On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the potential perks of Dry January on the drinks industry. In his recent article for VinePair, Teeter spoke with restaurant and bar owners about why January is the best month for patrons to go out, with shorter lines and fewer crowds enticing those not participating in the dry tradition.
What can restaurants and bars do to promote their services during the off-season? What are some benefits of going out for a drink when bars are less busy? How can those participating in Dry (and Damp) January reap the benefits of the month?
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Well, it’s mid-January; we’re kicking it at home. How are you doing?
J: I’m halfway through Dry January, so I’m good.
A: You’re going to lord that over us, letting us know that you’re really hanging in with the challenge there.
J: I’m at the top of the milk crates.
A: Not yet, actually. You’re close.
Z: Well, it depends on whether you’re talking about when we’re recording this or listening to this.
A: You could already have broken it by the time this comes. You don’t know what could happen this weekend; your kid could have a tantrum and you need a drink.
J: Zach’s got tea, it’s OK.
Z: Me and Kermit, baby, sipping our tea.
A: Are you doing the bitter and water thing again?
Z: A little bit. I’m not sure I’m ready for that. That’s a level of depravity that I can’t quite get to. It’s fine, I haven’t minded it too much. It’s one of the small things about not being able to go out very much, where I don’t miss drinking as much. It’s not that there aren’t lots to drink in the house — my God, there’s a lot to drink in the house. But I’m not confronted with the, “Oh, that looks really good. And it’s the only thing I could have right now.” Everything in the house I can wait and have on Feb. 1.
J: All of it at once.
Z: The one thing I will say as someone who does Dry January here, is it feels deeply unfair to me that I don’t ever feel great in January. I woke up the day we’re recording this with a headache for no reason. I just didn’t have enough water yesterday. This should only happen when I’m drinking; I should not feel bad in the morning just because.
J: You should feel great this month. Any non-alcoholic drinks that you’ve been having?
A: No, we should just skip Zach for this segment until he’s back. No one wants to listen to this podcast to hear Zach talking about tea. We talked about it last week; it’s a thing he’s into. It’s really great. If you guys want, we can start a coffee and tea podcast. I could tell you about the amazing new espresso I made this morning.
Z: I did recently get an espresso machine, so we can talk about espresso.
A: Oh, Nespresso.
J: No, no, no, it’s a full-on espresso machine.
A: I have a full-on espresso machine. Come on, amateurish.
Z: Joanna, what have you been drinking recently?
J: We actually haven’t been going out that much for safety reasons, I guess. But we’ve been drinking a lot at home. This past weekend, I made a drink that I’ve never made before that I really enjoyed, which was a Hanky Panky.
A: Whoa. Explain that to people in terms of ingredients.
A: How do you dash Fernet Branca?
J: I don’t know, I did a bar spoon.
A: OK, I like that.
J: It was really good. I don’t make gin drinks often, but I wanted to try it out. It’s fairly simple to make, and I really enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I was at the liquor store and went to the Australian wine section, per Zach’s recommendation. And I picked up a bottle of Howard Park Miamup Cabernet Sauvignon, which is from Margaret River — Zach’s recommendation for up-and-coming wine regions. So I tried that this weekend, and that was really good.
A: Very cool.
Z: One of the truly bizarre coincidences in my life recently was talking about a specific winery from Margaret River to a friend of my wife’s, who’s a lawyer, to be clear. This is not someone who’s in the wine industry. We just talked about this not that long ago. And she’s like, “Oh, Juniper Estate, I worked there.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” She’s like, “Yeah, when I was in law school in Australia, I worked at the winery.” It’s this random, medium-sized winery in Western Australia that you happened to work at as you’re sitting here at my dinner tables. Very strange, but cool.
A: Very cool.
J: What about you, Adam?
A: I have not been drinking that much either, but I’ve been doing Friday and Saturday night and then maybe one other weeknight. I didn’t have a super-exciting drinking weekend. I had a bottle of wine that was not memorable; I can’t even tell you what it was right now. But this week I came home from the office one day and was like, I think I deserve a drink. And I had a glass of Four Roses Single Barrel. That was really nice, while I watched what is soon to become the best basketball team in the country, the Auburn Tigers, who are currently ranked fourth but I think are going to be ranked second or first by this time next week. It was nice to have a glass of whiskey. I used a big rock. I’m sorry, you haters, who think I shouldn’t put it on ice. I don’t really care. That’s how I wanted to drink it. It was really delicious.
Z: The other Four Roses stuff is interesting. They were everywhere a decade ago. I feel like I saw the standard yellow label bourbon at a lot of bars in Seattle. You would see the single barrel, and I think they had another small batch. It’s still obviously really popular. It hasn’t been on my radar as much, but I have no good explanation for why. It’s good bourbon.
J: Yeah, I haven’t heard a lot about it recently.
A: There’s just been so many others now. I hate to say this, but especially among bourbon circles, Buffalo Trace has really dominated the conversation for the last few years. It’s just all about everything they make, while there’s amazing stuff coming from Heaven Hill and Beam and Four Roses. Everyone’s so obsessed with Buffalo Trace because of that wheated style, that it’s just really all anyone talks about. But, anyway, that’s bourbon. So today we’re going to talk about an article that was published on VinePair.
J: Who wrote it?
A: Me! I made my return to feature writing. That’s not going to be a long return. But I’ve been talking to a bunch of people in the industry, both owners, friends, other writers, etc. They were all talking about January is this month where the narrative has been only about Dry January. We talk about it a lot. But they had been noticing that January is becoming one of the most exciting times to go out and get a drink. Part of the reason for that is because of the explosion of Dry January. The thesis is, if you have about 20 to 25 percent of the adult population saying they’re abstaining, at some point in the month, for Dry January, new data shows that the majority of people doing Dry January actually aren’t doing Dry January. They’re doing Damp January, so more like what Joanna and I are doing than what Mr. Geballe is doing. But there still are a lot of nights during the week that people aren’t going out. That’s really bad for bars and restaurants, for lots of reasons. But it’s really good for consumers, because you get to go to some of the places that would be really hard to get into otherwise. And you get special treatment. Whether that is getting to have a real conversation with someone or you have the ability to do some free stuff, there’s a lot of benefits to going out. So that’s what I wrote about. I’m curious: Have you guys been out during January, and what do you think of that sort of idea?
J: Unfortunately, I have not been out this January yet. Mostly for Covid purposes. But I hope to go out this weekend and take advantage of this because this really hadn’t occurred to me until you wrote this piece, Adam. It’s such a smart take and makes a lot of sense to me. What about you, Zach?
Z: From the perspective of someone who was the person behind the bar trying to get people to come in during January, part of what comes to play here is this interesting confluence of several factors. Even pre-Covid, we can talk about that specifically, you have this confluence of not just Dry or Damp January for people, but also people are tapped out from the holidays, whether it’s from drinking or just financially. They get their credit card statements in early January and are maybe like, “Oh, maybe we don’t go out to eat or drink in January,” just as a way to reel things in. So there’s always been this challenge in the industry to get people to come in the early part of the year. Frankly, outside of Valentine’s Day, it really extends into February and maybe even into March. Depending on the kind of bar or restaurant, sometimes there are those big tentpole events like the Super Bowl, college football playoff, March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, etc. But the first quarter of the year is a weird, clunky, quiet one for the restaurant and bar industry in a lot of ways. That means that there are opportunities there for people who want to get to the bars they’ve never been able to get into without a big wait or go to the restaurants that they haven’t been able to get a seat at. Going into something that you covered in your piece, Adam, once you get past the first week of January, restaurant staff is pretty rested. People often have some time off right around the new year. Restaurants have often done things like overarching inventory. They might have updated some things. That means in some places in the early part of the year, they’re trying to work through back stock of things. But I actually think you have a lot of possibility, not just some of what you talked about in the piece in terms of interaction with bar staff and somms and things like, but frankly, they are more creatively refreshed. At the end of the year in restaurants and bars, it’s about getting through each shift. It’s the holiday; you’ve got your own sh*t in your life. I would say that dining in December can be very memorable and fun and special. But also, you’re at the end of a long stretch for a lot of people in the industry. When you get into that second half of January, people are usually excited to do fun new things. They want to try stuff out. Maybe they had some ideas that they couldn’t make on the cocktail list in December, because December is all about cranking out the classics or the things that people will spend big money on. If you are that kind of drinker or that kind of diner, it is a really exciting time. And as we’ve said, you don’t have the same competition for seats.
J: It’s also interesting because we’ve seen a lot of menus add non-alcoholic drinks as well, or creative cocktails and things like that. Really trying to get people who aren’t participating in Dry January, but also those who are, to come in as well.
A: They’re trying to get butts in seats, which I understand. I talked to a bunch of people, and some of the quotes I initially got were about how they were creating inclusive menus for Dry January. And I was like, “No, no, that’s not what this story is about.” One of the partners said to me, “We do it because we know that we need to have it.” What I find interesting about Dry January is that a lot of the people who are keen on Dry January aren’t going out to cocktail bars. I’ve had three different meetings that were on my calendar for this month that had been scheduled sometime in December all got canceled. People have written to me and said, “Hey, I’m doing Dry January, I really don’t want to meet up.”.
J: Wow, really?
A: Yeah, totally. It’s part of the conversation we had a few weeks ago when it comes to non-alcoholic beer. I’m not going to pay $14 dollars for a non-alcoholic cocktail. Especially if it’s a friendly thing or even a client thing, is that really worth it? Let’s go out when we’re drinking wine. It does seem to be such a great time for those who are going out even one night a week, or one night every two weeks. Where you can get into, as I wrote about in the piece, for example, the Sunken Harbor Club. That is a bar that has gotten tons of press and is considered one of the hottest bars right now in the city. Until Dry January, it was very hard to get into. You would go to downtown Brooklyn and there would be a line in front of Gage & Tollner of people waiting to be told they could go upstairs. It’s a pretty tiny bar. A few times this month, they have posted pictures like, “We are here waiting for you.” And there are photos of the bar looking pretty empty. That’s a pretty cool opportunity to go in and have a have a seat at that bar, talk to that team that is extremely talented, taste some of the cocktails that they created — like their Angostura Piña Colada, which is pretty amazing — and other other cocktails that you would have to wait in line for starting Feb. 1 when everyone decides they’re going to break Dry January and go ham. Which is also what usually happens, right? You hear all these stories of people being like, “I got these things planned for the first weekend of February when I’m going back out.” Also because January is such a bore. As Zach said, he’s waking up every morning still feeling sick. That’s just January, guys. It’s a gray month, it’s a hard month. I used to say it’s the month with nothing to look forward to. I get it if you have your birthday, no offense, I guess it can be a special month for some people. But it’s a month where the next thing coming is Valentine’s Day, and that’s not a day that everyone looks forward to. It’s not that kind of month. So if you are able to go out, you can have these cool experiences where you can get those reservations, have those cool interactions. A lot of the time, the people who created the bars are there. So you can have those one-on-one conversations. A lot of what winds up happening when we go to some of these cocktail bars, you want to have conversations if you’re really into the beverage. Sometimes you don’t realize when it’s inappropriate to do so, like on a really crowded and busy Friday or Saturday night. The beauty of going out this month is that there is going to be more downtime. The people can actually talk to you and not have to feel like they need to be rude, either, which is something that no one in every industry wants to do. But on a night that it’s really packed, they don’t have time to be like, “So what rums did you use in this Daiquiri? What’s your ratio when you split it?” I get it, there’s a lot of people that want to know those things. When they get a gruff response because they’re sitting at the bar on Friday at 9 p.m., they are like, “Oh, that bar is the worst.” And that’s not the staff’s fault, right? That’s just the nature of a busy Friday night. But again, during this time of year, you can ask those questions. It’s worth thinking about if you’re the kind of person that wants to have those kinds of interactions.
J: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I’m looking back now at one of the restaurants where Evan and I became regulars. The first time we went was in January, and we had such a great experience because we sat at the bar and we were chatting up the bartender and she was trying stuff with us. And it was a lot of fun. Then we subsequently went there often and got to know the bar staff. But it all started on a night in January.
Z: What is it that you think is being missed, maybe by some of these restaurants and bars in the way that they communicate, either to their guests or even to the media? Adam, you mentioned some Instagram posts and stuff, and I don’t know how effective it is to just post that. Maybe that gets someone to be like, “Oh, wow, I guess that restaurant or bar that I follow and am passionate about is open.” They probably already know that. But you mentioned that some of them run pairings and all this stuff, and maybe doing so because they feel obligated to. I wonder if there would be some opportunity for some of these places to lean in, to come back to that dynamic pricing conversation, because you are fighting for a smaller audience in January, especially if you’re a bar. Why aren’t there more half-off wine nights in January? Or other things that would convince people, beyond the alcohol abstention or not. It’s sh*tty weather in a lot of places, especially for people who don’t necessarily live in New York City, where there are a lot of places in a very short walk. It’s hard to get out of the house for a lot of people if it’s raining, snowing, cold, and dark. It’s like, “Do I want to?” I’m underwhelmed at the marketing effort on a lot of these places. I get it, to some extent, but we’re all barraged with pitches for every f*cking holiday. And they’re all trying to get you in during December. It seems like none of them care about getting people in during January from a more coordinated strategy standpoint.
A: I actually hadn’t thought about that. You’re extremely right.
J: Right, like incentives to get people in.
A: We know that in certain places, things like happy hour are illegal, but there are definitely things people can do. The article I wrote was taking a general stance, one of these articles where it’s like, “I understand this January may not be the January you want to go out, because of what’s happening,” but I’m just saying in general. So maybe we’re not seeing them as much, too, because some of these restaurants and bars need a break. So if it’s a little slow, that’s fine. But then again, we’re also seeing a very large amount of posting from these bars and restaurants on social media saying, “Please come in.” I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve seen a lot of passive-aggressive anger towards Dry January this year from people in the bar and restaurant industry.
Z: I’ve heard it from at least one person on this podcast, to be fair.
A: Me? I don’t have anger against it. I just think it’s kind of silly.
Z: Well, then it’s the passive-aggressive part.
A: When you read the medical studies, they say that people don’t change their behavior. We all should be very cognizant of our consumption and figure out how we change consumer behavior. So we take a few days off every week, and we understand when we should hit our limit, what we drink, and those kinds of things. But like I said, Dry January seems to be more of a contest among friends than people saying, “I’m doing this in order to make sure that I have a healthy relationship with alcohol.” I know that there are some people that do it that way, but it doesn’t seem to be the majority. That’s my issue. That being said, I have seen a lot of somms and bartenders posting like, “Why are people doing this? Dry January is stupid.” And I get it, because they want people to have their butts in seats. So to your point, Zach, why aren’t they doing anything else besides posting on social media and saying they’re upset about it? There’s got to be other things they can do. Some of these kinds of specials are like, “We’re doing free appetizers from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” or “Tuesday night, we’re doing $10 Daiquiris.” I think they would get a lot more people, for sure.
Z: I think there’s a way in which you have to do more than just gripe at people to get them to do what you want. As a parent, you learn that pretty quickly. If you’re just like, “Why aren’t you doing the thing I want you to do, child?” they aren’t going to respond well.
A: Are you saying you bribe your kids?
Z: No, I mean I’m not above a little bit of bribery, to be fair. But it’s more having to make your goals and their goals align. The same thing is true if you’re at a bar or restaurant. I worked in different restaurants with different kinds of people who had different ideas about how to get butts in seats or how to market things. But it always surprised me that there wasn’t that much creativity in terms of what you did during the slow times of the year. My point to those managers at various times in the past was like, “OK, great, yes, I get it.” January in Seattle is not a big tourist season. Whether it’s Dry January or otherwise, people are not going out as much. That’s all well and good. But there are still people who have birthdays, anniversaries, or big events in their life. There are people who just want to get the f*ck out of the house. Seattle is not anywhere near the restaurant scene or population base as New York City or other big cities. But still, there are lots of people who want to go out to eat. You just have to figure out how to communicate to them that this is where they should come to eat and drink. And yet, there was so little creativity around that. Part of it is what I was saying before, that people are burnt out after a long holiday slog and that. Not every restaurant or bar can flip around on Jan. 3 and be like, “OK, here’s our new promotion.” Like you were saying, Adam, there’s a lot of potential for capturing the audience. Frankly, you are far from alone in people who find the whole Dry January thing to be kind of silly, and I think there’s lots of people who would be glad to be given an incentive to not participate. Let’s put it that way.
A: Like if every Wednesday was Wine Wednesday with $6 glasses of wine or something? I think a lot of people would feel compelled to go out.
Z: Then you end up with a situation like the one Joanna described, which is that you get a new person in the door. They might come back 20 more times. That first point of entry, giving someone value, giving someone an opportunity, a unique experience, can often pay off hugely. Even if you are just breaking even on their first meal. Or even if you’re losing money on their first meal. Not that you should be going out there creating business models around losing money; it’s probably a bad idea. But especially in these times, with all the things that are conspiring against restaurants and bars at the beginning of the year, even if you’re just building a few new customers every night, that’s a win. It’s a longterm plan, but it’s a win.
A: This is like the conversation that you and I had a long time ago now, Zach, about dynamic pricing. If demand is low, then maybe prices change to increase demand. It makes a lot of sense. I know a lot of people who are listening to this podcast are probably going to be like, “How dare you guys say that we should be discounting anything with how hard Covid was.” And I just want to be clear, I’m not saying this year. We’re already on Jan. 13. Zach already counted four days ahead because he’s ready to be done with this sh*t. But Dry January isn’t going anywhere. Every year, there seems to be about a quarter of the American population that does some version of it. So it’s interesting to explore, what about next year? How could the industry better prepare for it instead? As you’re saying, Zach, how to attack it head on. We’re going to do really cool promotions and get people in the door and encourage people to come in. As I just said, only 25 percent of American drinkers participate in Dry January. That means 75 percent of people who already drink. who say they drink in these surveys, are still consuming some sort of alcohol. And of that 25 percent, a majority of them are doing Damp January. So there’s a lot of opportunity to get people in the door. But there’s got to be other incentives in the same way that a lot of people don’t feel like shopping anymore in January, which is why so many fashion houses run sales. Because it gets people to say, “Oh, man, I really did still want that pair of jeans.”
J: Adam, I’m curious to know in the conversations that you had with restaurant operators, was this year worse than ever? Because more people are participating in Dry January, especially after the past two years.
A: I’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s brutal this year. I think it’s because of Omicron. It seems like it’s like both. It’s brutal because of Dry January and then because a lot of other people are a little nervous to still go out, which I completely understand. So I think that’s why it feels so much worse this year than it has in the past. Although even pre-Covid, we had heard in 2019 that people were not fond of that Dry January. In every case, Zach is really right, we hear a lot of the complaints. Everyone is just waiting for Valentine’s Day. That’s what I hear. But you don’t have to just wait for Valentine’s Day.
Z: That’s a dubious strategy in the best of times, but who knows what the Covid cases are going to look like in February around the country? If I were a restaurant or bar, I would not be pinning all my hopes on any particular holiday or week or weekend or month. You have to try to get people in there any day you’re open. I get it. There’s a temptation if staff want time off, you want to streamline things, you maybe cut hours a little bit in January. That’s all fine. You’ve gotta do what you gotta do. If your strategy is to put the sign out front and hope people walk by, or that modern equivalent of posting something on Instagram, it doesn’t feel very compelling to me. Even for people who are looking for a place to go drink, I’m not sure that’s very compelling.
A: Naomi and I have this new strategy where the next time we can travel, we’re just going to go. If it seems low in the whole Covid cases, were just f*ckin going. As you said, you can plan ahead for all these things. But then we see what happens. The East Coast really saw what happened around the holidays this past year. Everyone thought they were going to finally have these boom times with holiday parties and things like that, and then this variant was like, “What up?” Hopefully. we’re going to move in the direction of an endemic, having less crazy strains that come after Omicron. But no one knows, because this virus has been unpredictable the whole time. So I think you’re right, Zach. Right now in New York, according to a bunch of different news outlets, we’ve passed the peak, and we’re starting to fall. I’ve actually noticed a lot more people being out. I had to plan a work dinner for this week on a Thursday. I was looking this morning on Resy, and a lot of the restaurants are already fully booked. People are clearly going back out, because I think they’re starting to feel more comfortable again and safer. Especially if you’re someone who has kids in school. You’ve got at least half a month to get out there and have a few promotions for the end of the month, and maybe even a little bit into February. You know you don’t have to wait for the 14th of February to finally rebound. Again, I’m not an operator of a restaurant. So I understand a lot of you are going to be like, “That’s great, Adam.” I can admit that. Super interesting, you guys. Zach, you continue to enjoy Dry January.
Z: So much enjoyment over here.
A: Do you even drink the drinks we have on Friday?
Z: I do, actually. It’s my one little cheat.
A: So you’re having a Damp January as well. I love it.
Z: We won’t discuss just how damp.
A: Well, I will talk to you both on Friday.
J: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.