Why Bars Should Think Twice About Themed Cocktails

Themed bars need to take a closer look at how they celebrate pop cultural phenomena.

Euphoria is everywhere. Whether you love it, hate it, or have never seen a single episode, you can't deny that it's part of the culture. It's now ubiquitous among a new generation of neon-lit teens with flawless eye makeup and fashion that would get any Midwestern high schooler expelled. The show's flashy aesthetic, distinct soundtrack, and many, many party scenes on the surface seem like a perfect fit for themed parties and bars and cocktails and pop-ups. But something about one Houston-based bar's new Euphoria-inspired beverages highlights a larger flaw in the greater pop-culture-inspired drinking culture.

What’s wrong with the Euphoria cocktail menu?

Eater Houston reports that the bar Present Company released an "edgy" cocktail menu this month to capitalize on the show's popularity ahead of its season two finale on February 28. The main inspiration seems to be Rue, the teenage protagonist (played by Zendaya) struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

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If the inspiration was in name alone, things might not seem so bad. But the bar seems to be going for something else—the "I Can't Feel My Face When I'm With You" (I'll save my rant about too-long cocktail names for another day) features Cointreau, lime juice, a raspberry-apple syrup, a Sichuan peppercorn syrup, and a Sichuan pepper rim, the latter two ingredients meant to simulate a buzzy, numbing sensation not unlike the feeling that drugs induce in a relapsing Rue. The bar's "Hall Pass" shots—made of cinnamon whiskey, cherry juice, coconut puree, and banana liqueur—are served in pill bottles mimicking the drugs that Rue (spoiler alert) starts to sell and become addicted to in season two.

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Euphoria itself has come under fire since its debut for glamorizing teen sex, drinking, drug use, and trauma, so much so that Zendaya took to Instagram to warn viewers about its triggering content. This controversy combined with the show's popularity makes for an obvious cash grab for any business that can associate itself even just with the name Euphoria. But capitalizing on the show's portrayal of addiction and reducing that struggle to some cutesy, Instagrammable cocktail is in extremely poor taste and fails the story that the show is trying to tell. How well the series itself tells that story is even up for debate, but these cocktails only further muddle the message.

How other themed pop-up bars are missing the point

Of course, this whole thing isn't solely the fault of one joint in Houston. Over the past several years, beverage menus and pop-up bars framed as paying homage to pop culture phenomena have seemingly missed the point entirely. In 2021, a smattering of Squid Game–themed spaces and parties included lavish details and cash giveaways alongside items like "Red Light" and "Green Light" cocktails, disregarding the anti-capitalist message of the series.

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In 2019, a Chicago pop-up glorified the darkest details of the ill-fated Fyre Festival after the release of two competing documentaries on the topic, selling an actual sandwich with a single piece of cheese for $12 and featuring a game of cornhole with Andy King's mouth as the hole and bottles of water as the bags (if you know you know). Turning one of the most traumatic moments in this man's life into a joke while patrons sip on $15 drinks named after Ja Rule songs isn't the pop cultural send-up we need.

How to do themed pop-up bars right

I'm not here to rain on everyone's parade! There's still fun to be had in the world of pop culture watering holes, like the upcoming Brick Bar in Denver, a pop-up that's made entirely out of Legos. That's it. People love Legos, and building anything life-sized out of Legos is a treat—keep it simple while honoring a long-lasting cultural phenomenon.

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There are a couple questions that you can first ask yourself before starting a pop-culture pop-up bar of your own: Are there delicious drinks and foods already built into this world? And are they there in a fun way? For example, instead of choosing a Euphoria theme where alcohol leads to dangerous situations, maybe instead think of Bob's Burgers, where the food and drinks are what bring our characters joy. Sure, not all James Bond movies are sunshine and rainbows, but the martini is a part of who he is, part of what makes him cool—a No Time To Die theme is certainly on the table. A "Gin & Juice" Snoop Dogg–themed menu practically writes itself.

It's not an exact formula, but hopefully a guide to avoiding some of the more egregious pitfalls. Going out for drinks and celebrating our favorite pop culture should be fun, not leave a sour taste in our mouths.

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