The VR experience at a Virgin Atlantic lounge. (Handout)
In downtown Chicago, high above the Magnificent Mile, is a sexy bourbon and whiskey bar in the Conrad Chicago Hotel named Baptiste & Bottle. Every detail, from the industrial light fixtures to the reclaimed wood walls, is meant to evoke creamy, brown liquors and the distilleries that make them.
You can order a Sazerac Flight with mini versions of the classic rye-and-cognac cocktail. Or the Curtsy and a Bow, a house favorite made of bourbon mixed with absinthe and steamy tonka fog. One cocktail, however, stands out from the rest: the Macallan Rare Journey. It costs $95 and includes virtual reality.
The drink itself is simple: a generous shot of Macallan Rare Cask combined with 30-year-old dry Spanish sherry. The "journey" part comes when you put on an Oculus virtual-reality headset that transports you to all the places involved in the spirits' making.
As if drunk people need more stimulation, a handful of bars are locked in an arms race to outdo one another with elaborate virtual reality-infused cocktails. As sci-fi fans stream into theaters this weekend to catch Steven Spielberg's dystopian VR blockbuster "Ready Player One," the rest of us can at least toast to the future with a glass of single malt.
Raquel Raies, the national brand ambassador for Macallan who debuted the Rare Journey in July 2017, is sure her creation was the first VR cocktail in the world. "It took me seven months to perfect, but no one else was doing it," she said.
The Rare Journey takes the tippler above the treetops of an American forest from which Macallan's whiskey casks originate, then on to Southern Spain and the sherry distillery that flavors the wood. The final stop is the 390-acre distillery and a toast with its master whiskey maker. During the Journey, Baptiste & Bottle bartenders bring out trays of toasted moss and vessels of smoke to heighten the sensory experience.
"It's like playing a video game, but you get to drink in the process," said Benjamin Feldheim, a freelance writer in Chicago who tried the cocktail in July when it launched. "At one point you're flying over this rippling lake, and you can't help but stretch your arms out like you have wings. My advice is to do this with friends so you can laugh at them, too."
Not to be outdone, One Aldwych, a luxury hotel in London's Covent Garden, insists that its drink, The Origin, was the first VR cocktail. It debuted in April 2017. "We extensively researched this concept before launching and, as far as we can tell, it was the only one with the VR headset and this filmed, visual journey," said Pedro Paulo, the manager of the hotel's Lobby Bar. "We always try to stay ahead of the game."
The Origin combines Dalmore 12-year-old whiskey, Merlet cherry liqueur, cherry puree, fresh grapefruit juice, chocolate bitters, and Champagne. Before taking their first sip, customers watch a two-minute VR video in which they fly over the Scottish Highlands, down to London and finally into Covent Garden. At the exact moment when customers enter the virtual version of the Lobby Bar, a bartender serves them their cocktail.
My advice is to do this with friends so you can laugh at them, too— Benjamin Feldheim, freelance writer
Macallan insists its drink, though it debuted later, had been in the works long before One Aldwych's came out. "Also they may also have you put on the goggles, but they aren't showing the journey of the spirit," she said.
Sometimes you don't want a journey. Just the drink will do. Revery, an Atlanta bar that opened in December, decided the best approach to VR drinking was to maintain normalcy around the beverage and put the tech on the side. Its concept is similar to a karaoke bar. Patrons, mostly millennials, can flirt, drink and dance to live DJs in the main hall.
Then, when they are ready for their technological adventure, they book a private room where they can choose their experience. Favorites include SuperHot VR, a game where you become a sniper taking out targets, and Richie's Plank Experience, which gives you the sensation of having to balance on a wood plank 80 stories up.
One Aldwych, a luxury hotel in London, insists that it had the first VR cocktail. (James Bedford)
Other watering holes have opted for a more limited-run approach to virtual reality. For the last five months of 2017, Virgin Atlantic teamed up with Bacardi Rum to give members of its airport lounges cocktails paired with virtual tours of some of the best bars in the world. Passengers at Heathrow Airport can order the EO Manhattan from New York City's famous bar Employees Only.
They put on the headset and enter the small, buzzy bar where beautiful people drink cocktails into the wee hours. Another option is a tropical drink with a virtual visit to Necker Island, the Caribbean hideaway owned by Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson. Virgin Atlantic hasn't commented on whether it will repeat this program or make it permanent in the future.
One Aldwych is so sure virtual reality cocktails are here to stay that it is putting its Origin cocktail on the permanent menu, a place usually reserved for staples like The Old Fashioned or the Dirty Martini.
Feldheim expects to see even more bars and clubs experiment with new VR technology. "If there's a new toy, someone will want to play with it. And I include me in that statement. So long as it doesn't come with the dystopian apocalypse that usually accompanies cinematic visions of tech," he said. "I'm game for it." Literally.