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Cocktail City: The Manhattan Cocktail Classic Is Already An NYC Tradition

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The Manhattan Cocktail Classic started off as a thrilling and audacious experiment in the fall of 2009 and morphed into a full-fledged event last year. Now that the third Classic has ended, it's hard to imagine Manhattan in May without it. And it's even harder to figure out why someone didn't come up with such a great way to celebrate such a cocktail-mad city long ago.

The five-day extravaganza offered a little something for everyone. For trendy fashionistas who like to make the scene, there was the creative-black tie opening night gala, held in the New York Public Library. All the spirits industry's big guns, from Bacardi to Campari to Tanqueray, as well as newer brands like Compass Box Scotch and Whistlepig Rye, were on hand, along with top bartenders who used them all to whip up some lip-smacking libations. In case mere cocktails weren't enough to sate the partygoers' thirst for excitement, there was music, dancing, aerial acrobats, go-go dancers, caricaturists... everything but a clown twisting balloons into the shape of martini glasses.

All 2,000-plus tickets for the gala sold out in minutes, and as with last year's event, there were plenty of complaints about overcrowding, ridiculously long lines, and not enough food. But for the serious mixologists, historians and geeks in general who wanted to do more than just party, the action was just getting started. For four days, the créme de la créme of the cocktail world gathered in the Big Apple to host seminars and classes on every conceivable aspect of cocktailiana, with drinks relating to the relevant subjects either served up or created by the participants in hands-on lessons.

Wanted to find out how to choose the right glass for your drink? Dale "King Cocktail" DeGroff was on hand to teach you. Interested in learning more about Irish whiskey or rye? Titans of cocktail history Philip Duff and David Wondrich, respectively, were there to guide you. And then there was perhaps the most important seminar of all, "Beyond The Hangover Cure: What To Eat, Drink and Do To Combat Your Boozy Lifestyle." Sadly, I was too busy drinking elsewhere to attend that one.

If you desired a more mellow vibe than the gala but didn't want to get near anything that sounded like a lecture (although how bad can a lecture about cocktails be, especially with drinks provided?), there was "Stories From Behind The Bar," in which proprietors and bartenders from damn near every hot spot worth checking out in NYC spun yarns and served up some of their signature cocktails. Death & Co., Pegu Club, Lani Kai, Clover Club... if you've ever had a cocktail that made you go "Wow!" and/or had it served to you by someone wearing an arm garter, chances are that bar was participating.

And to top it all off, there was a healthy share of (mostly brand-promoted) parties, fetes, gatherings, and plain old excuses to get together with your friends and have some drinks and eats, all for the price of a ticket (most ran $50 -- a bargain, depending on your capacity). And it wasn't like they'd rented out the local burger joint, either. We're talking some of New York's finest eateries and drinkeries -- Eleven Madison Park, Hearth Restaurant, Ward III, and Red Rooster Harlem, to name just a few.

The hub of the action, as with previous Cocktail Classics, was the Astor Center on Lafayette St. Most of the seminars took place there, and when we had downtime, or needed a breather from all the events, or simply wanted an interesting cocktail, we made our way to the large, centrally located bar area, where a rotating gallery of brands and their resident mixologists whipped up a dazzling array of drinks. I must have had at least a dozen different drinks there, but my favorite was the Angostura sour, a simple concoction employing lime juice, simple syrup, an egg white, and far more Angostura bitters than I ever would have considered palatable in a cocktail.

It was impossible for a lone imbiber to comprehensively cover the dozens of events that took place all over Manhattan (and Brooklyn). Therefore, a plan of attack was needed. Here's what I wound up doing:

SATURDAY: Seminars. My favorite part of the MCC. Listening to people who know their cocktails talking about them, while a bunch of fellow enthusiasts and I drink them, is my idea of a damn good time. Tony Abou-Ganim, "The Modern Mixologist," used his "Hands On" seminar to teach us how to properly make martinis, Manhattans, Negronis and other classics, and kept us all laughing in the bargain. He described unrefrigerated olives in a martini as "heat bombs" that give you "an oil slick on top of your drink," and described how to properly stir a cocktail thusly: "Are you hearing Sinatra in your head? Are you picturing Casablanca? Gents, are you wearing a smoking jacket? Ladies, are you wearing an evening gown?"

From there, it was a double dose of David Wondrich, whose writing and research (check out his brilliant book Imbibe! for starters) are awe-inspiring. Up first was a pointy-headed intellectual discussion that turned out to be quite fascinating, about the pros and cons of unearthing and recreating historical cocktail recipes and its effect on modern bartending. At one point, he mentioned the cocktail we'd been served up. "Pretty good, right?" he asked. "What if I was to tell you that this was the original Singapore Sling recipe that was being made in Singapore in 1913? Does it taste better? Well, it kinda does to me." And I must admit I felt the same way. Make of that what you will.

Wondrich's second seminar of the day was "Rye Mania!" sponsored by Michter's, one of the finest makers of rye whiskey around. Rye was America's whiskey of choice before bourbon took over after Prohibition, and it all but disappeared until its recent renaissance in the new millennium. We got the lowdown on the history of rye, how it's distilled, and of course how it tastes, courtesy of a few delicious cocktails.

SUNDAY: Parties. Time to take it easy, relax and imbibe. The afternoon was spent at Eleven Madison Park's "British Invasion" party, where multiple Pimm's Cups and lots of first-rate fish and chips were ingested while a nifty band played Beatles covers. Eleven Mad Park may be my favorite restaurant in the city, and they didn't disappoint. From there, it was on to Campari's "Spirited Fete For The Senses with Padma Lakshmi," at The Box, to celebrate 2011 being the year of the Negroni. Who decided it's the year of the Negroni? I have no idea. But it's a delicious cocktail (made with Campari, of course), and it was a fun party, made even better by Negroni enthusiast Tony Abou-Ganim stepping behind the bar to whip them up for all and sundry.

MONDAY: Miscellaneous. Napoleon had his Waterloo. I had the Indy Spirits Expo. Dozens of distillers, owners and importers of interesting and noteworthy, independently produced spirits -- stuff you don't find behind every bar or on every liquor store shelf. I'd tried some, heard about others, and didn't know a thing about (many) others. And just about all of them looked pretty cool.

Picture the scene: An impressionable spirits reviewer checking out a distiller's booth. "Hi," says the brand rep. "Like to try something?"

"Um, sure, what have you got?"

"Well, we make a gin, a whiskey, and a vodka."

"I'm generally a whiskey guy, so..."

"Then try the vodka first. It's really great, you'll love it."

"I'm not really a big vodka fan."

"Trust me, this doesn't taste like most vodkas. I think it's really interesting. Then check out the gin. And then the whiskey."

"Um... OK...."

Repeat 25 times over the next couple of hours, even with tiny, thimble-sized servings, and you can imagine how I felt by the end. I staggered out of Soiree, where the event was being held, slightly the worse for wear but dazzled by several of the spirits I'd sampled. F'rinstance:

High West, the Utah-based distiller which makes a heck of a rye whiskey, now makes a heck of a bottled, barrel-aged (for four months) Manhattan. I've mocked barrel-aged cocktails as gimmicky in the past, but one taste of this baby, especially side-by-side with its unaged counterpart, converted me.

The Bitter Truth, the German company which helped to spearhead the revolution in cocktail bitters over the last several years, showed off their line of new liqueurs, including a sensational pimento dram and the best créme de violette (essential to making an Aviation) that I've ever tried. Their products finally have American distribution, which should be a major cause for celebration among cocktail lovers all over this great land.

And Sagatiba featured a gorgeous aged cachaça (a sugarcane-based spirit from Brazil, kind of like rum) that belies its reputation as "firewater" only fit for use in caipirinhas.

With head swimming and stomach churning but sense of journalistic obligation intact, I staggered over to not one but two functions. Heering, the makers of the fabulous Cherry Heering liqueur (no Singapore Sling or Blood & Sand is complete without it), hosted a Mad Men-themed event in the building owned by the legendary ad agency (and Sterling Cooper competitors) Ogilvy & Mather. Period music was played, period clothes were worn, and period hors d'oeuvres made the rounds (and let me tell you, those bacon wrapped dates helped to soak up some of the booze), while we sampled new, Heering-based twists on classic cocktails. The winning concoction was a Sour Cherry Heering Sidecar, with cognac and lime juice.

From there it was on to a small, mellow affair at the Andaz Hotel hosted by Tanqueray Gin distiller (and the man who introduced the first "New Western Dry" gin, Tanqueray No. Ten, to the world), Tom Nichols. The cheese and crackers helped sober me up a bit, while the biggest Tanqueray-and-tonics I've ever seen helped compound the problem. I proceeded to stagger home to bed and, if my now-fragile constitution was willing, the final day of the Cocktail Classic in the morning.

TUESDAY: Raise The White Flag. As with 2010's MCC, I failed to pace myself properly and thus missed the last day of the fun. I have a feeling the planners anticipated this, because there weren't nearly as many activities on the calendar. I still regret missing an arepas-and-rum daytime fest at Caracas Arepa Bar, sponsored by Santa Teresa Rum, and (especially) a seminar about the history of distilling in New York City. But for one day, at least, it was good to be a teetotaler.

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic hasn't just grown since 2009, it's exploded; just about every event this year sold out in advance. And even as the participants' internal organs are recovering from this year's fest, planning for 2012 is already underway. So mark your calendars for next May, and start prepping your liver now -- this is one event that's only going to keep getting bigger and better.

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