Cocktail culture in 2020 isn’t dead; it’s virtual.

Story and photos by Niki Jones

Travel, huge-crowd events and hugs from family are some major things we’ve had to go without during the pandemic. But there is one I happen to miss a lot: cocktail culture. Like many people during the pandemic I expanded my set of bar tools and bottles as soon as it was clear I wouldn’t be bellying up to any anytime soon. It was fun to concoct Instagram-worthy drinks in the comfort of my home. But as the months plodded on, I wanted to sit on a barstool with my best girlfriend and try whatever craft cocktails our bartender came up with. I had even been a judge at a cocktail competition, where I got to judge unusual cocktails with flavor profiles I’d never tasted before. For me and my “I’ll try anything” credo, that was the ultimate fun.

The Bourbon Brawl

Eight months into the pandemic, I learned about an upcoming cocktail competition, one with a badass name: The Bourbon Brawl. Presented by Garrison Brothers (my favorite local-bourbon distillery), the competition was bourbon-based, Texas-wide…and virtual. While wondering how exactly it would work, I signed myself up.

The day before the event, I took delivery of a colossal box containing everything I’d need for the brawl: one full-sized bottle of Garrison Brothers bourbon, the pre-mixed ingredients for each of the five finalist cocktails, fruit and garnishes, a silicone ice cube sphere mold and a beautiful little recipe book featuring each of the cocktails in both full-recipe and kit-mix form.


An hour before the event started, my bestie arrived at my house and we began to prep. We set out highball, rocks and coupe glasses, a shaker and cocktail spoon, fruit, the premade mixes and the recipe book. We were ready to rock.

Let the Games Begin!

This event was very well-produced with pro lighting and camera angles. After a brief introduction and explanation of how the competition would go, we jumped right in. The bartender who created each cocktail would come on screen, show participants how to make it, explaining its origin story and the thoughts behind its creation. As we went along, we voted via app on a range of categories like appearance and presentation, balance of flavors and creativity. After each contestant presented their concoction, a panel of judges gave their feedback.

The experience was festive, fast-paced and exciting. The cocktails were beyond unique. My favorite featured chili oil and fish sauce, which I couldn’t have imagined would be palatable, let alone delicious.

Watching the winner take home $12,500 was fantastic. Learning that Garrison Brothers has been donating to disaster relief and charitable causes (including their own, Good Bourbon for a Good Cause) over the course of the pandemic hit me right in all the feels. This event truly had it all.

Virtual Culinary Experiences

Post-Bourbon Brawl, I couldn’t wait to seek out more virtual tasting events. I learned there are lots of similar virtual experiences in Austin. Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, a longtime Austin favorite, offers virtual classes and tastings. Cocktails From Home designs custom cocktail menus in advance, sending out the list of ingredients before participants log on for virtual happy hour. Gustology offers virtual cocktail classes with the option of buying a kit or supplying your own ingredients. If food is more your speed, the chefs at East Austin eatery Intero offer Italian-cooking classes via Skype. Austin chocolatier Delysia offers virtual tasting events as well. Log on for a fun night in to support some of the hardest-hit local businesses through this pandemic. It’s a win-win for everyone. I can’t wait to find even more.

Check out more holiday gift and party ideas in our 2020 Holiday Market.


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