Eric Strauss
The Bacardi Room featured burlesque characters from the imagination of Shanghai Mermaid impresario Juliette Campbell.
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Cocktail Confab

Jeffery Lindenmuth / December 2010

Mixologists from across the country gathered for a first-time Big Apple celebration of the art of the drink. Jeffrey Lindenmuth trails the revelers from fête to seminar and back again.

The official description "part festival, part fête, part conference, part cocktail party" cannot do justice to the gala launch of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic this past May. Four floors of The New York Public Library filled with bedecked imbibers, each marble hall and oak-paneled enclave revealing another scene of cocktail history—or fantasy. Oompa Loompas proffered Cointreau and rock candy to fuel the energy of the evening, while Veev Açai Liqueur claimed the geek ground with a DIY apothecary table including herbs and egg whites; Belvedere Vodka created a swanky lounge to showcase its new grapefruit flavor, and Diageo served Don Julio and Tanqueray No. 10 cocktails in a re-creation of New York City's legendary The Stork Club, although few were of the age, or mind, to debate its authenticity. For the gala alone, 137 types of spirits and wine met the shaker in the presence of 2,500 revelers, collectively downing 25,000 drinks. You do the math.

But the waning sounds of burlesque and ragtime tunes, the final serving of classic Negroni and Royal Punch, signaled only the start of this five day city-wide celebration of the cocktail, the first of its kind in New York City. It was now time to get down to business, with 32 educational seminars taking place in lower Manhattan's Astor Center, the location of the official event bar and domain of event founder and director Lesley Townsend. Bryan Dayton, owner of Oak at 14th in Boulder, Colorado, sipped Tequila and a hearty shot of inspiration as Steve Olson, educator and director of aka wine geek, and Phil Ward of New York City's Mayahuel led The Agave Session: The Magical Elixirs of Mexico. "I've created drinks with mezcal before, like the Smoky Beet, which uses fresh beet juice, orange juice, Grand Marnier, and mezcal in sort of a nuevo Bloody Mary. But sometimes, you can become disenchanted with a spirit like mezcal, because it presents an obstacle for people. It takes someone with knowledge and passion, like Ward, to get you jazzed about using it and educating customers again," says Dayton. "In the past, I've had success mixing mezcal with apple flavors, and spices like cardamom and cinnamon, but I think I'm also going to be looking at more root vegetables for fall, maybe going lighter and using beets in a foam."

Ricky Gomez of Teardrop Cocktail Lounge in Portland, Oregon, relished the seminar Cocktail Trends: Sherry, Sherry Everywhere! hosted by Olsen and top mixologists Jacques Bezuidenhout, a San Francisco–based consultant; Giuseppe Gonzalez from Dutch Kills in Long Island City, New York; Neyah White from NOPA in San Francisco; and Charles Joly of The Drawing Room in Chicago. "Sherry is really interesting as a cocktail ingredient, both in its flavor and because I find it's ignored by a lot of new mixologists," says Gomez, who enjoys combining Sherry with sweetened vinegar, a take on the colonial American shrub, traditionally a combination of fresh fruit and vinegar enjoyed as a summer beverage. His Infinite Jest is a formidable rendition made with Old Weller Bourbon, Lustau PX Sherry, Chartreuse, and homemade blood orange shrub and bitters. "PX is my favorite style of Sherry to mix with. I'm using it in the summer because it can work in tropical drinks, but it's appropriate for any season and it always appears in my drinks for late fall and winter," he explains.

While many bartenders unwittingly tinker in the tradition of shrubs, adding the acidity of trendy balsamic vinegar in their fruity cocktails, Gomez prefers homemade vinegar in the style of four thieves—the legendary infusion of thyme, rosemary, sage, and lavender embraced long ago as an antibubonic in Europe.

Jeff Grdinich, bar manager of White Mountain Cider Co. in Glen, New Hampshire, is a slightly reticent expert in apple flavors, spirits like Calvados and Apple Jack, as you might expect: "Apples are part of fall, but our idea is to not beat people over the head with them. Our shift toward seasonality is more subtle, maybe moving from the lighter style Dolan vermouth to Carpano Antica, from blanco Tequilas to reposado styles." For those looking to put some distance between their apple cocktails and the sour apple Martini crowd, Grdinich suggests that Chartreuse, the pine cone–infused Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur, and smoky Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal make sophisticated complements for apple spirits.

During the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Grdinich teamed with Don Lee and John Deragon, a beverage manager at New York City's PDT, to batch drinks for the seminars at Astor Center. Here, Grdinich handled an unprecedented diversity of spirits, reaching well beyond the big spirits sponsors of other cocktail events. "It's a trend supported by the growing number of micro distillers, and also by bartenders learning more about the products, learning to taste blind, to trust their impressions, and be very specific about their spirits," says Grdinich.

Tiny distillers and boutique products starred throughout the five days, whether at Micro Spirits Odyssey: New York Craft Distillers Guild—Spirits Are the Next Big Artisanal Farm Product, held at Butter restaurant or Into the Mystic: A Tasting of the Rare, Forthcoming & Experimental, organized by Eric Seed, importer of the Haus Alpenz portfolio, and hosted at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. Here, bartenders sipped such rarities as Hayman's Old Tom Gin with big juniper flavor and a lingering touch of sweetness, Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette, an essential for the original Aviation cocktail, and the elusive Cocchi Barolo Chinato, with infusions of quinine bark, rhubarb, and spices.

Tona Palomino, bar manager for WD-50, made the rounds, permitting his palate free association with each new flavor: "I wouldn't say that the classic repertoire of spirits is exhausted, but I approach the bar like our chefs in the kitchen, always in search of a new ingredient, flavor, or inspiration. The people who are here are hand-picked, and you can bet they're all walking away with creative ideas and a Christmas wish list of these unusual products."

On Palomino's list: Damson Gin from New York distillers D.H. Krahn, which he says is light with bright berry flavors. "I immediately thought of sake when I tasted this product. It's light and delicate and will be very pretty in a Martini-style drink or in a lightly carbonated cocktail that showcases the flavors."

Other top picks include Redemption Rye, which includes 95 percent rye, far in excess of the required minimum 51 percent, heightening the grain's unmistakably bold, spicy, bready notes; Bonal Gentiane-Quina, a classic bitter that Palomino says he'll likely pair with Pisco for a fall cocktail; and a rare American rendition of shochu, the distilled sake spirit, from Portland, Oregon's House Spirits Distillery.

David Wondrich, James Beard Award–winning author of Imbibe! and of the forthcoming Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, was on hand at the gala to personally ladle his Punch Royal, a theme which he reprised for his Drink Punch and Be Merry seminar. Erick Castro, formerly of San Francisco's Rickhouse and now West Coast Ambassador for Plymouth and Beefeater Gins, who assisted with the seminar, says punches are still widely underutilized by the industry. Rickhouse frequently has a dozen punch bowls being consumed at any given time, whether a classic Pisco Punch or an original like Honey Spiced Punch, combining Leblon Cachaça, Appleton Estate V/X, Velvet Falernum, lemon juice, honey syrup, Angostura bitters, cinnamon, and orange slices.

"I'm a big believer in communal anything," says Castro. "The punch bowl evokes sitting down for dinner with your family or friends." It has advantages for the bar owner as well. It not only relocates patrons from the crowded bar to a table, but Castro says he can make a punch bowl "in about the same time it takes to make a single Sazerac." Wondrich advises would-be punch makers: "To me, the best punches in general are simple, not cloying, not too strong, concentrated, or highly spiced." While it certainly lived up to its "classic" monikor, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic provided plenty of inspiration, innovation, and glimpses of the future, layering ideas, techniques, and products—ancient and modern—into a five day–long everlasting gobstopper of cocktail culture.