Throughout the years, cult TV series and movies have not only shaped our popular culture, but they have also influenced our drinking habits.
From the exotic bars of bygone eras, the trendy haunts of NYC, the party scenes at frat houses, the tuxedo attired casinos to the sun-kissed beaches and the Caribbean beach shacks - shows and films have popularised spirits throughout the last century. Some of the cocktails have become synonymous with their iconic characters too.
In this article, we explore some of the most notable examples that have gained fame thanks to their cinematic appearances and discuss the reasons why the screen can carry such influence in the first place.
Contrary to popular belief - we’ll make the argument for why retro drinking trends are less dependent on bars creating ‘Disco Drinks’, and more reliant on a hit show to bring them back…
Let’s start off with that ‘why’.
Consumer behaviour and psychology research supports the idea that attractive product presentation, associative learning and the influence of context can shape our consumption choices. This is also true for drinks and its the combination of these factors that leads to cocktails consumed on screen becoming emblematic of specific lifestyles, eras, or attitudes.
Classic Conditioning via Iconic Characters
The association between cocktails and iconic characters plays a significant role in making drinks memorable and popular.
We’re being a little reductive here, but pop-phycology goes something like this; When a beloved on-screen persona becomes linked to a particular cocktail, it is because the drink often reflects the characteristics and qualities of that character.
It’s not just them drinking it that makes a cocktail cool, it’s the fact that drink represents them and is an extension of their traits. It captures their essence in a glass. This connection can create a strong emotional response in fans who consume these drinks as a way to connect with or mimic their favourite on-screen personas.
It’s not the only bit of phycology at play either. Classical conditioning can explain the appeal of consuming a drink associated with a favourite character too.
When a character we admire is seen enjoying a particular cocktail, our brains associate the positive feelings we have towards the character with the drink itself. Over time, this association becomes stronger, leading to a desire to consume the cocktail to evoke similar positive emotions.
That’s conditioning 101, and it’s especially effective when it happens repeatedly throughout a film. The best example of this magnetic phycological combo (classic conditioning and character association) is the White Russian.
The 1998 cult movie The Big Lebowski immortalised the White Russian, a sweet and creamy concoction of vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream. Jeff Bridges' character, "The Dude," is seen enjoying this cocktail throughout the film. If you haven’t indulged in the Coen bros’ masterpiece - he drinks nine of them in a run time of less than two hours and in many scenes, it’s not a small part of the plot. The White Russian (or making of, or residual cream moustache) is as overt and centre stage as the protagonist himself.
Conditioning aside, consuming the same drinks may also involve an element of social identity.
People often identify with particular social groups, and these affiliations shape their sense of self. By consuming a cocktail associated with a particular character, fans may feel a sense of belonging to a specific group or subculture that admires / aspires to be / or is similar to the same character. This has certainly been the case for the White Russian's association with The Big Lebowski, and following the movie the drink was transformed into a symbol of laid-back, carefree living.
Cultural Context and Social Settings
The cultural context and social settings portrayed on screen plays a significant role in influencing the perception of cocktails.
When a cocktail is consumed in a specific context, such as a high-end bar or an intimate gathering, it can become emblematic of a particular lifestyle, era, or attitude. It’s not just about the individual character anymore.
The impact of cultural context and social settings on product perception can be explained by the concept of associative learning. When we see a product consumed in a specific environment, our brains create associations between the product and the context of that space. Over time, these associations become stronger, shaping our perception of the product and making it emblematic of a particular lifestyle or attitude.
What’s true for products is true for drinks.
For example, the Cosmopolitan's association with the glamorous lifestyle of the characters in Sex and the City made it a symbol of female empowerment, independence and urban sophistication. The Cosmo became the literal embodiment of the themes and values of that time.
Meanwhile, the Old Fashioned's prominence in Mad Men, set in the 1960s, is an onscreen cue that reinforces the era's association with masculinity and elegance (in the American workplace). Taken off screen and into a bar, for those who love the show, the drink remains imbued with that association and that was part of the reason they made such a big comeback in the early 2010’s.
As for what could trend today - Ironically the drink of the 2020’s msy not be a modern creation. It's likely to be something from a completely different era because it was made popular by a new show set in that time.
Let's see what Paramount, Disney, Amazon and Netflix have in store, but a smash hit show set in the real world often leads to a trending drink. Heck, just as the Spagliato already has, it may not even need a show anymore, just a viral TikTok…
Whatever it is, it will need to tap into the emotional temperature of 2023 and the protagonists to be relatable to today’s aspirations. But through the magic of cinema, that doesn’t mean they have to be set in this era.
Enter nostalgia. When cocktails make an appearance on screen, they can also lean into different influence levers outside of traditional phycology too.
Nostalgia is a significant reason for associating cocktails and TV shows with a particular era. When people reminisce about a certain era, they often remember the popular TV shows, films, and cocktails that captured that era on screen.
Just like most memories we carry, we only really remember a highlight reel, softened by time and influenced by the inner narrative we tell ourselves today. What you think you remember of the 90’s and 00’s might well be imprints from films set in those eras, that were actually released decades later. Some are accurate depictions, but some have implemented their creative licence over what it all looked like.
Take the French 75, which is iconic in Casablanca (set in the 40’s), while the hot toddy is a frequent sighting in Bridgerton (set in the Regency period). Would either really have been the drink du jour? If so, would they really have been served like that or was that a stylistic choice by the design department?
The visual appeal and presentation of cocktails, along with the cultural context and social settings portrayed in cinema have a significant impact on the perception of these drinks. Whether you like the characters will even influence what you think of the drink!
So, if you want to know what the next big cocktail will be, you’ve got as much chance to find out by switching on the TV as you do by going to your local bar…
While you binge on the next instalment, take a moment to understand the phycology of what’s going on and you’ll not only better appreciate the role of movies and TV series in popularising cocktails and shaping our drinking culture – but the amount of consideration researchers and prop departments put into what the actors are holding.
A lot is being said with each sip, whether you were aware of it or not.