Alcohol can be a touchy subject in North Carolina politics. The pandemic has demonstrated how little bargaining power bars have in the state, and just how much power the ABC Commission has. Well-loved bars like the Criterion in Durham have closed for good, while others are hanging on by a thread. 

Shortly before Christmas, Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order permitting bars to serve go-to cocktails beginning at 5 p.m. on December 21. The order—which bar owners have been lobbying for since March—was a bone to an emaciated industry. It was also designed to be short: The order expires on January 31. For bar and restaurant owners, the news, which arrived hours before the order went into effect, left them scrambling to prepare. 

“This order will help people avoid settings that can contribute to increased viral spread while giving restaurants and bars a financial boost that they need right now,” Governor Cooper said in a statement.

In April, there was an attempt to make this temporary provision legal in the first Federal relief bill, but it was blocked over concerns about drunk driving and domestic violence. Since the start of the pandemic, the Associated Press reported in August, the number of states allowing to-go cocktails has surged from two to 33.

Since the announcement, bars across the Triangle have rolled out their spin on alcohol takeout menus. Jack Tar has Hemingway daiquiris, Pizzeria Toro is offering Aperol margaritas, and Acme is shaking up Manhattans. And, some bar owners say, the executive order is already making a difference. 

Since March, Sean Umstead, co-owner of Kingfisher in Durham, has experimented with different avenues to keep the craft cocktail bar (and morale) afloat. He and his partner, co-owner Michelle Vanderwalker, hosted a daily virtual cocktail hour that drew regulars. They launched QueenBurger, a burger pop-up. They opened their outdoor seating. But cocktails, the bread-and-butter of the bar, have been the thing they’ve been hoping to be able to sell.

Umstead says they ordered specialty cups for their to-go drinks in April in anticipation of an order like this. When he received an email from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association at 1:30 p.m., announcing that to-go cocktails would be allowed starting at 5 p.m., all he and Vanderwalker needed was a to-go website.

“It’s been a real blessing for us,” Umstead says. “Everything we’ve tried to do so far requires so much change [and] adjustment to our typical ways of doing things.”

The transition doesn’t require a big staff, so Umstead makes the drinks himself. While sales aren’t reaching pre-pandemic numbers, the business is returning to a schedule: busier weekends, slower weekdays, and a steadier flow of cash. He describes the complications as minimal: only being able to serve one drink per person, and making sure Kingfisher’s drinks are up to their usual quality and presentation in spite of where they’re consumed. He’s grateful for the executive order, though he’s not sure all bars are benefitting.

“This is really big for Kingfisher, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Umstead says. “It’s really important to remember the people that this is not helping as much—which is definitely a vulnerable level of employees of the hospitality industry and probably bars that don’t specialize in mixed drinks.”

Chris Carini, the owner of Linda’s Bar & Grill in Chapel Hill, has decided to forego selling to-go cocktails altogether. To him, it isn’t worth the risk.

“I find it hard personally to just start accommodating what we are allowed to do,” Carini says. “I feel like there’s a lot of liability issues with selling to-go cocktails. I don’t usually trust people to come in and drink normally and drive home without having problems, and right now I don’t want to feel like I’m the person that’s responsible for getting somebody a DUI, or getting an open container violation.”

Under normal circumstances, Linda’s sales are evenly split between food and drinks. Since the start of the pandemic, the restaurant has focused on takeout and delivery. 

“Instead of doing ‘Let’s go sell more booze to people who want to get drunk in the middle of the day while they’re driving home,’ we’re going to open up the downstairs during the day and revamp it from being the downbar to ‘Linda’s tea house,’” Carini says. “Having coffee, a place to do homework, some Wi-Fi, something cool on the TV—a place where you can get food, beer, liquor, Kava teas, kratom teas, regular teas, all that stuff, and you can just hang out. That’s long-term a better choice than ‘Let’s just sling drinks out the window.’”

No one is sure how long this will last, or if it will become a permanent fixture of our ABC Commission. It’s hardly a solution to the devastation facing the hospitality industry, but it’s something. And just as people miss bars and clubs, business owners and bartenders alike have missed making drinks.

“Almost regardless of if it’s particularly busy or not,” Umstead says, “it’s the first time in a long time I’ve been able to do what this place was set up to do.”

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