How important is the music played in bars? Would you notice if you were listening to the same songs over and over? Oisin Davis proposes a phenomenon about pub playlists and just how important the tunes are that are blasting out across the taps to drinkers.
Whilst recently working with two NYC bartenders down in the People’s Republic of Cork, we all got talking about a topic that was near and dear to all of us, music. They had just returned from spending a few days in London, visiting distilleries and checking out the capital city’s leading cocktail emporiums. Something dawned on them when they were greeted into a typically too cool for school joint somewhere buried in Shoreditch. Absolutely everything about that bar led them to believe that they could have just as easily been in Brooklyn or any other hipster neighbourhood for that matter. A global cultural homogenisation seems to be occurring where cocktail bars around the planet like to serve the same on-trend drinks and brands, hire the same type of tattoo covered staff and most surprisingly, actually all play the same music. Once we started comparing notes and then digging out our phones to look at bar menus and their Instagram accounts, we all started getting more convinced of this phenomenon.
Bars have always ripped off other bars in terms of interior design and drinks inspiration, this has been going on for centuries. But with the advent of Spotify and other music sharing services and sites, it has never been easier for a bar to roll out and control their tunes. This can be very handy for managers and owners. They can even just use pre-made mixes or hire others to curate them. Practises such as these though, do present some problems. Sometimes the mixes never get changed and could be playing the same tunes for years. Quite often the mood of the music may not actually gel with the crowd that is there at that moment, like when a crew have just rocked in to party and there’s mellow jazz bellowing out of the speakers and the bartender on duty isn’t authorised to change it up.
Most frequently though, the biggest issue is with uniformity. When bars want to always please the crowds, they’ll either stick to the same global chart hits or look to plagiarise what they feel other slick bars are playing. This is why when you step into a more commercial bar, you’re bound to hear at least one Rihanna remix or when you hit a “craft” bar, the chances are there’s gonna be tonnes of 90s hip hop or light indie.
As a result of this conversation with my new pals from NYC, I have put a bar’s music policy much higher on my radar and have also decided to seek out the more unique and unusual musical policies of licensed boozers.
Within days of making that oath to myself, a friend stuck a Facebook post up about a new cocktail bar called LBM that had just opened up in her home state of Ohio and she was waxing lyrical about it. The friend in question was Cris Dehlavi, a fellow full-time drinks industry worker who like myself, is quite partial to some good old fashioned heavy metal. Turns out that LBM is a truly rare kind of bar that will serve up perfectly made, delicious cocktails whilst blaring anything from classic metal acts like Slayer to the latest belters from local punk bands. It was the worst case of bar envy I had been subject to. It also meant that I had to contact Eric Ho, one of the bar’s owners and interview them straight away. I also got on to Conor Myers from Underdog in Manhattan as they too have a different take on music for their premises which I found intriguing. Both bars also shared some cocktail recipes made with Irish spirits, so you can get a flavour of what’s on their menus too!
Conor Myers, Beverage Director
Underdog, 55 Stone Street, New York, New York 10004
The financial district in NYC is now generating a far younger demographic working in tech and creative start-ups. Tasked with breathing new life into the Underdog cocktail bar in this neighbourhood was Dundalk native, Conor Myers. Tired of coming across too many "Bartender Drinks" or menus that he says, "read like the instructions of a Boeing 747," Conor’s beverages at Underdog are extremely well crafted but very approachable to his guests.
In keeping with their policy of putting off the Jordan Belfort chest beating types that represent the old school Wall Street drinkers, their approach to music had to be fresh and exciting. Conor’s attitude here is as frank as it is focused.
"For me, the most important part of a bar is the ambience. I can drink a shite pint any day if the music is on point. I found that most bars in New York have their music programmed by an outside source and/or someone who knows absolutely nothing about the venue, the clientele or what the bar is trying to achieve. You go into every bar, its the same Top 40, or it's trying too hard to be cool by playing hip hop 24/7 with zero context of how the night is or who's at the bar.
To avoid this in our upstairs bar, we alter between 5-6 playlists a day at different times to flow our guests into having a nice relaxing start and by having a more loose and fun evening. All staff are welcome to play music, but the playlist must be approved.”
This is all very healthy and lends itself well to nailing a better atmosphere, but it is downstairs in Underdog where they have an even stronger musical character.
"Downstairs is a little more fun. It's a one-person bar, they work the bar and the floor, but it's Vinyl only. The bartender has to create a flow of music that works through their shift, not play the same record twice and must play an album in its entirety. Trust me when I say, this is not an easy job. I love curating Playlists, they're so much fun. But there’s also just something special about hearing a full album as it was designed to be listened to with a banging drink.”
When I pressed him on what he’d love for other bars to do with their tunes, he said, “What I'd like more is for people not to have 'Rock', 'Indie', 'Hip Hop' playlists as a broad genre. They need to be broken up into subcategories, I use the template Genre/Mood/Time of Day so I can confidently change throughout the night.
Be more specific. If I'm trying to chill in your bar on a Tuesday at 1am and you're playing DMX, I'm not gonna appreciate it.”
50ml Powers Three Swallows
25ml Mr Black (or other coffee liqueur)
15ml Demerara syrup
1 espresso shot
2 lemon peels
- Chill a coupe glass with some ice. Pour all liquid ingredients into a shaker filled with ice.
- Seal it and shake it for 10 seconds. Strain, express the oil of one lemon peel over the glass and garnish with the other.
Eric Ho, LBM
12301 Madison Avenue, Lakewood Ohio, 44107
What has quickly become a firm favourite amongst the local service industry crew, LBM is a restaurant and bar in Lakewood, Ohio. A quick read of their drinks menu will reveal love and approach to the seasons that are on a par with their food offering. For me, this is always a sign of great things to come. They handle this by changing up to 3-4 cocktails a month so that after 3 months or a season has passed, the menu is completely new and represents what ingredients are most readily available. So far, so good. Moving away from the liquid though, specifically what comes out of the bar’s speakers, is what makes it truly brilliant. Co-owner and founder, Eric Ho filled me in.
"LBM is a friendly neighbourhood cocktail bar with a Viking aesthetic and we play music loudly. About 3 years ago we assembled the core group to build this bar before we even had a lease signed or funding. We essentially just wanted to build a bar that we wanted to hang out at, so it had to be an affordable every day bar with high-quality cocktails, wide selection of spirits, chef-driven food that goes to late night hours, hospitality and good music. And somehow 4 bartenders and a cook were able to pull off a full build-out of a bar, acquiring the proper licenses and convincing banks that we knew what we were doing business-wise.”
They are unapologetically forthright with their love of every genre of metal, heavy blues and rock and a healthy dose of punk. You can like it or leave it.
“Nobody actually complains about the music because usually they'll walk in, be confused and lost as to what's happening around them, take a look around and walk straight back out the door. The music almost acts like a litmus test, if you want to stay and have a good time with us it's going to be a blast, but if you can't even get past the music you're probably not going to enjoy yourself. A huge chunk of our clientele is other service industry workers. We built a bar that we as bartenders wanted to hang out at and apparently, a lot of other bartenders feel the same way.
Our music policy is "We don't take requests." We play what we want to because nothing beats an awesome song that we can all rage to, and that helps us execute service at a high level.”
Anyone who’s ever worked a busy service behind a bar will know all about that. If you’re playing bangers and you’re into them as much as the crowd is, the whole night will gel a lot smoother. Perhaps this is the magical ingredient that so many bars are lacking? Music plays an integral role in nailing the atmosphere in any bar. Both Underdog and LBM are out there proving that their music policies can give their businesses not just a unique selling point, but an incredible means of attracting and keeping audiences in an exceptionally competitive industry.
UNTANGLING THE SKELETON
1oz Gunpowder Irish Gin
.75oz Dry Vermouth
.5oz Seedlip Garden
.75oz Sugar Snap Pea Shrub*
.25oz Lime Juice
3 dashes Dill Tincture**
- Add everything into a shaker filled with ice. Shake and double strain into a chilled coop.
- Garnish with dill sprig on the side.
*For the Sugar Snap Pea Shrub:
1lbs Sugar Snap Peas halved down the middle
1.5lbs Cane Sugar
1lbs Rice Vinegar
.5lbs Sugar Snap Pea Juice
- Add halved sugar snap peas and cane sugar into a non-reactive container. Shake to coat and refrigerate overnight.
- Next day add rice vinegar and fresh sugar snap pea juice to the snap pea sugar mixture. Whisk to incorporate until most of the sugar has dissolved. Strain through a fine strainer to get the snap pea halves out.
- Add strained mixture into a Vitamix and blend on low until the sugar has fully dissolved. Bottle and refrigerate for one month.
**For the Dill Tincture:
1 oz Dill Sprigs
100 ml 100 Proof Vodka
- Add dill sprigs and vodka into a non-reactive container. Let sit overnight.
- Strain and bottle.
Author: Oisin Davis
Oisin works on a global level as an Irish drinks evangelist and producer. He is the founder of nationwide drinks festivals that celebrate Irish spirits in the best bars and restaurant in the 32 counties and to top it off he is co-owner of Poacher's Premium Beverages, Ireland's only all-natural mixer company. F&W is delighted that Oisin has joined our contributing team with his column "Great Irish Drinks."