THE BLOG
05/28/2010 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Room for all at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic swept into town like a tidal wave when 2500 revelers, dressed to kill, swayed through the New York Public Library the other week, sipping, laughing, and hugging each other until the last Luxardo cherry had been speared and the last glass fell to the floor. It was an amazing event -- the kind of party where you'd have accepted anything, the kind of party where you'd have said "oh, of course, now is the time when the elephants march." Not that I saw any of those. There was a pair of Oompa Loompas, a regal lady whose dress turned into a bar, jazz bands, Mario Batali, top hats, DJs, cleavage, and a funk band. Behind the bars -- there were many -- were excellent bartenders shaking and stirring. Can other events fill a space in Manhattan with a couple of thousand revelers? Yes. Can they fill that space with enough real, good bartenders to produce excellent, individually made cocktails? No. That distinction belongs exclusively to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. I've never seen anything like it.

The doors kicked down, the Classic rolled on. The tweets cascaded, mostly along the lines of: "Just off finished Three Hour Tour, Headed to Death & Co."

There were seminars on spices in cocktails, vermouth, and reservation-only seatings at top-notch bars throughout the city. On Sunday I sat on a panel with NASCAR racing legend and former bootlegger Junior Johnson and egged him on for moonshine stories, celebrating his (now legit) brand of white lightning.

Of course, as wonderful as all this is, it can get a little stifling. There's a lot trilbies, go-go boots, and tattoo sleeves. There's a lot of insider excitement about brands no one has ever heard of, tinctures no one will ever buy, and rumors that may never be validated.

So it was with great relief that I landed at John Henry's seminar at Ducale restaurant (79th and Columbus): "Cocktails at Home."

Ducale is understated and elegant, soft, well lit, and perfectly quiet. The menu looks excellent and the small plate pizzas they sent around to the guests in the upstairs bar were tasty.

Mr. Henry paced in front of a small group of eager students, and whipped them in to shape. "Squeeze your juices!" he cried, "the fresher the better!" Then he showed them how. One student won accolades for standing up to put some real elbow grease into the squeezing of a lime.

In a world where the recipe for a Vieux Carre (1 ounce rye whiskey, 1 ounce Cognac, 1 ounce sweet vermouth, 1 teaspoon Bénédictine D.O.M., 2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters, 2 dashes Angostura Bitters) is taken for granted, it was incredibly refreshing to see an expert teaching people to make a Tom Collins, teaching them how to make simple syrup, showing them how to slice limes so that they make pretty garnishes, and tossing off bits of Dale Degroff-inspired wisdom such as the fact that warm lemons and limes yield more juice than cold ones.

This is the mission, after all, of Mr. Henry's co-host Michele Buchanan, who keeps a blog titled "The Cocktail Hour."

"You can make good cocktails for your guests," she said. "All it takes is some strategic planning. It's only four ingredients, there's more than that on a hot dog." She writes, she said, "for people from Altoona, Pennsylvania." That's where her parents live, and she wants them to know that "they can entertain, they can do something special for their guests." It's a great mission. She digressed at one point to explain that her greatest inspiration for entering the cocktail world came not from some esoteric line of aromatic bitters, but from a Fourth of July party, to which she'd brought a jug of homemade lemonade. People were amazed, she said, at how good it was. They wondered where she'd bought it.

Events like the Manhattan Cocktail Classic often forget to be inclusive. One can feel as if the entire world was weaned on Pegu Club cocktails. It takes guts to bring it back home. It takes guts to talk about lemonade.

Later, as I sipped the ultimate insider combo of Fernet Branca and Pabst Blue Ribbon at the wrap party (get it? it's the end of the shift, we've all clocked out, this is our shift drink) hosted by Macao Trading Company, I wondered at the inclusivity. Here again were the handlebar mustaches and the vests, but the Classic, on the whole, had managed to be amiable and open. That's downright hospitable. That's a job well done.