The start of the holiday season seems to creep up every year, with some particularly overzealous department stores busting out the Christmas Muzak before Halloween has even passed. But for most reasonable humans, Christmas merriment begins the Friday after Thanksgiving — and this year, November 23 will see the launch of dozens upon dozens of kitschy holiday bars across the country, all serving the same menu of themed craft cocktails with names like the Christmapolitan and the Bad Santa.
The pop-up concept came to fruition in winter 2014, when Greg Boehm was preparing to start construction on his East Village cocktail bar Mace. “My mom called me and said, ‘Wait, I have an idea. Don’t do construction in December. You should open a Christmas cocktail bar in December and then do construction in January.’”
“She got super nervous when I said I was actually gonna do it,” Boehm laughs. “She’s like, ‘But you never listen to me. What if nobody shows up?’”
But word spread quickly about the tinsel- and Santa hat-laden bar, dubbed Miracle on 9th Street, and patrons lined up outside for the chance to sip holiday libations out of kitschy holiday mugs.
The following year, Boehm replicated the Christmas pop-up at his other New York City bar, Boilermaker, and reached out to a couple friends to test the waters elsewhere. “We did one in Norwalk, Connecticut, which is a much smaller market [than NYC],” Boehm says. “A friend of mine opened a pop-up there doing everything exactly the way we did it and he had a huge success as well, so at that point we realized we were onto something.”
As the founder of Cocktail Kingdom, a site that hawks professional bar supplies like shakers, glassware, and fancy bitters and syrups, Boehm has no shortage of connections in the bar industry, and he leaned into that to expand Miracle. By 2016, Boehm’s Christmas pop-up concept was in 17 bars, and this year, a whopping 90 establishments across the globe are participating, including bars in London, Mexico City, Panama, and New Zealand. Boehm doesn’t travel the world overseeing all the concepts, however: Rather, he’s turned the Miracle concept into a franchise, giving business owners the framework to temporarily transform their bars into holiday drinking dens with themed playlists, over-the-top decor, and elaborate cocktail recipes.
These aren’t simple, shot-and-a-squirt-from-the-soda-gun concoctions: The aforementioned holiday variation on the Cosmopolitan contains vodka, elderflower, dry vermouth, spiced cranberry sauce, rosemary, and lime, and is finished with a light absinthe mist. The Jingle Balls Nog is a far cry from the version found at the typical Christmas party, with a lengthy ingredients list that includes cognac, Pedro Ximenez sherry, brown butter, and almond milk.
Each bar pays a flat fee to participate, and also purchases kitschy Christmas mugs and other holiday-appropriate glassware from Cocktail Kingdom. Despite Miracle’s explosive growth, Boehm says his intention has never been to get rich off the pop-ups. “I want more people to drink good cocktails,” he says. “What’s good for cocktails is good for Cocktail Kingdom. The [participating bars] make much, much more profit than the parent company. This brings so many people in the door that might come for the Christmas cheer, but they leave realizing that there are a lot of delicious cocktails out there… What is exciting for us is creating new cocktail drinkers.”
So why do bars pay Miracle to participate, rather than just simply throwing up some Christmas lights and mixing up some fancy eggnog of their own? For bar owners, the concept’s plug-and-play nature is much of the appeal: “We actually do other pop-ups during the year and being able to have someone else come up with the ideas, as well as not having to create one menu a year [ourselves], is a relief,” says Lisa Little-Adams, owner of Fort Worth, Texas, cocktail bar Proper. “As any small-business owner probably understands, [that’s especially true] during this busy time of year.”
In addition to recipes for a dozen cocktails, themed playlists, decor suggestions, and printed materials including menus and artwork — think Santa sipping an Old Fashioned — the bars also get significant marketing support from the public relations firm that Miracle employs. Beyond maintaining a list of locations on its website, Miracle’s PR team works to promote every participating bar, targeting local media with press releases and email blasts months before the pop-ups launch.
“Year one is definitely an investment,” Little-Adams says, noting that she had to initially shell out the cash for not only the franchise fee, but also specialty glassware and an immense amount of holiday decorations. “For a small bar such as ours, it was a leap of faith… but our sales increased at least 25 percent the first year.”
The holiday decor isn’t just limited to the space: Bartenders dress up, too, sporting everything from ugly holiday sweaters and Christmas-themed aprons to Will Ferrell-style elf costumes and full Santa suits.
“[We] need somebody who’s willing to just drench their space with Christmas decor,” says Boehm. “If they’re trying to preserve the original minimalist decor of their bar, they wouldn’t be a good partner. [They] have to be willing to transform into something completely different.”
Boehm also launched a Tiki-themed spin-off, Sippin’ Santa, which accounts for 10 of Miracle’s 90 locations this year. Created in conjunction with Tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the drinks are holiday libations viewed through a tropical lens, such as the Kris Kringle Colada (made with dark Jamaican rum, Cynar, allspice liqueur, lime juice, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut).
For Austin cocktail bar the Roosevelt Room, the Christmas pop-ups have helped transform its whole business model. Last year the bar hosted its first Miracle bar inside its next-door event space, the Eleanor, which is typically open to the public only on the weekends.
“We were the No. 1 Miracle pop-up last year — we hosted 18,000 people,” says co-owner Justin Lavenue. “This year we’re hoping to host 30,000. We’re increasing the hours we’re open and number of days, and building more bars within the venue — so we’re trying to minimize the wait and maximize the enjoyment.”
The Roosevelt Room team is going all out with its decor this year, decking out its pop-up — known as Miracle on 5th Street — with multiple themed areas: “The front lounge is like your family’s den on Christmas Day: A Christmas tree, lots of couches, multicolored lights — your typical Christmas puking all over the walls sort of thing,” Lavenue says. Another part of the space will sport an après ski vibe, replete with a bar built to look like a log-cabin ski lodge, picnic tables, and a mural with a ski lift “to make people feel like they’re at the base of a mountain.”
The recent boom of heavily themed holiday bars isn’t limited to just Boehm’s concepts: Temporary Yuletide drinking dens have popped up all over the country (and beyond) in recent years, from a Manhattan bar boasting a rather esoteric 1907 Antarctic expedition theme to a particularly bougie example in Atlanta that features igloo rentals complete with bottle service and s’mores. The proliferation of such concepts is inextricably linked to the ubiquity of Instagram (see also: the spread of food “museums” that are actually just a series of photo ops, a la the Museum of Ice Cream).
“[Instagram] is definitely a huge part of it,” says Lavenue. “Last year we had a big Santa chair and it was just meant to be a side decoration, but it became the main attraction for that space — people were sitting in it and taking photos all night long. So this year we got an [even bigger] 7-foot red velvet Santa throne. We recognize that people want to Instagram the space, so we really tried to make it as photo-ready as possible.”
Little-Adams also sees the necessity of catering to the Instagram crowd: “This year pretty much [every part of the bar] is going be Instagram-y,” she laughs. “That’s just how it is now.”