On a recent Saturday evening, Brooklynites competed for the attention of a bartender. They were not, of course, crammed inside an indoor bar, nor were they flagging a server at one of the to-go cocktail counters that have opened all over the city in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they sat on bright blankets in Prospect Park, the bottles they’d brought long empty after hours in the sun, looking for a refill.
There to help was Brooklyn Vagabond, a 32-year-old man who, pre-COVID-19, had been working as a head server at a popular restaurant in Soho. (His name has been omitted to protect his identity.) Furloughed during the first wave of the pandemic, he began a new side hustle at the end of May to help support himself and his parents, who contracted the virus earlier this year: crafting creative, top-notch cocktails in his apartment and selling them in Prospect Park.
And he’s not the only one. In recent weeks, several out-of-work hospitality industry professionals have taken advantage of the massive expanse of Prospect Park — it covers 526 acres and borders several neighborhoods, such as Park Slope and Flatbush — to sell cocktails to parkgoers who are using the outdoor space for socially distanced hangouts.
Faced with the precarious future of New York’s decimated restaurant industry, many food-world professionals are now relying on these sales to make ends meet during the pandemic. They are also making New York’s already vibrant bootleg cocktail industry an incredibly competitive field.
More competition doesn’t mean less risk, though. Although New York loosened its liquor laws temporarily, selling alcohol without a liquor license is still illegal — and, according to state law, only businesses with a physical space can obtain a license. So independent vendors are left with no other option than to risk being fined or even jailed, with penalties increasing after each violation.
For the cocktail vendors, though, it might be a calculated risk. Gary Kaufman, a New York-based criminal defense lawyer, says prosecutors would likely be lenient with first-time offenders. “I don’t think that prosecutors would want to saddle someone with a criminal record who had done this for the first time,” says Kaufman. “This is not a guarantee, but based on my experience with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, they are not completely unreasonable and would probably be somewhat sympathetic toward the accused.”
The risk appears to be paying off for some vendors in Prospect Park, which has seemingly become the borough’s largest outdoor bar.
On a recent Saturday, Brooklyn Vagabond took a slow lap around the lawn near Grand Army Plaza, his large, wheeled cooler in tow. Although he makes different cocktails each week, his most popular are the smoky pineapple — which features mezcal, tequila, pineapple, and cinnamon — and the kahcumber basil, a refreshing combination of basil-infused vodka, gin, and a puree of cucumber and citrus. Each 12-ounce cocktail costs $15.
Within minutes, he met up with a small group of millennial men who’d preordered cocktails on his Instagram account. The group said they’d spotted Brooklyn Vagabond walking through the park and then connected with him online.
Typically, Vagabond brings between 40 and 50 cocktails to the park each day on the weekend. Most of the time he sells out, taking home between $500 and $600 per day. From there, about half of the money goes toward supporting himself and his family, while the other is devoted to buying ingredients and packaging materials for his next batch. Although he says long shifts in the hot sun are grueling, he maintains a positive outlook: “I love to make cocktails,” he says. “I love to make people happy. I’ve had people here who weren’t expecting me selling cocktails, who were like, ‘Wow, you’ve made my day at the park.’”
Still, there’s competition. Earlier that day, several hours before Vagabond arrived at the park, another vendor began his shift: Renaldo, who sells bagged cocktails under the name El Rey’s Cocktails. (His full name has been omitted to protect his identity.)
Pre-pandemic, Renaldo bartended — at Bowlmor in Times Square and Jam Rock in Freeport, Long Island — but began selling homemade cocktails in the park, as well as for delivery, in June. His are priced at $12 ($10 if you throw him a follow on Instagram), are fresh fruit-focused, and have cheeky names like Carmen’s Revenge, which combines tequila with passionfruit and pineapple, and Taste This Peach, a version of a Sex on the Beach that swaps apple for cranberry and contains moscato.
Renaldo says he likes to sell in Prospect Park for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it is insulated from a large police presence. “I do have my [bartending] license and stuff like that,” he says. “But still, it’s a good, comforting thing — you’re not going to be bothered while you’re going around doing your job, doing work, trying to have some income.”
Prospect Park’s vibe sets it apart as well. “The population that you have in here is mostly locals, so they know the Brooklyn vibe already,” says Renaldo. “You try to do that in Times Square, you try to do that in Central Park, you’re going to have a harder time because tourists already come with the mindset of, ‘Keep your eyes straight ahead.’”
Daniel, another vendor, echoed this sentiment. A 28-year-old alum of Analogue in the West Village and the Boom Boom Room at the Standard, High Line, Daniel was preparing to open his own cocktail bar in Chelsea at the start of the year. Halted by the pandemic, he started Drink Mules with two industry friends; it offers homemade organic cocktails, which Daniel claims are designed to boost the immune system.
Currently, Drink Mules serves two 10-ounce cocktails at $14 each: rosehip, which is rum-based and features homemade strawberry-rosehip shrub, and turmeric, which combines tequila with pineapple and a kick of turmeric and black peppercorn. “It’s as good of a time as ever to be conscious about what you’re putting in your drinks, or what you could be getting from your drinks,” Daniel says. “Why not get your vitamins and your veggies?”
Although his team sells cocktails in several parks, as well as for delivery, Daniel says Prospect Park is where they’ve had the most success — something he witnessed firsthand after going to the park for the first time with his cofounder, who lives nearby and usually distributes there, over Fourth of July weekend. “I really do think we should, as bartenders, be mindful of the opportunity that we have to enhance somebody’s experience with a drink,” he says of his venture. “Now [with the pandemic], it’s a little bit more of a loving approach.”
While he’s unsure if he’ll return to Chelsea to open his bar, his goal is to launch a mobile cocktail van later this summer; currently, he is on the hunt for investors. “What I’ve always told myself is stay flexible, stay receptive,” he says. “Be ready to jump on whatever happens.”
Avery Stone is a cocktail enthusiast and culture journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.