As coronavirus closures have pushed bars to shift how they do business, forward-thinking and brave bartenders have found innovative ways to keep their establishments alive and their communities engaged despite facing incredible challenges.
These resourceful entrepreneurs have pivoted their business models to build successful to-go drink programs. Knob Creek® wants to celebrate their perseverance during these incredibly difficult times. While these circumstances are unprecedented, this creativity and temerity echoes that of our legendary master distiller Booker Noe, whose creation of small batch bourbon rejuvenated the American whiskey industry and set it up for exponential growth.
To-go cocktails continue to gain traction with bars across the country and rise in popularity with consumers. To inspire you and help you reinvent your business, here are some tips and advice from five top bartenders who have successfully launched to-go cocktail programs, as well as recipes for five Knob Creek® cocktails that are perfect for takeout.
When building your to-go program, realize that not every state’s liquor laws are the same. It is essential for bars opening back up for take-out service to understand what is legal and what is not legal in their area. In North Carolina, state law mandates that bars aren’t allowed to include spirits in to-go kits, so bartender Stefan Huebner instead sells kits that make ten to 12 drinks each. Guests just need to provide their own liquor.
“We felt the guests did not want complicated ‘mixology,’” he says. “They wanted great cocktails that they could replicate at home. We also tried to create mixers that you could use with multiple spirits.”
Bartender Amanda Carto had similar constraints in Texas, where bars are not allowed to sell pre-mixed drinks to guests unless they are in the sealed, original bottle and under 375 ml. So, her team looked to airplane bottles. Since the weather was already so hot in Texas when they started take-out service in March, she decided to lean into frozen drinks, creating kits that included a mini liquor bottle and a non-alcoholic frozen mix that guests combined themselves. “The airplane mini-bottles even became a fun way for the guest to be more interactive with their drink,” says Carto.
If your state liquor laws allows take-out orders, expanding the kinds of drinks your bar serves is also essential. Bar owner Alexi Minko says to-go cocktails weren’t the most natural fit for his Harlem, New York, lounge when he opened for service in May, but he has found ways to create them elegantly.
“Our general approach has been to make sure to adapt in the right fashion in order to respond to the demand, but also to stay true to our identity,” says Minko. “We had never served a frozen Margarita or a Frozé before, despite popular demand, but trying it out ended up being a great investment and paid off right away.”
Making the drinks look appealing and even fun to drink is also a big draw for customers. Minko has been using sealable, clear plastic pouches that still showcase the drink and make them easy to enjoy. “We couldn’t simply throw liquor in plastic cups,” he says. The pouches have also brought in new business. “Usually, people walk into the lounge requesting a to-go cocktail because they saw someone on the street holding one of our pouches.”
Huebner’s approach is slightly different. In addition to continuing to source fresh ingredients, he maintains a detailed presentation, adding value to his to-go kits wherever possible. Drinks are served in juice bottles with screw-on caps that feature vinyl labels with the drink recipe and his bar’s logo included. Each one comes with a fresh or dehydrated garnish, too.
“What we did that separated us from everyone else was the quality of our product and packaging,” says Huebner. “Your packaging needs to be on point—it’s what shows value. It also shows you care.”
San Jose, California, bartender Mary Palac also invested in packaging, going with small glass bottles with metal caps that seal shut for individual drinks. “For larger format drinks, we either used glass 750 ml bottles or plastic juice bottles, depending on the volume of the drink,” she says. “We reached out to a local print shop that made custom stickers for the drinks at really reasonable prices.”
One hallmark of a successful to-go program is a bar’s willingness to embrace batched and large-format cocktails in addition to made-to-order drinks. Minko is doing both at his bar, making simple cocktails like Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans to order, while embracing batched frozen options.
However, batching can present some difficulties when figuring out exactly how much to make. Palac recommends that bartenders “err on the conservative side in terms of your batching. It’s better to sell out than have to throw out drinks at the end of the week.” While she adds that spirit-forward drinks are easier to batch thanks to a longer shelf life, “Milk Punches and carbonated Highballs are great ways to incorporate shelf-stable refreshing cocktails in your menu.”
If you’ve got a social media presence, now is the time to use it. “It’s not worth it if your kits are amazing but no one knows they exist,” says Huebner.
Social media is “the quickest way to get information out to your community and guests, update them on service changes, new cocktails, and generally draw them into your program,” says Palac. “If you have an employee that you could be supporting financially by having them work remotely and promote your business, use the talent that you’ve got. So many young industry folks have other creative and useful talents, from photography to design to better understanding how to navigate different platforms.”
Also, you need to recognize that social media isn’t the only way to engage customers. Denver, Colorado, bartender T.J. Vong addressed struggling to-go drink sales by trying out a variety of marketing techniques. “It was definitely a struggle at first to obtain to-go drink sales,” he says. “The easiest way was for our team to recommend a drink for a meal was on phone orders. We also shifted drinks to the top of our online menu, so they were seen first.”
No matter how you formulate your to-go cocktail program, Carto says it’s important to not lose sight of why people visit bars, even though the social aspects are limited, for now.
“It’s an escape from their homes, their jobs, their everyday lives,” she says. “If it’s a frozen drink with an interactive experience makes someone smile and puts some easy into their life, I consider that a win.”
By Alexi Minko
NOTE: “The Old-Fashioned is my favorite to-go drink, because I am a classic man, and I love the elegance of this cocktail,” says Alexi Minko. “Customers always enjoy watching me muddle the orange, the cherry and the sugar and the red/orange color of the drink inside our transparent pouches has an excellent rendu.”
- 2 parts Knob Creek® Bourbon Whiskey
- .5 part Seltzer
- 1 Cherry
- 1 Orange slice
- 1 White sugar cube
- Angostura® Bitters
- Garnish: Cherry
Add the cherry, the orange slice and the sugar cube to a mixing glass and muddle. Add the seltzer and stir. Fill with ice and add the whiskey. Stir, and then top with a few drops of bitters. Stir again, and strain into a to-go container filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a cherry.
By Stefan Huebner
NOTE: Stefan Huebner’s to-go cocktail kit for this drink includes 20 ounces blackberry mint syrup, 8 ounces fresh lemon juice, 10 dehydrated lemon wheels, 10 mint sprigs and 4 pounds crushed ice.
- 2 parts Knob Creek® Single Barrel Bourbon
- 2 parts Blackberry Mint Syrup*
- .75 part Lemon juice
- Garnish: A mint sprig and a dehydrated lemon wheel
Add all of the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a to-go container filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and a dehydrated lemon wheel.
Yield: 10 Quarts
- 1 flat Fresh blackberries
- 1 pound Fresh mint
- 6 cups Sugar
- 2 Tbsp Salt
- 6 quarts Water
Add all of the ingredients, except the sugar and mint, to a large stock pot. Bring to a quick boil and add the mint. Wait five minutes, then strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Add the sugar and stir until it fully dissolves. Allow the syrup to cool and then bottle it and store it in the refrigerator.
By Mary Palac
NOTE: “This is a great drink to batch ahead of time. Drinks with apéritifs and vermouths always seem to just get better when the ingredients sit and get to know each other for a while,” says Mary Palac. “It’s also easy to pre-dilute and pour over a big ice cube at home.”
- 1.75 parts Knob Creek® Bourbon
- .5 part Bitter Italian apéritif
- .25 part Amontillado sherry
- .25 part Dry vermouth
- 1 dash Laphroaig® Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- 1 dash Saline solution
- Garnish: Orange twist
Add all of the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a to-go container filled with one large ice cube. Garnish with an orange twist.
By Amanda Carto
NOTE: “We ran with turning [our bar] into a full on ‘Daiquiri shack’ and focused on tropical, frozen drinks,” says Amanda Carto. For the Staycation Nation, she gave the Painkiller, a classic rum-based cocktail recipe, a Kentucky makeover.
- 1.5 parts Knob Creek® Small Batch Bourbon
- .5 part Amaro
- 1.5 parts Sweetened coconut cream
- .75 part Orange Juice
- .33 cup Frozen pineapple chunks
- .33 cup Frozen chai tea ice cubes
- Garnish: Freshly grated cinnamon
Add all of the ingredients to a blender and blend on the highest setting for five seconds. Then blend on the lowest setting for 10 seconds. Pour the drink unstrained into a to-go container and garnish with freshly grated cinnamon.
By T.J. Vong
NOTE: “This cocktail isn’t necessarily easily made at home without the kit, making it desirable to order,” says T.J. Vong. “Drop a QR code on the cocktail instructions for easy assembly by photo or video.”
- 1 part Knob Creek® Rye
- .50 part Basil Hayden’s® Dark Rye
- .75 part Vanilla liqueur
- .33 oz House-Made Creme de Cacao*
- 1 Tbsp Loose leaf Earl Grey Tea or 1 bag of Earl Grey Tea
- Garnish: Lemon peel
Add all of the ingredients, except the tea, to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a to-go container. Gather your cocktail kit: cocktail, large cube, tea bag or Vietnamese coffee press (up-sell option), double Old-Fashioned glass (up-sell option). Attach notes for at-home creation. Place contents in the freezer until ready for pick-up or delivery.
- 9 parts Cacao nibs
- 8 parts Demerara sugar
- 8 parts Okinawa Black Sugar
- .5 tsp Salt
- 25 parts Rum
Toast the cacao nibs in a 350°F oven until aromatic, about 5 minutes, taking care not to burn them. Let them cool for about 5 minutes. Then combine them with the rum in a resealable bag. Add the sugar and salt and submerge the bag in an immersion circulator at 135°F for 2 hours. Strain out the solids and rebottle.