Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Two at the Most: The Manhattan Cocktail Classic

Yes, I'm taking over Steve's column for the moment, though I’m not sure I can capture all the excitement of our recent trip to New York with the specific purpose of attending the events of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in one blog post, written after being annoyingly sick [not from drinking!] and while trying to pack for two weeks away teaching at Converse in the low-res MFA program…but, I shall try!

First, kudos to husband Steve for becoming aware of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic (MCC) in the first place.  The event—a long and important boozy party in various venues through New York—is in its fourth year, and based on what we heard from other participants, is only getting better and boozier.

Second, by “booze” and “cocktails,” I mean the artful kind.  People who attend this thing are generally incredibly knowledgeable about, say, various gins distilled in Brooklyn, pre-Prohibition cocktails, what composes a classic rum punch, and so on. People were not here to “get wasted.”  In fact, I didn’t see any drunk people or anyone behaving badly.  The organizers stress that this is a classy event, and it definitely was.  (This is not to say that we didn’t get more than enough to drink.)

Our first event took us to the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn…hipsters in their own environment!  Looked like a fun place to live, for sure, despite the drizzly gray, people were snappily dressed, filled with shared camaraderie, and I vaguely felt as though I were in a set for a commercial for a product I’m too old to buy...but, honestly, in a good way, kind of like seeing literary Paris in the 1920’s.  We had signed up for “Brooklyn State of Mind: Believe the Hype” at the fabulous Huckleberry Bar, and the event was designed to showcase local Brooklyn liquors/distillers and to teach us how to mix our own drinks, from recipes specifically crafted by the bartending staff for the featured alcohol.  It’s always a good sign when you walk into a room and someone hands you an excellent gin and tonic (made with Dorothy Parker gin).  We divided into small groups and went to various stations to learn about the liquors we were using and to mix up our drinks.  (SIX stations, I might note, plus the original gin and tonic…clearly I would have to scale back!  On the other hand, maybe I could just eat more of the grilled burgers out on the charming patio and scarf down the excellent, mustardy, booze-sopping potato salad.)

Our first drink involved Sorel Hibiscus liqueur made by Jack From Brooklyn, based on his Caribbean family’s recipe.  It was fun to talk to Jack himself, and hear his path from finance guy to liquor mogul…and even more fun to taste the spicy Sorel.  I was reminded of Thanksgiving pie immediately—clove-nutmeg-ginger—and my chest got warm.  This stuff was unlike anything else I’ve had, and I think that Steve ordered me a bottle for my upcoming birthday, which I’m afraid I’ll slurp up.  [Note:  Here’s the best source Steve has found for finding small-batch liquor: Drink Up NY at http://www.drinkupny.com/]  We mixed a Kumbayah Cooler with our Sorel (yes, reminiscent of sitting around a campfire), and the process is so easy when all the prep work is done!  Such perfectly thin apple slices for garnish!  And I learned an important bar tip:  always pour to the VERY top of the jigger.  “Don’t be afraid,” advised the Huckleberry bartender who was probably going crazy watching my poor technique but was too polite to say so.  (Ingredients: 1.5 oz Sorel, 1/5 oz Apple Brandy, .75 oz smoked maple syrup, 1 oz lemon juice; served in a Collins glass over ice.)

We moved to our next station, the Octopussy.  Reading ahead, I realized I truly would have to pace myself, since this drink contained a mix of gin and vodka! Six drinks like that would really put me under the table, if not underground.  This drink featured the crisp and complicated Brooklyn Gin, made with fresh citrus peels, and it was here that I learned another important tip:  “Shake until you hear the ice crack.”  No wonder craft cocktail bartenders have such beautifully sculpted arms!  Another fabulous drink…and definitely time to get some food in the stomach!  (2 oz Brooklyn Gin, 1 oz vodka, .5 oz Coccchi Americano, up with a lemon twist)

Clearly I was not going to make it through six drinks, so we had to pick and choose, which, now, in the light of a different day, makes me ache with regret.  Alas…life is hard for everyone.  So we went to the Believe the Hype station and learned about Due North Rum, since I don’t know much about rum.  Rum = yum, especially this darkly rich, oak-aged version from Red Hook, Brooklyn. (2 oz. Due North Rum, .75 oz fino sherry, .5 oz CioCiaro Amaro, .5 oz apricot liqueur, strained into a coupe)  Apricot liqueur might scare you, but this was NOT a syrupy-sweet drink in the least.

I’m not a big tequila/mezcal person usually, but why not?  It was right next to the Due North Rum and there was no line.  So…now I’m a big fan of El Buho Mezcal, which is smoky, reminding me of single malt scotch.  Here, when mixing “The Owls Are Not What They Seem” (named for beautiful owl on the mescal bottle), I learned how to “express” the grapefruit peel so the oil lightly sprays aromatically across the surface of the drink.  Okay, I tried to learn, since in the process of pinching and “expressing,” I broke my peel in half.  Steve, who has worked hard on his peel skills, got an admiring “great job” from the bartender.  Another fabulous drink!  (1/5 oz El Buho Mezcal, .5 oz tequila, .25 oz Fino Sherry, 1 oz grapefruit juice, .25 oz maple syrup, five fresh tarragon leaves; strained into a martini glass with a grapefruit peel twist)  Oh, and let the record show that I HATE grapefruit, and yet this was an amazing drink!

I can only imagine what delicious drinks we missed by not making it to the other two stations—featuring No. 4 Vodka and Owney’s Rum—but we’d been at the Huckleberry Bar since one o’clock, and the regular crowd was filtering in, and we were perfectly sated, ready for our subway ride back to Manhattan…we spontaneously decided to stop in the East Village for Polish food at Little Poland and some browsing at the Strand.  (Got a signed Jay McInerny ARC of Brightness Falls from the Rare Books Room, and surely an oversight, a signed Grace Paley book for only five bucks off the regular shelves!)  And…responsible drinking meant no hangover the next day and we were ready for our next adventure:

“100 Years of Grand Central Cocktails: Behind the Bar at the Campbell Apartment.”  There’s a private apartment in Grand Central Terminal (we learned that’s the correct name, not Grand Central Station) that’s now open as a gorgeous cocktail lounge.  Walking in, you feel as though you’re back in the 1920s or so, when this was a private office (complete with pipe organ!): Persian rugs, marble fireplace, dim lighting…just the perfect place to relax, away from the hustle and bustle of commuters and tourists.  Again, we walked in and were handed a drink:  rum punch!  Father and son Jack and Jonathan (hmm…why didn’t I write down their last names? The problem with combining note-taking and cocktail drinking!) gave us a fascinating rundown of the history of cocktails, including sharing with us some first edition cocktail recipe books (the first drinks book was published in 1827 by Oxford University Press, composed of recipes for rum punches given to visiting clergy at Oxford!, and the first true cocktail book was written by American Jerry Thomas in 1862, the Bon Vivant’s Guide….yes, cocktails were invented by Americans!).

Lots of excellent passed hors d’oeuvres—including some smoked salmon and lobster-macaroni and cheese bites!—accompanied the history lesson, which quickly became taste-buds-on, as we were treated to an expertly mixed Rob Roy and a fabulously fresh Gin Daisy.  Fun fact:  Nascar arose from Prohibition!  Another fun fact:  It’s easy to make one’s own grenadine by mixing equal parts POM pomegranate juice and super-fine sugar, as with a simple syrup.  One last fun fact (out of many more to choose from):  The Campbell Apartment was used in the 1970s and 80s as a holding cell for the New York Police…peek in there next time you’re in New York, and your mouth will drop open in astonishment to think of it. (Here are some photos.)

As non-industry specialists, we simply signed up for a series of events, but the MCC is geared to hospitality and industry workers—distillers, media, bartenders, restaurateurs, etc—and there was a trade show going on at the MCC conference hotel.  I find there are two ways to get into a place you’re not supposed to be but want to be:  begging or sweeping by security as if you belong.  I generally prefer the first approach, and THANK YOU so much to the kind woman with the clipboard who agreed to let us into the industry tasting room for an hour.  If I have any say, you have a star in heaven!

The room was set up as any sort of convention with tables and vendors…but instead of getting dumb magnets while listening to a pitch about window cleaning solvents, we got tastes of amazing and innovative alcohol, while listening to fascinating stories about shifting a vineyard from dessert wines to vermouth or collecting old and classic bottles of booze.  It was a crazy-giddy whirl of mouth excellence…maybe like being I mmersed inside a glass of champagne!  So I can’t capture everything, but here are a few memorable tidbits and products to note:

--Vya, produced by Quady in California. Steve had bought some of this superb sweet vermouth in DC, and here we tried it in a 50:50 Manhattan that led me to gush to the other people roaming the room, “You MUST try this drink!” (1.5 oz Vya Sweet vermouth, 1/5 oz rye [they used Overholt], 4 dashes Regan’s Number 6 orange bitters).

--Owney’s Original Rum (which we had missed at the Brooklyn event), produced by a woman-owned company, The Noble Experiment, and the best classic daiquiri I’ve ever had…again, I was gushing to people around me and I even had to jump in when some idiot walked up and said, “Rum in Brooklyn? Really?”  I said what the owner couldn’t possibly have said but surely wanted to:  “Why don’t you try this amazing drink before you let loose with that attitude?” (Okay, maybe I was a little softer in reality, but not much.)

--Zwack, a Hungarian liqueur, of which Joseph II, Emperor of Austria said, “This is unique!” and which I fully concur:  40 secret herbs and spices from a secret family recipe will do that.  At this point, I had two drinks in my hand, unable to give up either.

Again, no hangover—though I was thinking that cocktail garnishes probably don’t constitute a full serving of fruit and that I might be suffering from malnourishment—and we went to our final event on Monday night, up in Harlem at the 67 Orange Street bar.  Honestly, this was the least satisfying of the events, but we still managed to have fun, and also honestly, I had one of the most transcendent drinks of my life here, a drink was totally worth the allergic reaction triggered by the fresh pineapple juice.  So that’s not to be sneezed at.  The set-up was a competition between three bartenders to create a drink based on their culture/heritage.  There was a panel of judges, but the audience would taste and vote as well.  Sounds good, but the pacing dragged, we couldn’t see, the event was totally over-crowded and claustrophobic, and while the judges got full drinks, we got tiny shotglass tastes (while being badgered to order drinks and food for pay…even though we had already purchased not-cheap tickets).  Enough whining—we met some like-minded women and had fun chatting with them in the (rare!) seats we snagged in the corner and made the best of it.  (It was the first event I saw people bail early.)

The first guy was a bartender from Long Island who apparently thought he was working with a TGI Friday’s crowd, mixing up a gooey-sweet concoction that one of our new friends noted, “I guess that’s the culture he’s going for, getting young girls drunk fast.”  The second guy was from Jamaica and produced an excellent, spritely variation on a classic daiquiri.  And the last guy produced some complicated and delicious slightly mapley-drink that harkened to his youth in New Hampshire.  Then there was a face-off between the Jamaican guy and the New Hampshire guy…who produced the transcendent drink.  It was complex with about a thousand notes, toasty without feeling overly wintery, spicy…like nothing else I’ve had.  Clearly, he won.

As he was walking past our table, I congratulated him and asked him what was in the drink (since we couldn’t really see or hear) and he mentioned pineapple juice…which I’m allergic to.  I tend to be very careful about tropical fruit and there was no way I had sensed pineapple in there…that’s how incredible this drink was.  I assured him the drink was worth the possible hives and upcoming diet of Benadryl and then one of women asked where he bartended, and he said, “I’m the bar-back here.”  I said, “You’re the BAR-BACK?!?!” and the woman said, “Not for long, I’m guessing. You definitely should go out on your own,” and he was still sweet enough and young enough to be startled and pleased by our reaction.

And so a star is born!

And so our foray into Manhattan Cocktail Classic ended.  It was a rigorous trip—it was!—but I’m so happy we went: small compensation for Steve, who handled daily life back home while I was off in Nebraska.  And fun to see that the world of cocktails is filled with as many obsessive lunatics as the world of food…and that a marriage of two obsessive lunatics can be rich and happy indeed!

***Check out this graphic review of the Huckleberry Bar event…yes, that’s me and Steve IN the cartoon!

***If you’re interested in learning more about the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and/or attending in the future, I suggest you sign up for the email list at http://www.manhattancocktailclassic.com/.  You’ll get pre-registration information, which is essential, as many events sell out in a matter of hours.

***And if you want to try any of the products mentioned, Steve recommends Drink Up NY: http://www.drinkupny.com/, if you don’t have a very good liquor store.  For local readers, Ace Beverage in DC was also mentioned by many of the distillers we spoke to.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.