Monday, October 6, 2008

Cocktail classes for the consumer

I spent a little bit of my Sunday afternoon down at the Astor Center to check out Jonathan Pogash's "Elements of Mixology: The Cocktail Lab" class. The Astor Center hosts several food and drink related classes that allow the general public to learn and experience what they are consuming and imbibing from chefs and beverage personnel from the New York restaurant world. There are several wine courses that teach basics like the upcoming installments of the "Develop Your Nose" series. David Lombardo, wine and beverage director for Anvil NY is set to teach in a regional versus format; Spain vs. U.S.A in November and France Vs. Australia and New Zealand in December. Ethan Kelley, head spirits sommelier of the Brandy Library has a class about American whiskies. And for those who've spent plenty of time in front of the bar, but want to have a better understanding about what happens behind it, there are several classes geared towards the home bartender as well. Some of the gang from PDT are teaching a "Home Bar Basics". Michael Waterhouse of Dylan Prime is handling the cocktails end of a sweets-themed class.

It was interesting to see the classes being helmed by from those actually working day-to-day in the restaurant business. Particularly in the area of cocktails, where it probably helps to lift some of that veil of intimidation when it comes to ordering in some of the city's many well-known cocktail establishments. Obviously, having a better basic idea about what is involved in the cocktail making process helps, but so does seeing someone out and about in broad daylight who you only see in the context of standing behind a dim bar and concocting your drinks. Having them talk and explain things to you without being pressed for time because they're making five drinks while trying to serve everyone else in the bar puts the whole thing in a different light. While in a bar you might a , "So what's the different between these bitters" would snag you a quick answer, at least you wouldn't feel bad about asking any follow-up questions away from the bar and crowds of other people who just want their drink.

And Jonathan's class was just that sort of setting. Right as I was sneaking in 20 minutes late, Jonathan was in the middle of giving a brief history of cocktails to people in the class. Since this class was more about drink creation, the history served a background to cocktail families and recipes so people in the class could familiarize themselves with what kind of drinks are out there and what basic rules drink recipes follow. The tools of the trade were also explained. For the last couple of minutes, the class got broken up into teams to create and present their own creations.

It was interesting to see how much the people in the class were aware of what was going on in bars nowadays. More than half the class answered correctly about the first American cocktail being the Sazerac and during the explanation of bar tools, one attendee asked about the Boston Shaker. The ones in the class were the usual kind, with the 28 oz. tin top and mixing glass for a bottom. She wanted to know then what was the difference between the ones we had in class and the ones that were all metal. Obviously, someone was paying attention when they went out to drink because she was referring to the beveled shaker tins that some bartenders in the city prefer to use, replacing the mixing glass with a another stainless steel tin.

If anything, this was a pretty good indicator of why the bartender of today definitely needs to be on their toes. Consumers are becoming more curious and aware about what they're drinking. It's been going on for a while now, but just as there are the droves of foodies (I apologize for using this word) taking food porn pictures for Flickr and blogging diary-style about every morsel of food that passes their lips, I see plenty of "drinkies" strolling up to bars, chatting up bartenders, many times genuinely curious, and sometimes obnoxiously quizzing them. Now when you talk about beverages as a whole, this isn't anything new. Homegrown experts on beer, wine, sake, whiskey, what have you have been around plenty, but the class was a jolting reminder that mixed drinks are now also part of this foodie/drinkie world as well. People are expecting more and paying attention to what's going in the drinks, how their bartender is mixing it. They might not just want to know what, they might want to know why as well and they're probably going to come in armed with their own resource and knowledge about a subject.

Jonathan has been teaching at the Astor Center since April and says that response has been great. Every class he's taught have been sold-out and recently new dates were added due to popular demand. When I asked if there were any plans to create something more serialized, Jonathan said maybe that's something to look forward to in the future, but for now, people seem happy to come in for a single class to at least get the basics.

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