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Do themed bars detract from the cocktails?

Having a theme for your venue may make it stand out from the crowd, but does an immersive experience detract from the quality of the cocktails?

Alan Turing-inspired The Bletchley in London

With more and more cocktail bars opening across the globe, achieving a unique selling point is becoming a critical aim for budding bar owners.

While some adopt a speakeasy style and others create an ultra-modern look, a number of entrepreneurs are looking for more creative ways to stand out from the crowd.

But while themed bars may offer an exciting experience, is much thought given to creating high quality cocktails? Or are themed bars simply a gimmick with a short life span?

Click through the following pages to see what two top industry experts have to say about the topic.

Sebastian Lyall, founder of Lollipop, UK

We started Lollipop because we wanted to create spaces where people could have fun, so we started to do what we call ‘immersive bars’. We thought about experimenting with the spaces we had, and began making a bar that is designed and built with people and fun in mind. Ultimately we’re hoping to push what people look for in a bar.

At our bar, The Bletchley, in King’s Road in London, there will be 50 people inside and as they come in, customers are given missions and puzzles to complete. At the end of the first mission the reward is your ticket to the HQ and the bar, where you can choose the ingredients for your drink. Based on that, your cocktail is made. A big part of the bar is about the way the menu is created by the customers and their experiences; that is what’s unique about The Bletchley. It’s not just the drinks we create, but also the experiences other bars cannot supply.

While we were coming up with the ideas for The Bletchley, we looked at the bigger trends in cocktail culture. A lot of bars are doing similar things with alcohol and drinks, but customers want an experience they will remember. They want something they can share with their friends that’s more than just sitting around idly, having a drink. Customers spend two hours at The Bletchley, completing missions that will earn them two cocktails. A lot of preparation goes into creating these two-­hour experiences. We put a lot of effort into the environment and the realistic props that the customers will actually use and interact with – they aren’t just part of the scenery.

When customers come to The Bletchley, they are all involved and dressed up for the scene. We also make sure the drinks are served in a way that fits the environment. This attention to detail has helped build our success rate and has made people talk about us. What we offer consumers is the challenge, which makes them feel like they have contributed to the things they are drinking. This elevates their enjoyment of the day and creates an experience that will stay with them.

So all of these things, plus the great quality food and drink we provide, are elevating our offering and are encouraging people to try some new experiences.

Dave Kaplan, proprietor of Death & Co, New York

I don’t think bars need a theme but it can sometimes help. Since we opened Death and Co, though, I’ve always said if what you’re doing is good enough, you shouldn’t need to rest behind a gimmick.

Usually, you find that if you have a high level of entertainment then the cocktails can take a back seat and they might not be quite as thoughtful, or bartenders don’t put as much time and energy into them. But at Death and Co our first, second and third product that we’re putting out there isn’t a burlesque show or a magic show – it’s the cocktails. This is the craft that we pride ourselves on and that we believe in.

The closest we’ve ever come to hosting themed nights is at one of my other bars, The Walker Inn, in LA, where we do these seasonal micro­-menus. We did a two­-week menu around Halloween, and we used all this technology we have at the bar and behind the scenes in our lab. We made drinks that taste of Halloween candy, and my favourite was the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Old Fashioned. This was just Bourbon blended with Reese’s and then spun in a centrifuge. We also had a little cocoa nib distillate.

But the places we operate try to have an incredible focus on the quality of the cocktails, but this has to be done without putting people off. We don’t want to be a special­-occasion place, and we want people to feel just as comfortable ordering a beer as they do ordering some really complicated cocktail.

Creating somewhere like this is almost more difficult than doing something that is a crazy experience these days. Without this ‘wow factor’ there’s nowhere to hide; it’s just the environment you’re in, what your staff are doing and the vibe the product that you’re putting across the bar is setting.

You can feel a totally different vibe in different places. It’s like going to music shows, for example. When it’s one singer on stage with just an acoustic guitar they really have to hold your attention. But if you go to some crazy pop performance where there are fireworks, dancers, loads of costume changes it’s completely different. They’re both fun experiences but they showcase very different things. And they’re both very tough.

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