The Manhattan Cocktail Classic is over. Part of me wants to shout for joy (my liver and my feet mainly), but there was a bit of bittersweet quotient as the last out-of-towners rolled up their bartending kits and the Astor Center served its last stirred concoction. Looking back at the inaugural MCC, I feel it’s got strong legs and a good heart for a drinking event. There were a few growing pains in this first festival — held May 14-18 — but all in all, we learned, networked, sipped and soiree’d to our utmost content. Let me fill you in on what I saw.
The event began with a bang on Friday, May 14, thanks to the opening the event with the Gala at the New York Public Library. Many of us experienced a smaller version during a preview for MCC put on last October, but that was nothing compared to the evening this May. More than 2,000 people purchased tickets and black tie attire. Consumers mingled with industry leaders, as brands from Bacardi to Hennessy to Beefeater 24 called to passersby from elaborate bar stations throughout the venue. A soul/funk band on the first floor caught the attention of many, but my favorite spot during the Gala was downstairs in the Diageo-sponsored Stork Club. Maybe it was the air-conditioning that seemed to be absent in other levels or maybe it was the carpet (I was rocking 6-inch heels), but I like to think it was one of my favorite bartenders Leo Robitschek. He was manning the Don Julio booth, calling us to sip the spirit straight. After so many wonderful cocktails, it seemed a bit of a carpeted, air-conditioned oasis.
On Saturday at 11 a.m., I strolled down from my apartment in the East Village to the Astor Center to meet and mingle with a few friends. The Astor Center lobby is transformed into a networking bar space for the MCC, with rotating bartenders from all over the country mixing drinks with respected brands, fresh fruits and a crazy array of herbs, bitters, tinctures and tonics. There’s also coffee, provided with brands like Zacapa Rum, but the Astor Center experience was made very whimsical for journalists in particular, thanks to one brand that really thought outside the box: Leblon cachaça parked its Capi Mobile outside the building, and the bright green ice cream truck was filled with cushy lime-green beanbag chairs, cold coconut water and free wireless. I spent a few minutes with journalists in the truck before departing for work. And by work, I mean the 1 p.m. Behind the Bar seminar at Louis 649. It’s a tough job, but someone had to do it.
The Behind the Bar seminars are very intimate during MCC. They are held in venues all over the city (others included PDT, Death & Company and Dutch Kills) and the idea is to have a limited number of seats (at Louis 649 it was 35) so the owner/operator can speak directly to guests about what makes that bar special, why it has succeeded and even enlighten everyone with small anecdotes on past trials and triumphs.
At Louis 649, owner Zachary Sharaga was backed by Ardbeg Scotch, and we enjoyed an extensive tasting through six of the brand’s bottles (left: That's me, sitting at the bar waiting oh-so-patiently to try them out). The highlight for me was a chance to sip Airigh Nam Beist, aka “The Beist,” Ardbeg’s 46-percent, ultra peat-driven mammoth. There are only 300 cases left in America, and it’s sold out in Europe. It’s small moments like this that make events like MCC shine.
The Boat Cruise, however, was my favorite event during MCC. If you attended MCC but didn’t get on the boat cruise, it’s something you should definitely prepare for next year. The vessel took a mere 220 guests — many dressed in an array of tacky yacht wear — around the harbor of New York at sunset. (Pictured below: bartenders Jackie Patterson and Thomas Waugh; photo courtesy of Lush Life Productions.)
Five bartenders — Richard Boccato (Painkiller/Dutch Kills, NYC), John Lermayer (The Florida Room, Miami), Jacqueline Patterson (Heaven's Dog, San Francisco), Thomas Waugh (Death & Company, NYC) and Danny Valdez (Cure, New Orleans) — provided exquisite drinks as a DJ spun ’80s classics on the middle deck and a live swing band cranked out tunes below. But the real action remained topside, where guests watched the last of the May 16 sun sink into the water.
I sadly was not able to attend much on May 17, due to other work commitments, but May 18 provided me with some real insight as to where the cocktail resurgence is headed during a seminar called Mastering the Art of Bartending: Everything You Need to Know Before Even Picking Up a Bottle, led by Gary “gaz” Regan, Dushan Zaric, Simon Ford, TJ Lynch and Aisha Sharpe. While the idea was to discuss good service —Regan pointing out that service doesn’t always have to be with a smile; sometimes a gruff bartender was exactly what he wants — the seminar really served to highlight a shift in the consciousness among the industry professionals behind the stick.
“A bartender has always been the catalyst for me,” explained Simon Ford, international ambassador for Plymouth Gin. “He or she determines if my night and experience is good or if it’s bad. With this new trend in mixology, a lot of the people bartending have totally forgotten what it’s really about. The customers, not the cocktails.”
The group on stage expressed in particular that they hoped 2010 and beyond would see the return of the humble bartenders: men and women who make fantastic drinks, but who also know they are there for the service first and foremost. The session — as I heard many were — was funny, insightful and carefully crafted. Occasionally you enter a room at a convention and realize the presenters have not met or spoken before that moment. This is not the case with MCC. It’s amazing how it brings together people who have known each other for many years, so they can really drive at the heart of topics.
This session is definitely one I think they should bring back next year. It was, for me, a fantastic sendoff to a wonderful week.