Friday, September 25, 2009

Manhattan Cocktail Classic Preview is looming on the horizon

As most of you probably know by now, New York finally has its own cocktail extravaganza.

Tickets for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic preview (Oct. 3-4) went on sale on Labor Day. According to Manhattan Cocktail Classic founder and director Lesley Townsend, tickets for Sasha Petraske's seminar on the home bar sold out in a blazing three seconds.

However, I've been hearing it through the grapevine that there are still some tickets available, especially with certain details got hammered out a little later than others. For example, tickets are still up for grabs for the late add-on barware seminar with Don Lee, Alex Day and Greg Boehm .

You can still buy tickets to pick Phil Ward's brains at Mayahuel, hear about Prohibition in cool accents from Charlotte Voisey and Simon Ford, and party and rub shoulders with folks at the Gala.

Seriously, though, three seconds? Even last week's much hyped pre-sale of tickets for the first of Pavement's reunion shows didn't sell out that fast.

"It was really really fun to watch," Lesley said over the phone about tracking ticket sales. "The first 10 minutes were absolutely ridiculous. I was laughing and screaming the whole time."

If you note, the word "preview" is in the title. So to alleviate any confusion that might still be out there, this is a preview of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. The actual Classic is taking place May 14-18. Funny story: Lesley said that at first the plan was to make it a sister event with San Francisco's Cocktail Week, but too many people wanted to celebrate drinking and drink-making on both coasts, so the date was shifted by a whole week. There's still a small overlap, but enough of a buffer.

"I certainly didn’t think it’d get this much attention. The whole point of preview initially was to drum up media attention for the main event," Lesley said.

It's not hard to see why the preview itself is such a big deal. It's the anticipation. With the history and current cocktail and bartending millieu in New York, it sort of makes you go, "Why wasn't this organized before?"

Exactly the thought that Lesley had when she sent out an email about a year and a half ago, innocently asking the folks who now make up the advisory board why New York didn't have its own event like Tales of the Cocktail or San Francisco Cocktail Week. Next thing you know, a chain of emails started.

"Every time I saw any of them over the course of the next year, they’d kick me in the shins. And I finally just realized if I didn’t do it right now, it was going to happen. It was only a matter of time because there was such a desire and a need for this to happen," Lesley explained. "Truthfully the cocktail community in New York is so strong...for us to not have our own event? It was long overdue."

The preview is supposed to be a little taste of what the real thing will be like. It's a little bit of education and a little bit of the New York bar experience. There are seminars, but also several of the city's bars and cocktail lounges, like the Clover Club and Pegu Club, are part of "Stories from Behind the Bar." For the "Stories" series of events, people can purchase a ticket to hang out in some of the bars on Saturday afternoon to see the place when it's not packed and doing business and get a chance to talk to the people working there. And, of course, sip on some drinks.

The idea is not only to break down any preconceptions of exclusivity that might keep some people away from visiting these bars and encourage them to go out and enjoy the establishments in New York, but also to acknowledge some of the blurring of lines between the consumer and professional world when it comes to New York and cocktails.

"There will always be a big consumer aspect to this. In NY there’s this huge degree of overlap between the enthusiasts and the cocktail geek community," Lesley explained, and trying to separate the two is not a necessarily easy task. However, for the Classic proper there are still some plans in the works for more specialized skill and trade seminars to help further educate other bartenders in the city who want to learn more about their craft.

Gin and musing about cocktails and drinks in general

After Tales, I needed a break from the blog. A month-long one sounded about right. I guess most people announce they're going away for a sabbatical or some such, but that's if they decided ahead of time to take such a break. For me, it was more like I was simply elbow-deep in as we continue to make things better and shinier for folks. Yes, some of you might forget I have a day job. Well, I guess this too is part of my day job, but I mean day job as in duties I handle proper when I'm not out there breaking it down on this blog with what's popping with cocktails.

It's events season. Is there really a season for events? I don't know, it certainly feels like it though. You kind of notice an ebb and flow of things.

For one thing, I've been in Madam Geneva way more times than you should be able to count in the past week. About two weeks ago, I met some folks representing Oxley gin, a new small-batch gin that is coming out. I couldn't help but note that it went back to the trends panel at Tales, where folks basically were talking about gin becoming the new vodka. More varieties, different producers and the like. And also, just how this sort of local, organic, whatever church of food you go to way of thinking that people have nowadays is also definitely making a mark on alcohol. People paying attention to more of the small-batch, independent or even local joints that are making their own thing.

You even see it in how some of the larger spirits brands are marketing themselves to consumers. They still highlight the beautiful young people living it up, but there's definitely a noticeable spin on that they're going for a certain image whether you want to credit that to the steady rise of craft cocktails, trying to convince people of something being worth a luxury during times when people are trying to spend less or the popularity of "Mad Men" and their retro drinking habits and tastes.

For example, Tanqueray has had new ads that both talk about the type of fun-seeking cosmopolitan sophisticate that would drink their product and also the crafted mix of botanicals and ingredients that go into their product.

Ketel One has its GQ-looking versions of the "dudes' night out" commercial trope that seem to be playing on a modern version of dapper "Mad Men" attitude.

Or how about Bacardi, which recently started airing commercials talking about the brand's place in history? Right down to the detail at the end with a beautiful bar with a marble top being tended by mustachioed gentlemen who is supposed to be the master bartender of yore, but in all seriousness looks like half the dudes I know working behind the stick.

These ads come about from trend spotters noticing which wave to catch that will grab the attention of those spending money out there. More people nowadays are aware of crafting sophisticated drinks. The bombs and kamikaze club crowd isn't going away any time soon, but there is a growing crop of sophisticated consumers with a certain edge to it. Beer geeks, cocktail geeks, whiskey afficionados, what have you. They're young DIY-ers expecting more and wanting to learn more when they walk into your bar, or quite possibly they're coming in already armed with some knowledge of their own.

The democritization of cocktail geekery isn't really new. Just tracking the careers of some of the folks in the game nowadays can show you that. People who had day jobs not having to do with bartending or the nightlife at all, yet are in the biz thanks to passion for the trade; the folks I've met when I started this thing two years ago that shot up into the stratosphere in that span of time easily; and even the constant waves of new people I meet. It's both exciting, and...just crazy how all of this is blossoming right before your eyes. The feeling that I can probably date myself to a "generation" of New York night life is just ridiculous to contemplate. Though I guess the people nowadays waxing nostalgic about Palladium and The Limelight and seeing James St. James guest on "America's Next Top Model" might not have anticipated this themselves in the 80s-90s.

And now I feel like there's a new generation coming up. Last night I was at Madam Geneva again. This time Tomas Delos Reyes, who recently started bartending there, sent me an invite for a Nirvino event sponsored by Tres Generaciones. Nirvino is basically a sort of community for drink and bar reviewing. The crowd was a mix of people in the biz and amateur afficionados.

As jokes passed around about having 50+ friends in common with people on Facebook and the idea of tweetups, all of the sudden I found it kind of funny I had started rereading "No Country for Old Men." I began to hear Tommy Lee Jones' voice in my head sounding something like:

I started writing this blog when I was 23. Just two years after Uncle Sam says you can start drinkin. But he was no uncle of mine. Got to know a lot of bartenders in my day. It's always been a community. A town of sorts that existed along the river beds of bar tops where booze flowed freely, but you needed to pay to get across for a sip. Like that Charon character I remember readin about in a textbook in the fifth grade. Had my first sip of gin then. Thought that was probably pretty close to what the Styx would taste like. But nowadays these kids got technology. I had a notebook and a pen. A digital camera if I was lucky. I guess luck had everything to do with it. I reckon though most people make their luck nowadays...

Not that I mean that I felt like I need to quit before I get shot in the back during a drug deal gone bad or a "get of my lawn" kind of way. It was more just the similar sentiment of awe in seeing a new model of doing things just unfold. It reminded me of back when I interviewed Dave Wondrich for a story in our NRN 50 special issue about food and beverage industry survivors. Talking to him about cocktails and how they've survived ups and down throughout the years, I had to ask Dave how he felt about the future of cocktails. He said (part of the quote ended up closing out my story) that sure, maybe the whole thing was trendy, maybe interest would cool a little, but it'd never go away. It certainly wouldn't disappear like it did during Prohibition. There's just too many people with the knowledge out there, and too many ways for people to share it.