Appetite: Giant legs and Willy Wonka — adventures at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic

Pub date June 2, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

I was one of the lucky ones, spending eight days in NY, my old stomping grounds, for the first annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic, which highlights and celebrates 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 for the opening gala, a scene rife with cocktail luminaries like Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders and Dave Wondrich, along with some of the country’s best bartenders, the crowds were not quite the cocktailians I expected, while 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 by 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. I could have spent the same money with more exciting results at any of NY’s great bars.

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


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, mainly in the one air-conditioned room in all of the NYPL, where beloved Fatty ‘Cue served up giant legs of meat, an odd “cocktail party” choice, but hilarious to watch others gnaw on a leg with drink delicately in hand. Once I finally got to the last table with any food, the line was so long it wasn’t worth the wait, 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.

A wasteland of unfinished drink & chewed-up meat at Opening Gala. Photo by Virginia Miller.

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. Or maybe I’m still just creeped out by the Oompa Loompas or the giant Queen Victoria towering over us in the Hendricks’ Gin area (at least there was Charlotte Voisey mixing cocktails below the Queen).

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 15 minute wait. And where were the fine cocktails? Several came from our San Francisco crew who manned a number of tables (negronis!), or the playful Willy Wonka-themed candy counter, but there were few even tolerable out of four floors of cocktails.


1. Astor Center bar and bartenders from around the country: The 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, 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.

The respite of the Virgin Room. Photo by Virginia Miller.

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. 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.

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.