Last Call with Saul: The virtues and perils of at-home drinking

To-go cocktails helping some bars as they struggle to survive during ongoing uncertainty

Last Call with Saul: The virtues and perils of at-home drinking

My friend broke his butt during quarantine, like actually fractured his spine. He had been on a Zoom happy hour with coworkers, drinking a lot. During a hearty chortle, he fell backward on a stair step in his makeshift wine cellar. Not wanting to ruin his laptop, he decided his butt could handle the damage instead, so he landed right on it with the computer safely in his hands.

He called while lying in bed, and in between wincing and crying, he said he couldn’t really move the lower half of his body without causing searing pain. “Ouch, ouch,” he said as he wiggled in bed, explaining that he planned to —“ouch, ouch, ouch”— sleep it off, not wanting to bother his doctors. A couple friends and I stepped in, along with my mother, who insisted he go to the hospital. To save any suspense: No lasting damage was done and he’s recovering now, with orders from me to take it easy for the next year, so I don’t have to push him around in a wheelchair by age 35.

I’ve noticed we live in personal extremes during the pandemic. My friends are either eating everything or they’re on insane diet and workout plans. They’re completely indoors or they picnic a lot, and travel. Likewise, they’re mostly giving up on alcohol or they’re drinking much more. I gave up alcohol a while before shelter-in-place, but pretending I hadn’t, it’s hard to imagine what an active cocktail life would look like nowadays. Sure, I have a cocktail trolley, but am I really going to sit around shaking espressotinis and lemon drops?

OK, that actually sounds really good.

“At first, I drank much more out of disbelief and anxiety, and an attempt to numb the existential crisis of it all,” said Spencer Blank, a Windsor resident. “Now, I barely enjoy a glass of anything because I’m a social drinker, and there’s no social right now.”

Same. I never was the type to sit at home with a glass of wine or a cocktail, save for scant times in my 20s when I did with a friend on the phone. Still, a lot of people are doing just that, and more are ordering takeout bottles of cocktails from their favorite bars. An editor and I were a little perplexed about it the other day: What really is the allure of a batched cocktail in a glass bottle if it doesn’t come in a fancy martini glass, with a sketchy guy giving you looks from across a dimly-lit bar?

“I personally think you can’t underestimate people’s laziness,” said Lisa Merrall, owner of Fireside Bar in Sunset. “They’ll get a bottle of cocktail if they can pour it from their bar.”

Most friends tell me they buy takeout cocktails to show support. But also, “I don’t want to buy a 750 ml bottle of something I need 1 ounce of for a cocktail,” said Brenda Kahler, an Upper Market resident.

“It’s nice to have someone make me a drink with like six ingredients for a change,” Kahler added, “Helps me feel fancy before I switch back to White Claw.”

The support is needed. Right now bars and a swath of other businesses may not see an opening date until a functioning vaccine enters wide distribution. Between that, a listless economy, and extended recommendations to stay home, more bars and restaurants are calling it quits.

Merrall is among few owners I know who haven’t tried opening a patio or selling sandwiches with takeout cocktails. In a phone call, she explained the small amount of revenue generated wouldn’t overcome challenges with bills and rent, and she didn’t want to risk exposure of coronavirus to her family.

Others thought takeout drinks would be a short-term fix.

“We figured we would offer popular big-hit simple cocktails and hopefully, we would be back open soon,” said Isaac Shumway, owner of California Gold in San Rafael, noting that the bar’s cocktails became more complex over time.

Months into the pandemic, however, “We are in total uncertainty,” he said. “Everything has become more difficult … Our sales have dropped and now we struggle. We are struggling to stay connected to our community and to just pay rent. The bonds we have built while keeping ourselves sane and our families afloat may not carry us through this.”

He noted cash inflow is at about 10 percent of what it was pre-coronavirus, but “it has been something that has sustained us personally more than financially.”

Lookout has come up with creative measures for selling drinks. (Courtesy Chris Hastings/Lookout)

Lookout has come up with creative measures for selling drinks. (Courtesy Chris Hastings/Lookout)

Chris Hastings, owner of Lookout in Castro, was a tad more optimistic. I heard a lot about the venue early on during shelter-in-place because they’d been lowering margarita mixes in buckets from their second-story balcony.

“It was silly and whimsical, but I think that is something people need right now. It was also safe. And it provided us a financial bridge to get across the worst of the shutdown, and to a point where we were granted permission to have sidewalk dining,” Hastings said.

Lookout is serving colorful cocktails to-go in glass bottles. (Courtesy Chris Hastings/Lookout)

Lookout is serving colorful cocktails to-go in glass bottles. (Courtesy Chris Hastings/Lookout)

He added: “I’m hopeful that the [Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control] allows to-go beverages to continue after COVID. I think the business community has proven that we can do this responsibly, and my experience has been that it is something that people want and appreciate.”

The following are some bars I touched base with, and others friends told me about doing worthwhile cocktails to-go:

Asiento, 2730 21st St., S.,F.,

The Detour, 2200A Market St., S.F.,

Lookout, 3600 16th St.., S.F.,

Cha Cha Cha, 2327 Mission St., S.F.,, (415) 824-1502

Canela Bistro, 2272 Market St., S.F.,

Casements, 2351 Mission St., S.F.,

The Port Bar, 2023 Broadway, Oakland,, (510) 945-0076

California Gold, 848 B St, San Rafael,

To-go drinks from Casements are recommended. (Courtesy Gillian Fitzgerald/Casements)

To-go drinks from Casements are recommended. (Courtesy Gillian Fitzgerald/Casements)

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other week in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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