If, after reading The Great Gatsby, you envied the sort of affairs Jay Gatsby had hosted for his West Egg sybarites, then put this year’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic—a five-day cocktail festival spread across New York’s boroughs—on the calendar.
Last year’s Classic kicked off on a Friday with an opening night gala held at the New York Public Library. I had high expectations for this “slightly salty black tie affair.” Supposedly, three thousand attendees were going to drink 30,000 cocktails mixed up by 150 of the world’s best bartenders. At the very least, there would be something edgy and alluring about raising one’s voice and imbibing in this hallowed hall of books. (The last time I had entered the building, a guard made me toss a full Starbucks drink and I got shushed in the reading room.) At the very most, I was expecting lavish entertainment and elegant tipplers. But as I walked along the southern edge of Bryant Park, passing by the library’s delivery entrance, I saw paramedics wheeling out a woman who couldn’t quite balance her head.
“Did you have anything to drink?” an EMT asked.
“I just didn’t eat very much today,” she slurred, offering that hackneyed drunkard’s line.
I pulled out my ticket. In a black strip along the bottom of the printout, the festival hosts warned “Don’t drink before drinking. (Pre-gaming is for amateurs; take a nap instead.)”
The time was 10:02. The event had just started and already there was a casualty. I began to doubt my chances of having a West Egg experience.
But when I turned onto Fifth Avenue, there were young gentlemen in bowties and boater hats and seersucker suits. The women were lovely; however, they neglected to wind back the clocks, clipping around in their modern haute.
Inside was symbolism from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s alternate universe. Instead of that memorable green guiding light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, red spotlights beamed into my eyes. A six-piece band ushered us into the cavernous lobby with music from that Lost Generation. Red streamers were draped from the ceiling and red feathers sprouted from fifteen-foot stands to look like truffala trees. (I can imagine some teeth sucking at my mingling of literary allusions—melding Fitzgerald with Seuss—but mixing was the theme of the night.)
Every turn and landing offered up a new sound, sight, and taste. Downstairs in the whiskey and scotch hall, a piano player and trumpet jazz-battled on a stage prepared for an ensemble.
I fetched myself a drink. On every makeshift bar sat a cardboard box. Touch here if you like the drink, it instructed revelers. I took a sip of a rye-based libation and pressed down on the box.
“Is it registering this?” I asked the bartender, noticing that my compressions of the box had damaged it. The cardboard failed to spring back into its perfect rectangular position.
“There’s an electronic reader inside,” she said, looking at me as if I had come from ninety years ago. (Full disclosure: My phone did just become text-messaging enabled.) “You need a bracelet with a chip in it. You touch it to the box and it allows you to track the drinks you sample.”
Another Manhattan Cocktail Classic partygoer snatched a drink, allowed the notes of the beverage to fall into place on her tongue, and then held her black rubber bracelet against the box that I had damaged.
“Now she’ll receive an email with the recipe for our drink,” the bartender said.
Many of the rooms kept to the 1920’s decadence. There were shoeshine stations and makeshift barbershops, where the temptress slashing off beards wielded a buzzer instead of a straightedge. Other anachronisms ranged from the exceptional (Patron popsicles) to the solipsistic (Richard Branson’s face sat atop a mantelpiece in the Virgin Atlantic quarters). The rum room had a toe in every decade except for the ‘20s. The DJ spun Dion’s The Wanderer, while the Don Q bartender, who was dressed like a chef, filled thermoses with liquid nitrogen and hand-whisked smoking cauldrons of frozen mojitos and pina coladas.
Even still, the atmosphere of the gala would have made West Eggers proud.
The Manhattan Cocktail Classic: Post-Gala
The festival, however, was more than just the opening celebration. Over the course of five days, there were nearly seventy public events. Carousers could attend the Gentleman’s Cocktail Crawl or Campari’s birthday bash for Count Negroni, where partygoers donned top hats and moustaches, dancing to the beats of DJ Questlove. There were also performances around the city by musicians like G. Love, without his band Special Sauce, though there was plenty of special sauce.
Most Manhattan Cocktail Classic events, however, were geared toward cocktail zealots. There were gatherings for lauding rye, workshops for best bourbon-blending practices, seminars for experimenting with tequila. And at the final event, The Indie Spirits Expo, small-batch proprietors showcased their artisanal creations. All you had to do was pick your poison and the Manhattan Cocktail Classic organizers insured that you would have a good time.
On Saturday afternoon, I sampled barrel-aged cocktails at Vintry’s, while enjoying the pedestrian-only Stone Street, a bar-lined cobblestone road filled with picnic tables and daytime imbibers. Afterward, I went to the Macao Trading Co. Encircling the bar were catwalks filled with artifacts like a ship’s wheel, decorative urns, and wooden pigeon cages. It looked as though a Chinatown flea market had partnered up with a speakeasy, which was apropos for veteran mixologist Dale DeGroff’s slideshow/folk concert, which paid tribute to bars, speakeasies, and saloons. His stories only improved with the arrival of each green-tinted whiskey and gin drink.
Whatever recipe you prefer or cocktail you extol, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic will have your fix. And if you can’t wait until May 17th, 2013, when the event returns to the library, you can preview the even by picking up your copy of The Great Gatsby at the New York Public Library and smuggling in a highball.
Disclaimer: This last piece of advice is not recommended by Somewhere Or Bust and I take no responsibility if you actually do this, however, I would love to receive an email detailing the experience.