Like a plague of locusts or an army of Huns, the cocktailian hordes descended on New York City on May 11 -- bar owners, mixologists, distillers, publicists, writers, and plain old fans of a boozy good time -- for the fourth annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Four nights later, a city rested its collective throbbing head, bloated stomach and overworked liver, as we attempted to recover from one hell of a good time.
Since its inception in 2009, the Cocktail Classic has exploded in both size and breadth. Anyone who couldn't find at least a few parties or seminars or competitions worth attending simply wasn't trying. Whether you were a cocktail geek looking for a good seminar about ice or a hedonist looking to get plowed, the Cocktail Classic had something for everyone. Well, besides teetotalers.
Given that there were at least a half-dozen events going on at any one time in both Manhattan and Brooklyn during the four days of the Classic, I cannot give a comprehensive accounting of the whole shebang. I can only offer my own account of a journey through overindulgence -- one that, for me, actually began a few days before the proper Classic got underway. Enterprising publicists, distillers and brand managers figured they'd better get some tastings in before everyone's schedule got totally crammed. So by the time things got rolling on Friday night, I'd already sampled Balblair Single Malt's line of vintage whiskies (if you can afford it, try a dram of the soon-to-be-released 1969 vintage; if you can't, the 1989 will do in a pinch); checked out a top-secret, not-out-until-next-year bottling of Ron Abuelo rum (delicious); and tried the eats and drinks at JBird, a tremendous new bar/restaurant on East 75th that's launched the first salvo against the pubs and frat-boy bars that populate the Upper East Side.
I took Thursday night off to sip herbal tea and pacify my liver with cool thoughts, preparing myself for Friday night's Gala at the Public Library on 42nd & 5th, the now-traditional kickoff to the Classic. The Gala has been the Classic's Achilles heel the last couple of years -- overcrowded, hot, loud, not enough food or water, and long crushing lines for cocktails. As a result, a lot of industry pros and Cocktail Classic veterans simply took the night off this year. "Who are all these tall, attractive and well-coiffed strangers?" I thought as I looked in vain for my compadres. They missed a fun time, as a lot of the kinks have been worked out. The line to get in was long, but it moved quickly. Food and water were readily available throughout the night. The library was crowded, but not uncomfortably so.
Unable to find my friends, I inhaled shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell, and also sampled approximately 473 cocktails>. Most notable were the brilliant Negronis and variations thereof created for Campari by the great Allen Katz of The Shanty/New York Distilling Co. fame, using his own Dorothy Parker and Perry's Tot gins. After that, I was a ravenous, cocktail-swilling beast on the rampage, often two-fisting when the temptation proved irresistible. But when I found myself simultaneously drinking a Caribbean Punch made with Appleton Estate rum and eating a popsicle made with Patron tequila, I knew it was time to go home.
The Gala was fun, but let's face it, for serious cocktail nerds, it was amateur night. The real Manhattan Cocktail Classic got underway on Saturday morning with the kickoff of the seminars, lectures and demonstrations which, for me, make the Classic so much more than just an excuse to drink. What follows is a brief synopsis of what I did, where I did it and how much I consumed during the four of the most enjoyable days of this New Yorker's year.
SATURDAY: Showed up relatively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (considering all I'd had to drink at the Gala) for my first seminar of the Classic -- "Do Not Resuscitate: A Dozen (Terrible) Classic Cocktails That Should Never Be Resurrected." With a ridiculously talented and witty panel including luminaries like "King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff, author/historian David Wondrich, Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders, her husband Robert "Drinkboy" Hess, Tanqueray Global Ambassador Angus Winchester and moderator Philip Duff, this was probably the highlight of the whole damn Classic for me. Cocktails as historic as the Martinez and as trendy as the Pickleback were dissed and dismissed in enthusiastic, raucous and often hilarious fashion. Of one cocktail, the Holland Razor Blade, Philip Duff said, "I've had people tell me this is their favorite cocktail. That's like saying you like riding a T. Rex to work. It's not possible, and it couldn't be very pleasant."
Next up was a restorative brunch (all dishes made using Angostura Bitters, a brand which helped sponsor the Classic) and a Bloody Mary (also with Angostura, natch) at the media HQ/hangout in the swanky Andaz Hotel in midtown. Then it was off to the spectacular new hotel the NoMad, on 28th & Broadway. "The Second Annual British Invasion," was a Limey-themed rooftop fete featuring fish & chips and Brit-themed cocktails created by NoMad's own Leo Robitschek -- perhaps my favorite tender of bar in NYC -- and his crack staff, many of whom are vets of the brilliant Eleven Madison Park (with which the NoMad is associated). Sunshine, food, drink, a bluegrass-y band playing '60s British rock classics... the cocktail gods were truly smiling on us.
After a non-Classic event at the W Hotel on Union Square (the NYC pop-up of the soon-to-be-opening New Orleans joint SoBou, featuring delicious cocktails from NYC-to-N'walinz transplant Abigail Gullo), I was shot. I went home to recuperate, and to prepare for the next three days. A properly executed Cocktail Classic has to be methodically planned out, after all. Drink everything you see and you'll miss the last couple of days in the hospital.
Total cocktails consumed (in part, at least -- only a fool or someone with a death wish would finish all of them): 7
Coolest event I missed: The "Gentlemen's Cocktail Crawl" (for ladies as well, of course), two of which took place and moved either north or south through Manhattan, stopping at more than a dozen of the finest hotel bars the city has to offer. I'm sorry I didn't go, but my liver isn't.
SUNDAY: Slept in and hydrated mightily before my first event, "Barrel Aging Cocktails," at The Beagle, a worthy year-old addition to the many fine hooch houses the East Village has to offer (the food is really good, too). Bar manager Dan Greenbaum, owner Matt Piacentini and head bartender Tom Richter wowed us with cocktails they've been barrel-aging themselves. It's truly mind-blowing how much a martini, for instance, can evolve if you put it in wood for a few weeks. The high notes are toned down, but it becomes richer and deeper, and the different flavors are more unified. The Beagle crew is the first to admit they're just experimenting -- as Dan said, "When we're putting $500 worth of booze into a barrel, we're rolling the dice" -- but so far the experiment is paying off. And I'm thrilled that barrel-aged cocktails now seem to be more trendy than bacon-infused cocktails.
After an hour break, it was off to Vandaag, which is helping to make Dutch food and drink hip in NYC, for "An American In Holland: Inspired Food & Cocktail Pairings." The event was sponsored by Aviation Gin, one of the relatively few "New Western Drys" (meaning gin with other dominant flavors besides juniper) worth drinking. We were dazzled -- and, in my case, physically overwhelmed -- by a six-course extravaganza, with a gin cocktail to match each course. My favorite of the drinks was the Lady Sage, a smooth, frothy concoction with egg whites and a sage leaf on top, paired with succulent lamb's neck.
The affair wrapped up by 6:30, by which time I was completely shot -- all that food and (especially) booze had left me a bloated, woozy shell of a man. I made a mental note to myself to never eat or drink anything again once the Classic was over, as I shuffled miserably toward the subway. Two days to go....
Total cocktails consumed: 10
Coolest event I missed; "Campari's Count Negroni Birthday Bash," a star-studded tribute to the fella behind one of the classiest cocktails on the planet (equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth - yum), at Williamsburg's own The Shanty, featuring Gaz Regan, Tony Abou-Ganim, Allen Katz, and other cocktail geniuses on whom I would have thrown up and passed out had I been there.
MONDAY: A day older and incrementally wiser, I decided to take it easy, keeping my activities, for the most part, on the mellow side. No wild parties, no bartender competitions, no morning drinkfests. I would make this a day of academic pursuits. Hence, I got the blood pumping with the dry-sounding but actually very cool "Filtration In Spirits" seminar, hosted by spirits/cocktails writer and consultant Camper English and Aaron Polsky of the tiny downtown drink haven Amor y Amargo. We got to drink a variation on the Last Word cocktail made with Don Julio 70 tequila and lime juice that had been clarified in a centrifuge. We also sampled four glasses of the same (lousy) vodka, two of which had been filtered through a Brita filter and two of which hadn't. They all tasted pretty rancid, but I was quite proud of myself for correctly picking the two filtered ones. English's lecture on the history and methods of filtration was damned interesting, too.
From there, it was on to Lantern's Keep, a tiny but nifty bar in the Hotel Iroquois, for "Checking In: Hotel Bars Past & Present," with LK's head bartender, Theo Lieberman, and Meghan Dorman, head bartender at Raines Law Room (not a hotel bar, but a fine watering hole nonetheless). Both Theo and Meghan look like they're about 12, and they both talk the way 12-year-olds do? Like, phrasing declarative sentences as if they're questions? But they're well-versed in cocktail history past and present, they know their way around a Boston shaker, and the three cocktails they gave us were delicious? I mean, um, they were delicious. As were the hors d'oeuvres. Hotel bars are often dismissed by the hipster contingent of the cocktail crowd, but bars like Lantern's Keep, Bemelmans at the Carlyle, and the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis are not to be missed.
I had a few hours to dry out, followed by a quick lecture, "The End Of Prohibition," during which, in honor of both Prohibition and my liver, I went cocktail-free. My evening was occupied by "The Darkest Night: Bowmore's Evening At The McKittrick Hotel Featuring A Performance Of Sleep No More." In case you're wondering what Sleep No More is, it's this. If you can't be bothered to click the link, just know it's a really interesting, participatory piece of theater. Most of which went over my head -- let's just say there was an orgy, complete with strobe lights, which I managed to totally miss. But that's OK, because there was a great post-show party featuring a punch created by Master of All Things Punch, David Wondrich -- who was also there to serve it. And since Bowmore Single Malt Whisky sponsored the event, there was plenty of that, too. Try a drop of an Islay malt on an oyster next time you're having them on the half shell. It's quite the experience.
I headed home a little punchy (pun intended) but feeling surprisingly good. I was prepared to do something I'd never done in the brief history of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic -- not miss a day of it because I'd had too much the night before. Either I was getting smarter or my tolerance was getting greater. Or both.
Total cocktails consumed: 7
Coolest event I missed: "Urban Tiki, Redefined," sponsored by Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum and featuring the staff of PKNY, which along with Lani Kai is making Manhattan safe for tiki cocktails for the first time since short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump closed the legendary Trader Vic's back in the '80s.
TUESDAY: If the Manhattan Cocktail Classic is a marathon, the Indie Spirits Expo, held at the back end of the festival, is like running the last mile up a sheer cliff with 25-pound weights tied around your ankles. It's pretty much a big room filled with hundreds of different spirits, made by dozens of different distilleries from all over the US (and some international ones as well). Some are pretty well established, some are tiny start-ups, and all of them want you to try all their different brands. And most of them are so friendly and disarming that it's really, really hard to say no to someone's four different flavored vodkas, even when all you're really interested in is their bourbon. So for three hours, you -- I -- walk around, chat, and drink. And drink. And drink some more.
It's partly a research expedition, in which I discover brands that make for good drinking and good blog subject matter for the rest of the year. It's partly a cocktail party, in which I get to geek out with distillers who want nothing more than to banter about the history and technical details of the stuff they're pouring for me. And frankly, I suppose it's partly sheer gluttony. But I made some new friends (shout-outs to Few Spirits, St. George Spirits and Death's Door!), reconnected with some old friends (hey, Harvest Spirits!) and generally had a damned fine time. The presence of food and water for the first time helped matters immensely -- I stuffed my face and guzzled the water in a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to stay sober. But at least I felt better than I usually do at the end of the proceedings.
Total cocktails consumed: Technically, none, because I only drank unmixed spirits. But if you add up the little plastic cups of booze... well, it was a lot.
Coolest event I missed: The Anti-Gala, an end-of-MCC celebration open to anyone with a VIP Festival Pass, at Hudson Terrace. As far as I can figure, not a soul showed up -- we were all pretty burned out by Tuesday night. (Although I still managed to rouse myself for a Wednesday afternoon tasting of the impossibly rare Bowmore 1964 Vintage whisky, only 72 bottles of which will be available worldwide. If every one of my internal organs had been excised save my tongue, I still would have found a way to make it for that. And believe me, it was worth it.)
In the end, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic isn't about quantity as much as quality -- how much one drinks is far less important than how much one learns. It's impossible to participate in such an endeavor without coming away from it knowing more about cocktails and spirits than when you started. And that's what makes the whole endeavor so much more than one big five-day party. Since the Classic's inception three short years ago, so many more people have come to really care about what they're drinking and how those drinks are made. The MCC is both a reflection of that thirst for knowledge and a pace-setter in getting people to take cocktails more seriously, while still having fun. And while I miss the Classic's relatively humble beginnings, if it helps more people distinguish good cocktails from bad, then I'm happy to see it keep growing. See you next May!