Necessity is the mother of invention and, to a certain extent, so is the Christmas-themed pop-up bar.
It was 2014 and Greg Boehm had just purchased a cocktail bar, Louis 649, in Manhattan’s Alphabet City, which he was set to reopen as Mace, just as soon as he could finish an interior redesign. With the traditionally lucrative month of December approaching, and Mace nowhere close to ready, Boehm’s mom suggested he simply decorate the active construction site in a Yuletide theme and have a Christmas bar pop-up until the new year.
Boehm thought it was a great idea. He bought tinsel, glitter, and other red and green decorations from nearby stores and stapled them to every visible surface. His partner and beverage director at Mace, Nico de Soto, put together a cocktail list. Already a proponent of spice-based cocktails, it wasn’t hard for de Soto to make drinks that were more seasonally spiced, ones with names like Bad Santa and Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel.
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Miracle on 9th Street, as it would be called, was an immediate hit that Boehm quickly commercialized.
“You have to be ready for your success,” Boehm claims.
The next year, Boehm expanded the idea to another East Village bar he owned, Boilermaker, teaming with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and turning it into a Christmas tiki bar concept dubbed Sippin’ Santa’s Surf Shack. Meanwhile, a friend of Boehm’s living in Norwalk, Conn., wanted to bring Miracle to his town too.
Boehm began to realize that franchising Miracle and Sippin’ Santa might be an easy way to expand cocktail culture — and an even better way to sell products from his core business, Cocktail Kingdom, a designer and producer of high-end barware.
Over the years, Boehm tweaked Miracle’s in-house playlist, finding the most ideal seasonal songs to play within a bar setting. (He came to realize that Elvis tunes always dampened the mood.) Since he already had an ample art and manufacturing department, Cocktail Kingdom was able to produce its own custom decorations and Christmas-themed drinkware, like reindeer-adorned highball glasses and Santa pants tiki mugs.
By year three, Miracle was at 17 locations. By the fourth year, it was at 50.
Eventually, Boehm was able to sell a franchise package to any bar on planet Earth that was interested in recreating its own Miracle, although he would typically allow just one pop-up per city.
In fact, Miracle had become such a worldwide sensation that many bars would reach out to Boehm, asking to join the circus. If he didn’t know them, he’d make them prove competency in making Miracle’s baroque cocktails. They’d also have to pay a small fee — about one night’s sales, Boehm claims — that would score them a packet on how to execute everything. These bars could additionally buy the seasonal decor and glassware created by Cocktail Kingdom, with each year new signature vessels released. In return, these bars would get the full support of Boehm’s PR machine and be listed on Miracle’s website.
This year, there will be Miracle pop-ups everywhere from international hot spots like London, Mexico City, and Amsterdam all the way down to stateside suburban spots like Bentonville, Ark., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Nutley, N.J. According to these bars, the Miracle activation typically doubles, if not triples, their standard December sales.
But, despite being in seemingly every city, ville, and burg across the globe, Miracle is no longer the only show in town, no matter what town you live in.
By 2016 and 2017, imitators were already arising, especially in New York City, the epicenter of the concept. There was The Holiday Hideaway at the VNYL, a ski chalet–inspired pop-up called The Lodge at the McKittrick Hotel, the Alps-evocative rooftop bar at Italian food hall Eataly, and the Lower East Side’s Helliday Inn, a jokey, anti-Christmas bar, complete with an Angry Santa on staff.
Though it might appear that way, these pop-ups aren’t always the easiest thing to execute. Miracle begins planning one year ahead of time every single year. Many imitators would try and fail to craft their own themed pop-ups on the quick and cheap, then come crawling back to Miracle to simply buy their pre-fab package.
But many other bars began to put their own off-beat stamps on the genre, like Ivy Mix’s acclaimed Latin American cocktail bar Leyenda, which would become the Beyonce-homage Sleyenda. “It’s a big glittery party,” says Mix.
By 2019 we began seeing stories about this phenomenon. “Why Are We So Obsessed With Christmas-Themed Bars?” asked Martha Daniel of Eater that year.
By then, Christmas pop-ups had become a full cottage industry with content mills churning out maps and listicles of all your options for the season, no matter your city. And today, those options abound. There are steakhouses transformed into three-level Christmas bars, 26th-story rooftop bars made “Snowglobes in the Sky,” and outdoor bars turned into Disney’s “The Santa Claus”-inspired spots; there are hotels bars and full resorts that become Christmas pop-ups (one even inspired by The Grinch); there are even distilleries, like Manhattan’s Great Jones, which launched its Whiskey Wonderland this year.
These pop-ups are often popular with a clientele not used to “good” cocktails. Going into a dark and moody speakeasy with esoteric ingredients can be intimidating. But going into a campy bar playing “Jingle Bell Rock” that serves creamy drinks in Santa mugs is inviting.
These pop-ups are no longer just a fun little whim, either; they’ve become an economic boon, even for famed bars that do well every night of the year.
Like the Dead Rabbit, the upscale Irish pub once named the best cocktail bar in the world, which launched its first-ever Christmas bar pop-up, Jingle Jangle, at the end of November. Despite being eight years into Miracle’s birth, and 9 years since the bar’s opening, owner Jack McGarry finally felt it was time. He thought it an especially great way to revisit the Dead Rabbit’s core ethos after the recent departure of his former partners, Sean Muldoon and Jillian Vose.
“I’ve always felt the Dead Rabbit is a winter bar and that we never really leaned into that,” McGarry says. He explains that Christmas in Ireland is celebrated more like Americans might celebrate Thanksgiving, with big feasts full of traditional dishes and flavors. The bar has maintained its standard menu, while tacking on Irish-style Christmas dishes like honey-glazed ham sliders and mince pies with English cream. Ten new drinks have flavor profiles one might encounter during the holidays, like After Eight, a Grasshopper-style cocktail named after the popular chocolate mint in the U.K.
“This proliferation of Christmas pop-ups, a lot of them are quite kitschy,” says McGarry. “And, listen, ours may be over the top, but it’s an elevated and refined over the top.”
Though he admits the Dead Rabbit is always swamped during the holiday season, he still expects this gambit to bring new blood into the bar and perhaps even help the bottom line; it’s self-evident.
“I don’t think you have to do a seasonal pop-up, but it’s super easy to generate a lot of profit off of selling eggnogs and over-garnished cocktails named after reindeer,” says Jay Sanders, an owner of Shawnee, Kan.’s Drastic Measures. They had previously never done a seasonal pop-up, but this year will become the Hanukkah-themed Drastic Mensches during late-December’s eight crazy nights.
Unlike most other pop-ups, however, Drastic Mensches isn’t an economic play. In fact, the bar is donating half of all sales for the week to their local Jewish Family Services branch to help combat rising antisemitism.
“People over profits is something I take seriously,” says Sanders. “We have been getting a fair bit of attention over it, though, which is nice.”
No matter what, every seasonal pop-up is great for buzz, especially since, to Sanders’ knowledge, his is one of only two Hanukkah-themed pop-ups across the nation (after Boston’s Maccabee Bar, which Jewish bartender Naomi Levy first launched in 2018, and which has now been franchised itself to other locations). And buzz is what you need to stand out this holiday season, even in a smaller spot like the Kansas City area, which will have at least a dozen holiday pop-ups itself this year — including two Miracles — all of them almost certainly packed almost every single night.
As McGarry bluntly puts it:
“It blows my mind how much Americans are fascinated by Christmas.”