If it's a chocolate martini then it must be the atlantic bar ...

Marketing men call it repertoire drinking: right place, wrong drink spells instant social death. Eleanor Bailey on the minefield that is the modern bar
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The Independent Culture
Picture this: you are a woman of 30 who likes to think that, despite your vast age, you are still pulsing to the rhythms of hip. You are, thus, hanging out in a fashionable bar of a Thursday night when you spot a stranger with a large red stain on her white trousers. "Watch out," you cry, with admirable social conscience, "you have spilt your red wine on your trousers; you'll need to get them under running water sharpish."

But, instead of the anticipated gratitude, the eye-to- eye sincerity and murmured "cheers, mate", instead of that there is instant and embarrassed silence. People look at one another in confusion. The stranger gives you a cold look. "It's Blackcurrant Hooch," she says in disgust, making sure that everyone hears her. "Do you really think I would drink red wine in here?" For you have committed a Class A late Nineties gaffe: right venue, wrong drink.

It used to be so easy. Sherry was a no-no and vodka was a yes-yes. Budwar fine, Fosters bad news. Now it's not that simple. We have to know what to drink where. The decade that has seen a flood of new beverages has also seen the development of an unwritten code which, should you transgress it, could find you and your erstwhile funky Labatts Ice alone in a bar full of happy vodka and watermelon people.

The market defines it as the "repertoire drink phenomenon". Cynics think that it is another way to make an ass of yourself. In those cut-and-dried Eighties, you could buy a bottle of Budweiser and know you were safe. "In the old days," says Michele Cheaney, drinks editor of the Internet Food and Drink Magazine on Channel 11, "if you looked at 50 people you would get 20 confirmed beer drinkers, 20 confirmed wine drinkers and 10 who would normally have spirits. Now people have a different drink for every occasion. You will go from bar to bar and the crowd will be drinking something different in each one."

Go into the Atlantic Bar on Piccadilly with the words Blackcurrant Hooch on your lips and you will be given short shrift. Alcopops may be the biggest thing in drinking since sliced lemon (from zero to pounds 108m of revenue per annum since the arrival of Two Dogs a year-and-a-half ago), but this bar doesn't sell any of them. "We can make them better ourselves," says the bar's marketing manager, Sarah Canet, stiffly. "In here at the moment people are drinking whisky and brandy sours and chocolate martinis.''

David Brenady, drinks correspondent on Marketing Week, says, "On a big night piss up you might start off with a couple of strong pints of premium lager to get you going, then move on to a ciders or alcopops, which are not so voluminous. Towards the end of the evening you would move to a style bar for a cocktail. The days of going out and simply sinking 23 pints are over."

The career-minded professional takes a more scientific view of getting drunk now. "They come in and order a vodka chaser with their bottle of lager," says John O'Donnell, owner of the Babushka bars in Islington and West London. "They don't want to waste time. Vodka martini is particularly popular and the retro-kitsch theme is taken even further with the honey vodka and champagne, so-called James Bond in Moscow."

Like street fashion, trends are being dictated by the fashionable few. "Brewers are now having to keep up with drinkers' habits," says David Brenady. "Before, the brewers dictated. Most pubs were owned by one brewery and so the choice of beer was limited. Now the style leaders demand the right beer at the right place and breweries have to keep up." The proliferation of drinking venues is also partly to blame. In the decade of the Theme Bar, the Style Bar, the Wine Bar and the Concept Pub, something has to distinguish them other than the decor.

For the less-than-fashionable majority, it is scary. Suddenly you are in danger of looking like your parents at a discotheque, 20 years before your time. And it's no good asking the barman. He's not there to help you. He's there to make you feel small. So you must be sufficiently fluent in the language to know if it is fitting (as, yes, it can be) to drink warm pints. Just to make it even more obscure, the ultra trendy drink what ought to be drunk - while claiming that warm lager "is just what me and my mates drink". When in truth he and his mates would never "just" be drinking collective white wine spritzers, now would they?

The pace of change is accelerating. Last week's cool vodka mix in a Soho bar should, this week, be burning the germs off your plughole. Accelerated change began with the bottled beers in the Eighties. "At that time," says Michele Cheaney, "something new was introduced very rarely and with huge hype. Now there are two or three a week. It's ridiculous, it's all about knowing how to order the most obscure brand of South African lager. Consumers need to feel that they have discovered a new drink and so manufacturers are having to be far more low key with their launches." A new drink should trickle into small, alternative bars (especially the gay scene), and then gradually be picked up elsewhere. Absolut Vodka's softly softly approach was an early example, especially with its blue laser ad in bars, which was only visible from certain angles. Gin Zing, more recently, came from the mammoth United Distillers, but the launch campaign was designed to look like an amateur effort, with comedian Jim Rose doing impromptu shows in 30 pubs nationwide. Gin Zing may be huge now, but it still feels cultish.

Next? Watch out for fruit lagers. Cherry, peach, apple - particularly cool from Belgium in yet another fashion turnaround. They are purportedly delicious, but then that was what they said about savoury ice cream.

10 cool drinks

Fashionable Drinking as at early November 1996. (Real Life takes no responsibility for changes that may have occurred since this article went to press...)

1 DNA (alcoholic

spring water)

2 Caffreys

3 Marblehead

4 Virgin Sea Breeze

5 Water (best from taps

because we don't believe

the hype no more).

6 Vodka/lime, Vodka/tonic

7 Watermelon juice

8 Chocolate Martini

9 Gin Zing

10 Mickey's Big Mouth

where and when

Gin and Tonic

For when you want to be taken seriously. Still the career drink.

Guinness

For that wholesome image, everyone should have a Guinness venue. City Irish bars are best (please not the chains) or country pubs.

Vodka Shot

Order with your first pint on a Thursday night. Designer drunkenness - maximum elation and minimum bloat.

Vodka cocktail

The funky person's drink. Not recommended if you are unattractive, overweight or wearing something embarrassing.

Whisky

Best taken at home in a seduction scene unless you can find a bar that sells quality product. Obscure Highland distilleries over 20 years old only. Feel free to take with ice to indicate your frivolous side.

Blackcurrant Hooch, SubZero, Two Dogs etc Good for the under-10s at any time - no, only joking, alcopops absolutely do not encourage underage drinking.

Warm beer

A return to the Seventies along with tight T-shirts and easy listening. Only acceptable in authentic nasty pubs that you are visiting as a style statement.

Water

No longer as cool as it was. But tap water in clubs impresses first because there is a macho element about getting your drink from an unsavoury toilet and second because it's evidence of how dehydrated you must be.

Wine

The wine in bars and pubs is generally destructive because it's always so unpleasant. Wine is the thing in one's private club or when entertaining at home, particularly on Sundays for some reason.

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