In 2018, Kaitlyn Stewart was named the best bartender in the world. The then-31-year-old Vancouver native had surpassed over 10,000 bartenders from 57 countries to claim the title, reaching a zenith few other bartenders will ever reach. Her prize was to travel the world as a Diageo ambassador, judging competitions and growing her repertoire as a mixologist. Two years later, she had to start over.
With COVID closing bars, Stewart was confined to her booze-filled apartment. Her friend Will Fosdick, who owns Search & Rescue Denim Co., an apron brand in Vancouver, urged her to download TikTok and start posting cocktails. Stewart already had a good following on Instagram, but on that platform she was heavily associated with Diageo. TikTok let her start over, and using the name Likeable Cocktails. Calling herself a “stay-at-home bartender,” she introduced practical, easy-to-follow bartending techniques to an audience that previously had no context for what a World Class Bartender of the Year competition was.
“I’m 36, I thought, ‘I’m out of the age bracket for this app, it’s for young kids singing and dancing and doing funny memes,’” Stewart says. “I didn’t really realize at that point that there was this whole other kind of sector of people on there that were actually doing more informational videos.”
Stewart was right to be wary: 47.4% of the app’s estimated 78 million users are Gen Z, and that group drinks less than any living generation. Industry pundits have been heralding the death of the cocktail for a half decade, and with this values-driven generation of “industry killers” rising as a pandemic ravages bar culture, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Stewart’s TikTok account would flop. Instead, the opposite happened.
Stewart’s videos explaining how to pour soda down a bar spoon and fat-wash whiskey with sesame oil exploded. Suddenly, she was able to take the skills that made her world-class and bring them to a group of people who had never sat across her bar.
Her TikTok account attracted quadruple the followers of her Instagram in a fraction of the time. At press time, Likeable Cocktails has 326,400 followers and over 2.8 million likes and is one of the cornerstone accounts of TikTok’s bartending subgenre, a bastion of mixologists keeping cocktail culture alive for the youngest generation of drinkers.
“There’s a lot of amazing internet bartenders who have stumbled upon this passion and made names for themselves,” Stewart says. “It’s great for this industry that I love so much, that I’ve been in for 17 years. It is a craft, it’s a whole experience, and it’s not for just a small, niche group anymore.”
When the pandemic came, Lucas Assis lost both his bartending gigs. The 10-year veteran of the Los Angeles bar scene started getting messages from his old regulars asking where they could score his drinks. He started batching cocktails from home and selling them over Instagram. Every week, he’d post a new menu, and soon his followers were hounding him for tips on how to mix their own.
He started on Instagram, doing tutorials on how to mix classic cocktails, but a friend pushed him to go to TikTok to get more exposure. Like Stewart, Assis was skeptical. But he quickly found the educational side of TikTok, where you can learn how to tile a shower or propagate a monstera all within the app’s standard 3-minute time window.
“We have this thirst for quick knowledge,” Assis says. “People are trying figure out different ways to find their niches. On TikTok, you can find that easier than most apps. Once you find what you’re interested in on TikTok, you’re gonna find a lot of people talking about the same or similar things.”
This curious dynamic attracted Assis, who approaches bartending like a professor approaches a foundational text. Assis has an intense passion for agave liquors, borne from his relationship to his wife, who is Mexican, and their travels to distilleries in Jalisco and other agave-producing states. When he saw that Kendall Jenner was launching a bullshitty celebrity tequila, he called her out. It blew up, and soon Assis became known as a crusader for good, classically made mezcal and tequila.
Assis recognizes that his account (202,500 followers, 2.4 million likes) arose out of a confluence of historical factors that hit at just the right time. Not only was he forced to social media after in-person bartending became impossible, but people stuck at home were also experimenting more and more with home bartending. The number of cocktail influencers shot up, but he had carved out an incontestable niche.
“It really has changed my life,” Assis says. “If you asked me about this three years ago, I wouldn’t ever have imagined it, but it’s my full-time job now.”
In the last six months, Assis and his wife have gone all-in on internet mixology. She works with the scheduling and management, and he is the face of their daily content. This spring, they moved to Mexico part time to make tourism content that expands beyond mezcaleros and their distilleries. Though TikTok got him to this point, it’s unclear how much the app will play into his career over time.
While he prizes the app for its instinctive discovery algorithm, the door is closed to him for monetization. TikTok doesn’t allow creators to make sponsored content with alcohol brands, and talk around other cocktail accounts is that even mentioning booze will get you shadowbanned from the For You Page. As such, Assis has been pushed toward other platforms like Instagram keep his fledgling business viable. That leaves his TikTok as a place where he can speak freely, showcasing his ebullient love of agave, unbothered about the impact it’ll have on his bottom line.
“With my content style, I don’t know how to say it, but, I haven’t really cared about what I’m saying, as far as [whether it’s] gonna hurt my ranking or not,” Assis says. “I just put out content that I think is interesting.”
John Rondi Sr. and his son John Rondi Jr. might have the biggest cocktail account on TikTok, but they’re quickly outgrowing the genre.
The New Jersey father-son duo started their account on a whim in February 2020. As the pair were headed out to a Manhattan dinner, Junior turned his camera to his dad and made a demand that would become their calling card. “Make me a drink,” he said to his mortgage salesman father. Senior turned around and whipped up a smoked Manhattan. To date, that video has over 9.3 million views, the genesis of what would become JohnnyDrinks (2.4 million followers, 48.7 million likes).
With the fresh-out-of-college Junior stuck at home due to the pandemic, the two capitalized on the viral wave, creating a unique passing-the-torch dynamic in which the younger Rondi would learn the tenets of gentlemanly life from his hirsute, charismatic father. It started with classic cocktails—poured with the approachable, no-measurements style of a basement bartender—but quickly it became lessons about work, life, and relationships. In one video, they might be doing a split-base drink with gin and bourbon, the next they’re doing tutorials on how to fold slacks.
“By now, we’ve identified it’s less about what we’re doing and more about how we go about doing it,” Junior says. “Okay, we make drinks, but it’s kind of like an aesthetic. ‘Sit down, relax, and enjoy the experience of a cocktail instead of rushing through it and just trying to get drunk.’ It’s about how to live life, slow things down and really enjoy the moment as opposed to just trying to get to the next place. Right?”
As one of the few actual Gen Z creators in the BarTok space, Junior understands the app on a more strategic level than most. It doesn’t matter to him if his generation drinks less than his father’s. He knows what they like in terms of storytelling, trends, personalities, and editing. YouTube is too cumbersome. Instagram is hokey. TikTok is where he can sell the authentic interactions he has with his father and spin that up into a piece of content he knows people will enjoy.
Now, JohnnyDrinks is more than a cocktalian’s handbook. It’s a lifestyle: his father an adroit emblem of what maturation from collegiate nubile to refined youngster looks like in real time. The Rondis have brought the youngest child, Diana, onscreen, and Junior dreams of turning it into a full-fledged lifestyle brand. The Rondis are already partnering with California’s Savage & Cooke on a bourbon blend. They do affiliate marketing for cocktail kits and sell their own merch. Junior’s dream is to open a New York cocktail lounge with the JohnnyDrinks name, but he’s starting with fan meetups as soon as COVID allows.
It’s startling to see what the Rondis, Stewart, and Assis have managed to build despite the consumer trends and public health factors against them. TikTok has been a lifeline, but if the last few years have proven anything, it’s that lifelines can snap without warning. If cocktail culture wants to survive, it can’t do it on one app alone.
“We want to seize this opportunity as much as possible,” Junior says. “You just have to adapt. TikTok is great, but if it died tomorrow, and I was only relying on that, I’d be screwed.”