Drinking in a Church Can Put You in Great Spirits

It might seem almost profane to drink a cocktail or a pint in a church, but here's why it's actually an act of joyful communion.

Church & Union in Charleston, SC
Church & Union in Charleston, SC. Photo:

Sam Weinick

A few years back, I discovered that to my great horror, someone had broken into my home and by the looks of it, attempted to raid my bar. I personally would never dream of making an incursion on someone's personal space like that but at this point, I'm used to it happening. Usually not with quite so much brute force — the intruder had taken the back metal fire door off the hasp — but strangers often do feel entitled to stroll in and make themselves at home, despite the fact that a sign out front says "private residence." My husband and I spend part of our time living in a deconsecrated Episcopal church he bought 25 years ago in a quirky little former spa town in New York's Mohawk Valley, and we'd each separately spent the bulk of our lives prior dreaming how to do just that. Maybe it's a Goth* thing, but I don't think so, judging by the sheer mass of former ecclesiastical structures that now house apartments, hotels, stores, restaurants, clubs, and some truly glorious bars. Like me, people just seem to love communing with the spirits. 

I'm well aware that there's a large contingent of people who find the notion of anything other than sober worshipfulness in a church to be blasphemous. I know this because they love to tell me, even if they're a guest in my home. (It's usually someone's parent or older relative, and I suppose I'll just have to live with their disapproval, and they're more than welcome to say a novena for my hellbound soul while I'm making Manhattans for everyone else.) I however, find beauty in it, especially when we get to entertain. If you're not familiar with the term "deconsecrated" (another bonus of church ownership is the increased opportunity to use words like that along with "narthex" and "chancel") it means transferring the character of something from sacred to secular use. Yes, there's perhaps an altar, stained glass windows, or in my case, a baptismal font on the premises and whatever deities happen to have been in official residence don't necessarily have to vacate — but they're sorta squatters now, usually in a really pretty building constructed for congregation.

The bar in Kat's deconsecrated Episcopal church upstate

Kat Kinsman

Whether or not the consumption of alcohol is in your particular canon, coming together with loved ones (or someone with whom you might wish to temporarily commune) over a beverage is a ritual as old as recorded history. We mark our victories and milestones, mourn our losses and mess-ups with beverages between us and yes, such a thing could and does occur on couches, office chairs, and park benches, but the moments are somehow transmogrified in these spaces that have been designated for the purpose. And I'd argue that the reverse happens, too. We sanctify a place with the presence of our humanity; a building is just a building until people inhabit it. To me, the notion of drinking in a church is the opposite of profane, it's profound. (Just please knock first.)

There are plenty of deconsecrated churches that have been reborn as bars, brewpubs, and other venues where laypeople can partake in a pint or a cocktail. Here are a few standouts, plus a couple that simply celebrate the spirit of drinking in church.

*Yes, I do miss The Limelight, thank you for asking. 

Chapel Bar, New York City

Chapel Bar in New York City

Courtesy of Chapel Bar

If this venue looks somewhat familiar, it may be because you're a member of the international photography society Fotografiska, or because you're an Anna Delvey obsessive and you know that the serial scammer hoped to purchase the former Church Missions House to transform it into an arts space. Sadly, the wire transfer never came through.

Elysian Bar, New Orleans, LA

Fun tidbit: a friend of mine from art school, Ann Marie Auricchio,  painted all the trompe l'oeil at this bar at the Hotel Peter and Paul in New Orleans' Marigny neighborhood. Technically, the bar is in the rectory of the parish (the guest rooms are in the schoolhouse and convent, while the church itself is used as an event space), but I still consider it holy ground.

Pitcher and Piano, Nottingham, England

This former Unitarian Church is part of a chain of Pitcher and Piano pubs around the UK, but likely the only one in the flock with lancet windows and an arched ceiling so high you can practically tickle a cherubim's belly.

Church Bar, Baltimore, MD

Visionary bartender and owner Chelsea Gregoire is a former theologian who believes deeply in the transformative power of community, and that hospitality is "the business of caring for souls." Yes, their lovely new bar gets in on a technicality because the building wasn't formerly a consecrated house of worship (rather a Quaker house), but guests are seated on refinished church pews and Gregoire plans to offer a "fellowship hall" space that nonprofits can book for free, so we will happily extend them some grace. 

The Church Brew Works, Pittsburgh, PA

There's been a microbrew boom across the United States for a goodly long time, and somehow, with the robust tradition of monks making all manner of beers (not to mention spirits like Chartreuse), it seems fitting that this would be the former St. John’s the Baptist higher calling. The church was deconsecrated in 1993, reopened as a brewery in 1996, and in 2001 received a benediction from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation as a significant historic structure.

Taft's Ale House, Cincinnati, OH

St. Paul's Evangelical Church was built in 1850 during the Queen City's brewing boom and starting with its rehabilitation in 2014, finally ascended to its calling as part of Taft Brewing Co.'s constellation of bar and restaurant venues. 

Undercroft Bar, Bentonville. AR

The only thing better than drinking in church is drinking under a church. The apse (another one of those delightful vocab words) of the building serves as the bar for The Preacher's Son restaurant up in the main sanctuary, but a discreetly marked door at the side of the building leads down to the titular undercroft — a fancy word for a church basement — with a serious cocktail  bar that also hosts musical performances and various pop-ups, like a recent circus-themed spectacular.

Church & Union, Charleston, SC

It may have been a bit of divine providence, but the name Church & Union actually comes not from the ecclesiastical structure itself, but from the intersection in Charlotte, North Carolina where its sister bar and restaurant of the same name stands. (There is a third sibling, Church & Union in Atlanta, but only the Charleston outpost is housed in a physical church.) The light streaming through massive stained glass windows transforms happy hour at the bar into something close to ecstasy.

Vessel, New Orleans, LA

Vessel in New Orleans, LA

Vieta Collins / Freret Napoleon

The high-flying ceiling of this former Lutheran church was modeled after a ship's hull and in keeping with NOLA's ethos, you'll never be at sea wondering where your next tipple is coming from, because brunch runs from Wednesday to Sunday. 

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