makes a guest feel has the biggest impact on their recommendations (to others).”