You may not notice it this week, as the bars will be filled with St Patrick’s Day revelers, wearing their giant green, white, and orange hats, loudly making merry. But the Irish pub, I’m sad to report, is dying. The worst part is we’re all partially to blame.
The trend is mostly due to a key change in American drinking tastes. The excitement of imbibing in a clandestine modern speakeasy or a hip craft-cocktail bar has replaced the comfort and familiarity of the neighborhood tavern, which, as a result, is struggling to survive.
Even in Irish-stronghold New York, according to Paul Hurley, former president of the United Restaurant & Tavern Owners of New York, 40 percent of the city’s traditional pubs have closed up in the last ten years, including his own spot, Kennedy’s, in Midtown.
In Chicago, the situation isn’t much better and if anything worse given that bar owners have had to contend with City Hall, which, according to USA Today, has cut the available number of tavern licenses by more than half over last couple decades.
Dale DeGroff, the father of the rebirth of the cocktail, has also seen this change in other large cities, including LA, Boston and San Francisco. “A whole younger generation is drinking a different way,” he says.
And now that Irish whiskey sales are skyrocketing in America—up an astronomical 637 percent from 2002 to 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States—you can find a wide selection of the Emerald Isle’s liquor in most watering holes.
Having popularized the category of booze, pubs are perhaps now victims of its success.
Even the most thriving establishments have had to become ever more nimble, offering a different atmosphere and environment depending upon the hour of the day and the day of the week.
Danny McDonald, who runs six of New York’s best Irish pubs, including Swift Hibernian Lounge, Ulysses’ and Puck Fair, maintains that he is still bullish on the basic model, but concedes that he is, at the end of the day, “in the business of selling atmosphere.”
In many cities this translates to certain areas gentrifying, with an influx of a new generation of young urbanites that wants loft apartments, farm-to-table restaurants and, naturally, pre-Prohibition cocktails and small-batch bourbon and rye.
Meanwhile, commercial rents, according to real estate service firm CBRE, continue to climb across the country, while supply remains tight. That makes it harder and harder for restaurants and bars to get favorable leases or lease renewals.
“When the restaurants get pushed, the bars get pushed further,” says David Orkin, CBRE’s Restaurant Practice Leader Emeritus.
While some Irish bars have found a way to go upscale, like New York’s award-winning The Dead Rabbit (which McDonald co-owns) and the cavernous The Local in Minneapolis, most, according to DeGroff, would find it “impossible” to charge $15 a drink.
“These were neighborhood establishments and the neighborhood is unraveling,” he says.
These establishments served as a connection to our pre-Prohibition mixology roots and were a throwback to an earlier time that valued hospitality and a generous pour (with a side of good banter—or craic, in Gaelic) over the latest drink trends.
At the bar, as the old Cheers theme song suggested, there was a good chance that you’d know the names of the other patrons and the bartender would surely be able to anticipate your regular order.
Not that many years ago it would have seemed impossible that the Irish pub would disappear.
It, like the coffee shop, was a staple of modern American cities. They were so commonplace they hid in plain sight. But, if you can imagine, they were even more ubiquitous at the end of the 19th century, when “they were pretty much on every block,” says Michael Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City.
The local bar was “a lot more than a place to drink beer. It fulfilled a range of social functions.” The bar served as a bank, a post office and a political and job center for a community. And, according to Lerner, the poorer the neighborhood the more pubs it had.
Unbelievably, the loss-of-Irish-bars trend is also happening in Ireland, which has watched an unprecedented number of its beloved pubs close.
Things got particularly bad in 2013, when it was reported that 1,500 establishments had been shuttered since 2008.
What can we do to reverse the trend? Belly up to the bar of your local Irish pub before it’s too late and order yourself a pint and a shot. We might just be able to save them yet.