virtualbartenders

Bartenders Are Curating Zoom Parties to Give You a Virtual Night Out

No one understands the alchemy of a watering hole better than the people who keep them. Thankfully for us, they’re not letting the lack of physical space prevent them from doing what they do best

Alissa May Atkinson, a 36-year-old in Brooklyn, is a great bartender. She was the reader’s choice for best bartender in the Village Voice in 2014 and contributed recipes to The Cocktail Guide to the Galaxy. But for all her drink-slinging prowess, she’s an even better hang. So when her bar, High Dive, shuttered for quarantine, it wasn’t surprising when a regular hit her up to help host a virtual reunion between him and a college buddy he’d lost touch with.

“They hadn’t spoken to each other in like five years,” she tells me. They both, however, randomly had bottles of cachaca they didn’t know what to do with. And so, they hopped on Zoom with Atkinson and made caipirinhas together. What started as a casual cocktail-making lesson broke the awkward ice between long lost bros. “I was there facilitating, but also getting to know the friend I’d never met and his wife,” says Atkinson, who took the gig free of charge but received $30 in tips. “It was fun how our conversations helped his friend learn things he never knew about him.” 

Inspired by the experience, Atkinson set out to create her own virtual dive in quarantine, putting the emphasis as much on the camaraderie and ambiance of a good bar as the drinks themselves. 

The similar efforts of 28-year-old Ashley Hupp, otherwise known as The Paradise Bartender on TikTok (she’s based on the island of Oahu), actually pre-dates the coronavirus, as she’s been bringing drinks to people digitally since late January, or about a month and a half prior the pandemic. “I downloaded TikTok and quickly became obsessed. Then, one night, I filmed myself making a double vodka soda in the service well,” she explains, a post that quickly garnered more than 645,000 views. “The response was amazing. I thought it would be fun to keep posting drink videos, and it really resonated with everyone watching.” 

Hupp amassed over 2 million followers on TikTok before she took her operation from her bar — Lucky Strike in Honolulu — into quarantine (or more recently, the beach). Her drink recipes, bubbly personality and catchphrase (“Fun… right?”) are all part of the draw. She even utilizes ASMR with the help of her cocktail shaker, an effect she stumbled on by accident. “It wasn’t until I started filming videos that I noticed how there is a rhythm and beat to making cocktails,” Hupp recalls. “There’s definitely something satisfying about the shake of a shaker tin or the strain of your finished cocktail into your glassware.”

And these days, it’s more soothing than ever before. “There certainly has been more engagement during these last few weeks,” she continues. “I’m honestly filled with a feeling of community, and I love that connection.”

Atkinson echoes a similar sentiment. “We’re all scared and lonely and need people to just shoot the shit with, whether it’s about what’s going on or not,” she says. 

To her, then, what’s been missing most from many virtual happy hours isn’t booze, but the novelty of drinks people wouldn’t otherwise have, along with the spontaneity of talking to strangers. As such, filling that void has become her quarantine hustle. She sourced volunteers from social media and started to curate groups of people to drink with, some of which were friends and acquaintances, but most of which were strangers she thought would vibe well. “Not knowing each other gives people so much to talk about other than the virus, and that’s a nice relief,” she explains.

Once appropriately grouped together, she reached out to everyone individually about their cocktail supplies and formulated a recipe based on what they had to work with. She didn’t ask for any money upfront, but said they could tip at the end if they wanted. “A lot of people don’t know the gold mines they’re sitting on, like balsamic vinegar and dates,” she tells me. “Or anything acidic to cut sweet booze with. Or the stuff lying around you got as a gift but never intended to drink.”

Her first group consisted of regulars from Pine Box, a Bushwick-based bar she worked at for many years, and other service industry friends. Among many individualized recipes, she helped them make a Bloody Mary without any typical Bloody Mary ingredients aside from vodka. Beyond that, she approached it like she would bartending in person — by working a little harder to engage those who were quieter and having a few jokes and icebreakers in her back pocket in case anything got weird. After a half hour, she had another appointment, and told the group she’d pop back in to check on them (you know, like any good bartender). They ended up hanging out for another three hours and tipped her $200.  

Her second group consisted of former regulars at The Way Station, a Doctor Who themed bar in Prospect Heights catering to self-described nerds. Although they didn’t know each other, she was confident everyone would have a lot in common, including an oddly extensive selection of liqueurs she had them combine into a shot to kick off things. From there, they talked about what everyone was binge-watching. “I knew they’d all have the same entertainment sensibilities. We talked about the new Star Trek and anime,” Atkinson says, admitting her boyfriend has familiarized her with both topics. 

Next, she moved on to a party of 12 drag queens, complete with live performances. Although there was a host of the event, a lot of people at the party still didn’t know each other. To get them acquainted, Atkinson had everyone go around and share where they’d lost their virginities. “Some told long stories, and some were just like, ‘The back of a Toyota Corolla.’ The range was fun,” she says. 

Atkinson finished up her evening with a FaceTime nightcap with an old friend. After drinking with her previous bar hangs, she was a little drunk, and the conversation got emotional fast. “We both cried,” she laughs. “So [it was] like a typical night at closing.” 

For now, Atkinson doesn’t have any grand plans for expanding her business or moving over to TikTok. If it becomes an overwhelming amount of work, she says she’ll consider charging a modest flat rate, but she understands that most people are in a similarly uncertain financial situation. Plus, tipping what they can has been sufficient so far, and really, it’s about more than the money — namely, feeling normal and helping others do the same. 

“It’s like how ordering delivery right now makes you feel like a philanthropist,” Atkinson jokes. “A lot of these people have been regulars for a long time, and they want to know how they can support me. This is a way I can give them something in return.”

This Is Life in a Pandemic