A few years ago, Justin Pasha had an idea for a new business—a cocktail catering company that offered high-quality drinks for private events and parties. A bartending veteran, Pasha didn’t know of any businesses in the Northeast offering dedicated drinks services for private events, even though food catering is a huge business. He thought it was a missed opportunity on the drinks side, and seven years later, his company The Cup Bearer is booming in Connecticut and New York City.
As demand for private events services increases, cocktail catering has become a growing business, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when consumers looked for new ways to enjoy social experiences outside of traditional bars and restaurants. A handful of clever entrepreneurs around the country like Pasha have launched their own private event mixology services, reaping big rewards for their ability to bring top-notch, bar-worthy drinks to parties and weddings in a variety of settings and locations. Pasha launched The Cup Bearer in 2015 in Stamford, Connecticut, offering upscale mixology in a private setting. While the Covid-19 pandemic shut him down temporarily, Pasha says business is back in a big way. He credits social media with helping his company grow, and a switch to virtual events over the last 18 months, plus an affluent client base that’s ready to break out from pandemic restrictions. The Cup Bearer is averaging five to seven events a week.
“There’s a huge, untapped market for this,” Pasha says. “No one was doing what we were doing when we started in 2015. Our biggest hurdle has been educating the public, but we’ve been slowly leading the charge. The sheer volume of amazing catering companies that offer food is impressive, but there are so few bar services like ours. We’re rocking right now and we hope this business grows.”
The Cup Bearer provides a full range of mixology services for its clients in Connecticut and New York City. The company works with bartenders from well-known Manhattan bars and has relationships with event planners, which it leverages to provide high-end drinks services at a variety of events and venues. The Cup Bearer provides bar staff and expert mixologists, as well as all the non-alcoholic ingredients needed to make a pre-selected roster of specialty drinks and a wide array of classic cocktails, including specialty syrups, craft bitters, fresh juices, and carbonated mixers. Clients can add on specialty ice and glassware and can either provide the alcohol products themselves or work with the company to procure them. The Cup Bearer also has several styles of custom-made portable bars that it can bring to events to create a full bar experience.
The company charges a service minimum fee and a per-drink charge for events and has a roster of specialty drinks, from which clients can choose a few to highlight on their personalized menu. Sample cocktails include the Chukker, made with Tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, muddled watermelon, and Tajín spices, and the Tiger Lily, blending Bourbon, Branca Menta liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, and mint. Pasha says his bartender partners enjoy working private events.
“We honor and respect our bartenders as craftspeople,” Pasha explains. “We pay them well and make sure that when they come to us, they work at a normal bar that’s custom built and proportionally constructed, with sinks, so that it mimics their normal work environment.”
The Cup Bearer added virtual services during the Covid-19 pandemic, which helped the company stay afloat when the private events business shut down. The company worked with several corporate clients, creating drinks kits and hosting online mixology tutorials, and Pasha plans to continue that work even as his in-person events business is back and booming. “All the momentum and growth that we didn’t see in 2020 is happening now, plus we have another year’s worth of momentum and growth for 2021,” he says. “The barrier to entry for opening a bar is huge, but the barrier to entry for this is not. There’s a lot of growth here for young entrepreneurs who want to get involved.”
Denaya Jones has been working in the hospitality industry in Washington, D.C. for more than a decade and has been offering cocktail catering for several years. Her business, Deestilled, provides a range of services, from full mixology catering to bartending for beer and wine only, as well as online classes and tutorials. Deestilled provides mixers and garnishes and can help clients get the necessary spirits, wines, and beers for their party. Pricing is usually determined by drink, with a minimum requirement, and Jones notes that popular specialty cocktails on her roster include a Blueberry Lavender Lemonade made with Bourbon or rye and a Spicy Mezcal Margarita.
“Mobile bartending is growing in popularity in the Washington, D.C. area and I offer a unique and specialized service,” Jones says. “I’ve seen exponential growth in new clientele with the rise of more intimate and virtual gatherings in 2020 and 2021. This is a passion of mine and it’s something I genuinely enjoy.”
In Pittsburgh, the wedding industry has picked up rapidly as Covid-19 restrictions ease, which has given Lo Bar Cocktail Services a big boost. The drinks catering company launched in 2018 and was shut down by the pandemic soon after but has since seen a solid rebound in business. Owner and partner Aubrey Halliburton, a bartending veteran, says there were no services like hers when Lo Bar started a few years ago. Like many of her peers in other cities, Halliburton says she provides everything but the spirits for private events mixology, and she charges a flat rate per guest.
“We created a business that didn’t exist,” Halliburton explains, adding that she and her business partner have catered drinks for too many events to count and have several repeat clients. She and her partner run Lo Bar full-time. “All of our cocktails include our own house-made juices, syrups, and fresh herbs and spices,” she adds. “Creating these recipes from scratch is a great way for us to keep our menus fresh and exciting.”
Diana Pittet, co-founder of Night Owl Hospitality and the Asbury Park Whisky Club in New Jersey, operates a cocktail catering business as one of many drinks-themed projects. Pittet says her clients can choose up to five specialty cocktails for their events and that she and her team bring the equipment and non-alcoholic ingredients for the bar. Some of her recent popular drinks include an Oaxaca Old Fashioned, made with both Tequila and mezcal, and the Infante, blending Tequila with orgeat syrup, lime juice, and grated nutmeg.
“The catering business isn’t our chief source of revenue, but there’s definitely enough interest to keep the business going,” Pittet says. “We had some interest before Covid for in-person cocktail catering, and we were surprised by how much interest we had in online services during the pandemic.”
Seattle-area Happy Camper Cocktail Co. put the cocktail catering idea on wheels, offering a mobile bar in a custom travel trailer. The company uses its Pacific Northwest locale to inspire its drinks and supplies all mixers, garnishes, and cups for events. Some of its popular specialty cocktails include the Garden Mule, made with vodka, ginger beer, marionberry-mint syrup, mint, and fresh berries, and the Lavender-Infused Old Fashioned, blending rye with citrus bitters and lavender-infused honey. Happy Camper Cocktail Co. catered more than 30 events this summer and fall.
Across the country, Cocktail Caravan in New Jersey has a similar approach. Joey Garofalo, the owner of Cocktail Caravan, operates out of a custom-outfitted mobile camper and boasts a full bar experience for parties. Garofalo says 2021 has been his busiest year yet, as he’s capitalizing on the need for outdoor social gatherings. Cocktail Caravan supplies everything but the alcohol for its clients, including ice, cups, mixers, and garnishes, as well as trained bartenders and custom-built bars if needed. Clients can choose a couple signature drinks for their event from a roster of 30 selections. The company has booked more than 60 parties this year and already has events scheduled for 2022 and 2023.
“We offer a perfect opportunity to safely socialize outdoors in a private bar setting,” Garofalo says. “We’re working towards building Cocktail Caravan into a full-scale rental company and expanding our fleet of mobile bars. We have an incredible crew of talented bartenders. We take the stress out of party planning and the response has been very positive.”