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The 2014 Manhattan Cocktail Classic Wrap-Up: 1/20 Century Old & Still Going Strong

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Can it really be five years? It seems like yesterday, that night in October 2009 that the Manhattan Cocktail Classic first reared its boozy head for a weekend-long cavalcade of spiritual education and general hijinks. Since then, the MCC has become an established institution in the Big Apple. Not to mention a lot bigger than the inaugural edition, which headquartered at the cozy downtown Astor Center. Along the way, it had some growing pains. A little disorganization here, some overcrowding there, a misguided idea or two sprinkled in, turned a lot of the cocktail hipsterati off. "The MCC is nothing compared to [New Orleans' annual] Tales Of The Cocktail," I've heard way too often.

And that's a shame, because a twentieth of a century after its birth, the Cocktail Classic hums like a recently tuned-up Mercedes. It's expanded from a weekend to four days and one night. And in that time there's more to do and learn and see -- and, of course, drink -- than one human, even with several livers, could possibly hope to experience.

Which hasn't stopped me from trying. Every year I've gone to the MCC and tried to soak up, if you will, as much of the fun as I possibly could, both at the Industry Invitational (exclusively for folks in the booze biz) and the Classic proper, which is open to the public at large. This may not be a comprehensive rundown of every exciting event that took place and every delicious cocktail whipped up at the 2014 MCC. Think of it, rather, as one humble imbiber's attempt to capture a little slice of what makes the Manhattan Cocktail Classic so damn great. (And with all due respect to New Orleans, springtime in the Big Apple is infinitely more pleasant weather-wise than summer in the Big Easy.)



The Opening Night Gala, a "salty black-tie" affair at the Public Library on 42nd St. which kicks off the festivities every year, was for a time the black eye on the MCC's reputation, plagued by overcrowding and a lack of water and food. But no longer. The lines were long and moved quickly, there were plenty of delicious eats ranging from bite-sized sandwiches to booze-flavored cotton candy, and water was plentiful. Oh yeah, there were cocktails, too. Lots of them. And in retrospect it seems like my goal for the evening was to try all of them. I've grown pretty good over the years at remembering that the MCC is a marathon, not a sprint. But restraint went out the window this night, starting with my first cocktail -- a "Fire And Time" featuring Citadelle Réserve barrel-aged gin. What was in it? No idea. It's hard to take notes and drink at the same time.

The memories are hazy, but among the highlights of the night were:

The '20s-style trad jazz band being replaced by Big Boi and Questlove doing their considerably more modern thing in the Grey Goose-sponsored basement lounge. I actually love '20s jazz, but Questlove is pretty fantastic.

The New York Spirits room, which featured close to three dozen distilleries from the Empire State -- old favorites like Tuthilltown Spirits, Breuckelen Distilling Co. and Harvest Spirits (if you haven't tried their applejack, you don't know what you're missing) to newbies like Black Button Distilling, the first legal distillery in Rochester, of all places, since before Prohibition, which makes a very nice wheat vodka.

The Hangar 1 Vodka room, featuring an all-female crew of mixologists in honor of Casey Shoemaker, the brand's female distiller. I'm not a huge vodka fan, but if the great Julie Reiner's mixing up cocktails in there, that's where I'm gonna be.

But the unquestioned highlight of my evening was holding a deviled egg in one hand, a cup of strawberry-rhubarb bourbon ice cream from The Tipsy Scoop in the other, and a lavender Negroni from the Campari booth between my elbow and chest, and wondering, "Am I overdoing it?" The answer, as I learned the next morning, was Yes.

DRINKS CONSUMED: Roughly 25 (meaning a sip or two, not an entire cocktail). Or was it a thousand? Because that's what it felt like.



As morning broke and my head throbbed, I'd realized I'd broken a cardinal sin of MCC reportage: Thou shalt not over-imbibe at the Gala when thou hast four long days of drinking still ahead. I atoned by saying ten Bloody Marys and ten Old Grand-Dads, as well as downing a couple of aspirin with a jumbo-sized glass of water. By the time the Industry Invitational (situated this year at Convene Downtown in the Financial District) was open for business at 11 AM, baby, I was ready.

The Industry Invitational was concocted, I'd guess, to give journalists and other tradespeople a chance to mingle and get a little geeky at seminars, while preventing them from taking all the spots for the more layman-friendly, open-to-the-public events. It caused a lot of grumbling among industry folk when it first appeared a couple of years ago, but the MCC crew now has it down to a science, and it helped make the whole weekend a blast.

Along with the seminars were several tasting rooms, where you could find everything from Blat Vodka, which purports to be the only impurity-free vodka (they claim you don't get hangovers from it -- I'm dubious) to Pitorro "Puerto Rican moonshine" from the Bronx's own Port Morris Distillery. My favorite part of the day -- hell, maybe of the whole MCC -- was smashing a coconut with a mallet and the Coco Jack coconut opener thingy. Fresh coconut milk AND meat, baby! Nearby was Ludlows Cocktail Co's Jelly Shots. Now, I love Jell-O, and I love booze, but I never loved combining the two. Their Planter's Punch, however, may have converted me. Worth trying at least once even for snobbish types.

Other rooms were devoted to particular brands. My favorite was the "House Of Angostura," which not only featured cocktails made with their rums and ubiquitous bitters, but also a selection of tasty treats cooked with Angostura (I'm salivating just thinking about the country ham and biscuits with Angostura glaze).

My first seminar of the day was also devoted to Angostura. OK, "Beyond Bitters... Let's Talk About Rum" wasn't so much a seminar as it was a tasting of their rum line, with Master Distiller John Georges rhapsodizing, "Put your nose to the glass... let the spirit come to you." But hell, if my seminars in college were like that, I wouldn't have cut class nearly as much. (Incidentally, your humble narrator thinks Angostura 1824 rum is one of the best you'll ever try.)

Fun as the Invitational was, I wanted to see what was going on at the "real" MCC. So I headed to the Macao Trading Co. for the legendary Dale DeGroff's event, "I'll Take Manhattans: The History And Origins Of Aromatic Bitters." Dale is one of the fathers of the modern cocktail renaissance; without him, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic may well not exist, and we might all still be drinking vodka tonics. He's quite the raconteur, and his stories of moving to the city in the late '60s and seeing all the great old jazz and blues musicians while they still walked among us had me spellbound. His dissertation on bitters was fascinating as well; he walked us through a tasting of several brands, including his own Pimento Bitters as well as the newly re-launched Abbott's. We tried them on their own and in Manhattans. We were invited to stick around for more drinks after, but I'd learned my lesson from the night before and "No" came surprisingly easy.

Besides, I had another event to attend. A 20 minute walk away was "An Astor Affair: Spirits Tasting & Cocktail Making," featuring Utah's whiskey visionary (and founder of the High West Distillery and Saloon) David Perkins. High West is one of the few brands that bottles and sells barrel-aged cocktails; they make a Manhattan and a Boulevardier. Our mission was to make our own un-aged Manhattans and Boulevardiers (under adult supervision, of course) and then compare them against the barrel-aged versions. And let me tell ya, there really is a difference. Is the barrel-aged better? Not necessarily, but it's definitely richer, thicker, a little more chocolatey... a fascinating A-B to back-and-forth with.

Before and after the cocktail-making, there was a sampling of some pretty impressive spirits, including Bittermens Liqueurs (the gentian was insane) and Barr Hill Gin, a surprisingly complex gin even though it's made with only juniper and raw honey. And if you were lucky enough to be in proximity to Professor Perkins, you got to taste a couple of yet-to-be-released High West bottlings. I'm not at liberty to say anything about them... except that they're tasty.

Having been drinking for the better part of eight hours by this point, I was most pleased with myself for remaining not only upright, but reasonably coherent. Ah, but there were still three days -- and many cocktails -- to go....


EVENT I WISH I'D ATTENDED: "Midnight Classic Cocktails & Peking Duck at Redfarm's Decoy." I mean, how could this have been bad? Alas, by midnight I had long since hit my sell-by date.



I am not merely a drinker of liquor, I am also a student of the stuff -- in spiritual training, as it were. So this day was devoted to, um, education. Three seminars, some with quite fancy and scientific names, along with judicious sampling in the various tasting rooms, would make me a virtual Ph.D of Alcoholic Studies by day's end. Instead, I witnessed big blocks of ice getting smashed, a musical work-in-progress, and one of the most insane things ever uttered by a spirits brand ambassador. But damn, did I have fun.

The day kicked of with "The Art Of Ice and Tastes of Ginger Beer as Featured in SAVEUR Drink" {Saveur mag's new booze-centric spinoff], by the one and only Camper English of Alcademics fame. Camper is a man who takes his spirits, and the things that pair with them, very seriously, but thankfully he doesn't seem to take himself seriously at all. The result was an educational and highly entertaining seminar that didn't make us feel like we were in school. We got to try ginger beer cocktails with various different brands (Fever Tree is sweet and refreshing; Fentiman's drier and more "mature"), and we got to watch Dr. English smash large blocks of ice into smaller blocks of ice, and then smash those smaller blocks into still smaller blocks, bending his icepick in the process, while keeping a highly entertaining running commentary going the whole time.

A quick spin through the walk-around tasting room brought me face to face with the unstoppable Jack From Brooklyn, maker of Sorel liqueur, whose mission at every MCC seems to be getting me wasted. He failed this time, but he did serve up the best cocktail I had at the entire Classic -- the Bang Bang, which included Sorel, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, and habanero shrub bitters, to name a few. Smoky! Spicy! Sweet! Stunning! And available at Infirmary on the Upper East Side if you care to try it for yourself.

Seminar #2 was the rather dry-sounding "The Science Of Mixology, Part 3: Ethyl and Other Alcohols," presented by Anthony Caporale and his three sidekicks. I was ready to get all geeky, and in fact I did learn quite a bit about alcohol, how it's made, and why it's saved civilization's ass many a time over the millennia. What I wasn't prepared for was the singing (in perfect four-part harmony!) and comedy bits while the crew actually distilled alcohol, live on stage, and did other cool things like making liquid boil and freeze at the same time. Turns out the seminar was a dry run for a musical to be presented at this year's New York Fringe Festival called "The Imbible." Amen, brother. An absolute must-see.

Then it was back to the tasting room, where after much oohing, ahhing and agonizing, I dropped a nice chunk of change on a bottle of 100-proof I.W. Harper Bourbon. But Tony, the more shopworn whiskeyphiles of you might say, that hasn't been made in decades. Exactly! I picked it up at the Old Spirits Company booth, which had a treasure trove of old and rare gins, whiskeys, liqueurs and more dating from the '30s to the '80s. Old Spirits founder Edgar Harden was also passing out samples of a Negroni made entirely with spirits from the '60s. It may have been from a plastic cup, but still, to have my liver processing authentic Mad Men-era booze was pretty cool. Tasted delicious, too.

Seminar #3 was the promisingly named "The Martini: The World's Most Personal Drink," sponsored by... Grey Goose? Wait, no gin? Would the 'tini's history be rewritten to exclude all before the first time someone thought to pour olive brine into superpremium vodka? Thankfully, no. Instead, we got a quick and thorough hour-long tour through the tangled and convoluted history of the martini, starting with its barely recognizable mid-19th century origins as the Martinez and more or less going through to the present day. All was well until the summing-up, when the Grey Goose brand ambassador said the following (it's not an exact quote, but it's close enough): "A martini is basically a spirit, gin or vodka; a sweetener -- usually vermouth, but you can switch out gum syrup or anything else; sometimes bitters, and a garnish." Wait, what?!?! I'd love it if someone could prove I didn't dream or hallucinate that italicized bit about the gum syrup. Until then, Grey Goose... oh dear.... excuse me while I go fix a Manhattan with Mountain Dew instead of whiskey.


EVENT I WISH I'D ATTENDED: The World's Largest Hand Muddled Caiprinha, sponsored by Leblon Cachaça. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But I do love a good caipirinha, not to mention the original cachaça cocktails whipped up by ten of NYC's finest bartenders.



I awoke Monday morning feeling surprisingly not-terrible considering I'd been drinking pretty steadily since Friday night. This was a good thing, because Monday was another action-packed day, with three events on my dance card. I kicked things off at Madam Geneva with "The Negroni Family Tree," sponsored by Campari and Bulldog Gin and featuring the Negroni's biggest booster, the brilliant, witty and always-entertaining Gaz Regan. Gaz has made quite a stir in recent years with his "finger-stirred Negroni," which is exactly what it sounds like (the Negroni, in case you don't know, is equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth). Quoth the great Gaz, "It's a lot easier to be known for your finger-stirred Negronis than for your mai tais." He admitted at the beginning of the shindig that "I'm hung over as all hell," but you wouldn't have known it from his sparkling and often hilarious repartee.

We got to learn about, and sample, various Negroni variations ranging from the Americano (the precursor to the Negroni, with soda in place of gin) to the Old Pal (with Canadian whisky subbing for gin) to more modern variations like the Chocolate Negroni (the classic plus creme de cacao and chocolate bitters) with orange "air," aka foam. Chef Brian Yurko of Saxon & Parole then proceeded to dazzle us with his future-is-now interpretations of the old classic -- Negroni marshmallows, caviar, even breadsticks (which admittedly got a little soggy in the humid weather but were still pretty amazing). As Gaz says, "No matter what proportions you use, it's a well-balanced drink." Even if the drink is a marshmallow.

After a quick restorative nap it was on to the Park Avenue Tavern for "Toasting The Town Presents Whistling Through History." The "event" was basically an open bar with WhistlePig rye and the Sonoma County Distilling Co's little known (at least on the East Coast) but very fine line of whiskeys. Now, I'm not one to turn my nose up at a good whiskey, and Toasting The Town is a most noble endeavor (seriously, click that link and check it out!). But an open bar with a couple of short speeches drowned out by i-banker boozehounds doth not a great event make. So in short order I hightailed it to the Nat Sherman store a couple of blocks away for "Oak & Smoke," a cigars-whiskey-and-bubbly fest featuring Hillrock Distillery's excellent booze and Freixenet's very fine Cava. Oh yeah, and some damn good stogies, too.

Hillrock master distiller Dave Pickerell, a titan of the industry who's also known for his work with WhistlePig and Maker's Mark, was pouring libations in the basement lounge, and the laughs and good times flowed as effortlessly as the booze flowed down my throat. I left only after I was informed by Redemption Rye's Dave Schmier that I was turning green. I don't normally smoke cigars, and perhaps that's the reason why. I staggered home smelling like... well, like I'd imagine most men smelled after a night on the town, circa 1950. I craved a steak but settled for the sushi my wife had thoughtfully ordered for me.

Three days and one night in the books. One extravaganza to go.

DRINKS CONSUMED: Somewhere between 12 and 15; the memories are hazy.

EVENT I WISH I'D ATTENDED: "The Most Utterly Peculiar Garnish Challenge Invitational" at Extra Fancy. Because it basically sounded like an excuse for a bunch of bartenders and the bartendees who love them to get sloshed on Hendrick's Gin cocktails. With funny garnishes, natch.



I awoke on Tuesday expecting to feel the effects of all the cigar smoke and booze in the form of a freight train studded with assorted sharp knives rumbling through my cranium. Shockingly, I felt fine. Perhaps it was the bottle of Botan (a new plant-based protein drink made mainly from peas; I think "Drink Your Pea" would be a fantastic slogan) I quaffed before bedtime. Maybe my liver was getting more efficient at processing all the toxins I'd been pouring into it for the last few days. Maybe I was simply exercising moderation... no, that definitely wasn't it.

Regardless, I was in relatively good shape for the Grand Finale, the Big Kahuna, Le Grand Orange, if you will, that would close the book on the MCC in style. I'm talking about the Indie Spirits Expo, one of my favorite booze events of the year, in which way too many distillers and distributors are crammed, with their wares, into the Penn Club on West 44th St. Last year the warm spring weather and inadequate air conditioning combined to damn near kill me, but this day was a little cooler and the sweating was kept to reasonable levels.

"Indie" doesn't mean a room full of hipsters making moonshine in their basements -- it's merely companies that aren't owned by Diageo, Bacardi or any of the other boozy big boys. So Clement, makers of some of Martinique's finest rhums agricole, was a couple of tables away from Jersey Artisan Distilling, New Jersey's oldest currently operating distillery. In fact, I think it's the only one currently up and running in the Garden State. Anyway, their Busted Barrel rum is surprisingly good.

Some highlights of the Expo included the Beer Barrel Bourbon and Hatter Royale Hopped Whiskey from the folks at New Holland Brewing, who do a bang-up job of combining their love of both beer and spirits and turning it into something distinctive and delicious; a sampling of the little-known but mucho-tasty Benromach Speyside single malt line from Classic Imports; and the French oak/cognac barrel aged Brenne Whisky, maybe the most delicate and lovely whisky you'll ever drink, courtesy of the slightly insane-and-I-mean-that-in-a-good-way Allison Patel.

There was more, much more, to be sampled, tasted and drunk outright at this swingin' shindig, and I'd love to tell you about some of them. But by the time I'd made half a circuit around the room, I was already three sheets to the wind. Make it four. OK, 4.7. Pacing one's self is everything when you're in a room full of booze.

DRINKS CONSUMED: Near as I can tell... 14? Perhaps "a lot" will suffice.

THE TAKEAWAY: At this stage in the ongoing cocktail renaissance, it's harder and harder to find drinks or spirits that are totally new, completely groundbreaking, utterly unheard-of. A few days after the MCC folded its tent for another year, I was asked by a bartender friend if I'd tried anything that completely blew my mind. And to tell the truth, I'm not sure I really did.

But I don't know if that's the point anymore. Maybe reinventing the wheel as a goal has been replaced by making better, higher-quality wheels. And in that respect, this Manhattan Cocktail Classic may have been the most satisfying one of all. Here's to the next 1/20th century!