On the Town: Manhattan Cocktail Classic in Its Inaugural Year

Bands on multiple levels… in the entrance of NYPL: jazz, Parisian, gypsy music

Build your own herbal cocktail w/ lime juice and, unfortunately, the base spirit of Veev Acai

I was one of the lucky ones, spending eight days in NY, my old stomping grounds, for the first annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic, May 14-18, highlighting and celebrating the art of the cocktail and its greatest talents. Or so I thought… I won’t gripe too much, though I will say that despite the stunning transformation of the already gorgeous New York Public Library (NYPL) for the Opening Gala, a scene rife with cocktail luminaries like Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, Dave Wondrich, and some of the country’s best bartenders, the crowds were not quite the cocktailians I expected, and some events were far from what was advertised. For example: at the May 17 “contest” at Keen’s, the competition and notable judges had completely wrapped up and left before the listed START time of the event, leaving only a few cocktails to sample and the incomparably cool, old school Keen’s space to stand around in. Nothing short of false advertising. I could have spent the same money ($50 a ticket) with more exciting results at NY’s great bars.

Let’s recap a few of the best and worst moments of the raucous week that was the 1st annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic:


Wasteland: every available table looked liked this – and that’s the most food I saw in 4 hours

1. Starvation – At the Opening Gala, despite spotting Mario Batali, the guy who had supposedly cooked up something special for the night, I never once saw his food. Every other whiff of food was devoured by the time I got near it. In the sweltering heat and humidity inside the NYPL, the one air-conditioned room in the building had a long wait to get in. Once I did, I saw others eating Fatty ‘Cue‘s giant legs of meat. An odd “cocktail party” choice, but hilarious to watch others gnaw on a leg with drink delicately in hand. Again, I never got one. Once I finally got to the last table with food, the line was so long it wasn’t worth it, despite food-less hours endured with sips of multiple drinks (many of the fruity, vodka, soda, flavorless kind)… a bite never came until I hit a diner at 2am.

Outside the NYPL at 9pm, lines snaked down 5th Avenue: the first of many lines of the night

2. Non-Cocktailian Crowds at the Opening Gala – I expected a slew of the country’s and NY’s most hardcore drink fans: the kind that mix Jerry Thomas recipes at home, await Mud Puddle book releases, and value craft and taste above a “scene”. Um, try drunken carousers breaking glasses and leaving trash lying around in the historical NYPL? What about having your photo taken with vodka models? Seriously: you, a bottle of vodka, and sexy models in a brightly lit, LA-style photo shoot. And, yes, there was a long line for this one. Or maybe I’m still just creeped out by the Oompa Loompas or a giant, live Queen Victoria towering over us in the Hendricks’ Gin area (at least there was Charlotte Voisey mixing cocktails below the Queen). I ran into the hardcore, certainly, including many of my SF friends, bartenders and enthusiasts alike. But I was surrounded by the drunken carousers.

A creepy Queen Victoria towering over us

3. Events not as advertised – I’ve already mentioned the misleading representation of the cocktail competition at Keen’s and the drunken, packed-to-the-gills mayhem of the Opening Gala where check-in, getting a drink or even entering a room, meant yet another 20 minute wait. And where were the fine cocktails? Several came from our San Francisco crew who manned a number of tables (negronis!) and truly represented, at Dave Wondrich’s station (though his drink had run out by the time I reached the table – one disappointment after another!), and at the playful Willy Wonka-themed candy counter. But the majority of cocktails were forgettable, watered-down, fruity glasses of blandness… and that’s out of four floors of cocktails.


One peaceful respite: The Virgin Room

1. Astor Center bar/bartenders from around the countryThe Astor Center was ground zero for many of MCC’s daily events, panels and classes. The best part was having bartenders from all over New York and the country cover varying shifts. I met mixologists from St. Louis, LA, San Fran, Boston, and NY bars like Employees Only, Clover Club and Rye House. Not only did these guys whip up some of the better drinks of the entire event, but they were friendly, chatty, engaging, making the Astor Center feel like your favorite watering hole.

2. The Virgin Room at the Opening Gala – What is normally NYPL’s staid, lovely Periodicals Room became The Virgin Room, a detox refuge in the midst of the body-to-body storm of revelers, ego-tripping bodyguards and completely frazzled staff.

Candy dream cocktails at Willy Wonka bar

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Coolers were stocked with energy drinks while the latest copies of Interview magazine lined the tables. Never mind that one couldn’t find a bit of water anywhere. At least I could read about Madonna staying sexy in her 50’s via lamplight.

3. Gin Masters – Let’s call this third one a tie between the gracious English class and knowledge of master distillers, Desmond Payne (of Beefeater Gin) and Sean Harrison (of Plymouth Gin), at the English Gin Seminar on May 16 where we did a side-by-side tasting of gins, including their own and the just released (unreleased at the time) Beefeater Summer Gin.

The ultra-cool Stork Club basement

4. The Stork Club – At the Opening Gala, one could catch a welcome respite from the oppressive heat of the rest of the building in the rarely seen NYPL basement, dubbed the Stork Club for the night. Thanks, Diageo, for turning the room into a relaxed but funky party with brassy Budos Band and proper cocktails, including a Bulleit Bourbon Mint Julep and a Mary Pickford made with Zacapa 23 year rum.


Don Julio’s Delight at Astor Center bar

–  Ted Kilgore of Niche Taste Bar in St. Louis is a gracious and skilled bartender who mixed me one of his Niche standards, a Ruby Derby: bourbon, vermouth, agave nectar, grapefruit and Aperol.

–  Matthew Pomeroy, International Brand Ambassador for Wyborowa SA, took Luksusowa Vodka to some happy places with a Polish Fling: 2 parts potato vodka, 1 part egg white, 1 part lemon juice, fresh cucumber and dill. Now all I need is some caviar and blinis. A runner-up was A Smoky Fall: potato vodka, lime, orange juice, spicy ginger beer, and plum jam (normally he uses fig jam).

Jill DeGroff artwork at the Astor Center

– At the Astor Center, morning imbibement went down better after starting the day with Duque Spanish Brandy in Orange de Crema French-press coffee with Creme de Alba, Creole Shrubb and an orange slice.

Ted Kilgore at Keen’s

– I couldn’t be unhappy with an Astor Bar cocktail utilizing Don Julio: Don Julio’s Delight. Anjeo and Bulleit Bourbon were shaken with amaretto, lime, agave nectar and egg white. Refreshing and bright.

– More breakfast-y winners at the Astor Bar from Rye House’s Jim Kearns: a Blood Mary trio including a Tabasco Red Snapper, Chipotle Mary and the best: Habanero Bloody Mary (tomato, lemon, Worcestershire, salt, fresh horseradish, pineapple juice, Annie’s habanero sauce, black pepper, jalapeno-infused Don Julio). Paired well with a delicious Crawfish & Andouille Egg Souffle.

The dramatic backdrop of Keen’s animal heads & paintings for the Yellowtail Cocktail Contest