“There are bartenders that are sitting at home just like, so excited to be able to make a cocktail and serve a guest. It’s kind of tough, it’s a little sad. This is hard for our industry to get through,” says Jeff van Horne, co-owner of The Clever Barkeep in Halifax.
For nearly three months, bars, restaurants and nightclubs have been shut down to anything but take-out. While the provincial government loosened Nova Scotia's liquor control regulations to allow take-out beer and wine (as long as it’s no more than three times the price of the food), that change didn't cover mixed drinks.
“It could have easily been included as a to-go option. It’s too bad that it wasn’t,” says van Horne.
As a catering business, Clever Barkeep was planning for the opening their first brick-and-mortar location in downtown Dartmouth when COVID hit. Since they were relying on one-off events permits before, they currently have no license to sell alcohol.
“We had looked into or were hoping to do cocktail-to-go as a part of our business model, and use that to generate some revenue where we can. We’re always trying to look for ways to innovate and push what’s going on in the beverage world,” says van Horne.
But they soon discovered it wasn’t possible. “You would have to go about getting a specific license to retail alcohol. Similar to how craft breweries can sell their beer and distilleries can sell their products,” says van Horne.
Instead, Clever Barkeep switched to providing online recipes and bartending classes for cocktail-lovers.
“We usually send out a grocery list, really trying to encourage people to learn about cocktails during this tough time,” van Horne says. Through this, Clever Barkeep is trying to push for more cocktail knowledge in Halifax.
“Education in a market like Halifax, people don’t know as much about cocktails as other cities in Canada, larger cities that have a more solid cocktail culture,” he adds.
But there is one restaurant that is allowed to deliver bottled, take-out cocktails. And they were doing it before COVID-19 even existed. “We basically went and got this license two years ago that allowed us to be able to do this,” says Ciaran Doherty, co-owner of The Middle Spoon.
Doherty says for a long time the bottled cocktails weren’t a priority for the business. They sold two house-made drinks: Aphrodite’s Weakness and Blackcurrant Press.
“When this came along obviously our whole business changed, so we started bottling more cocktails so that our customers would have a little bit more choice,” Doherty tells The Coast.
The Middle Spoon now offers over a dozen classic cocktails, from cosmos and daiquiris to an old fashioned or a Manhattan.
They also have a section called "Halifax Bartender Community Cocktails," where some money goes directly back to the bartender who came up with the recipe.
Since it began, the cocktails have given over $3,000 back to the 12 participating bartenders, and Doherty says they’re all eager to come up with recipes from home.
“We basically just said ‘hey, if you’re a bartender who’s out of work in the Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, Sackville area, here’s a list of ingredients that you could use, create a cocktail of any of these ingredients,’” he says.
Doherty says The Middle Spoon has a variety of licenses that allow them to mix, bottle, sell and deliver their own cocktails. “I think we’re the only ones in the province, that’s what they’ve told us, who are allowed to do that from a bar standpoint.”
The bar makes the cocktails in small amounts ever day of the week. “Sometimes we are making them on the fly just because we went through what we thought we were going to sell that night,” he says. “It’s not a situation where we’re like bottling a whole bunch for the month or anything like that, and they’re just sitting there.”
The Middle Spoon hasn’t ventured into wine and beer during COVID—Doherty says they’re sticking to what they know best. With their bottled cocktails, there’s also no minimum food purchase.
"There are enough other places that maybe this is their only way to keep the lights on, there’s no real reason for us to even try to go into that market,” he says.
Doherty says he'll keep up the cocktail delivery as long as they can, even as restaurants are permitted to re-open on Friday, June 5. “I think realistically if people still want cocktails delivered we’re going to be delivering them,” he says.
Although the community cocktails may come to an end, Doherty is glad to have helped local bartenders deliver custom drinks to customers when they otherwise couldn’t.
“I’ve heard bartenders say it’s nice to know that people are still enjoying my cocktails even though it’s in a different way,” says Doherty. “Even though they’re not sitting at a bar in front of me it’s nice to know that something I created, somebody’s enjoying somewhere.”
At his regular COVID-19 briefing yesterday, June 3, premier Stephen McNeil announced that bars and restaurants can continue to do take-out beer-and-wine even after Friday's reopening of the economy.
For van Horne, who is still waiting on a permit to sell alcohol at the new bar, he thinks the laws should be changed to include the dozen or so Halifax bars that might be interested in delivery cocktails. He says the love and passion put into drinks by the bartenders who craft is something that’s hard to replicate on your own.
“It would just be easier if you can get a cocktail, something that you can’t normally produce at home,” he says. “If the government could make a small change to help things get a little bit better, then it would make a lot of people happy.”