Friday night, May 17, was a proud night to be a New Yorker. And it was a proud night to be part of a talented beverage community that calls this fair Empire State home. At 9 p.m., the Manhattan Cocktail Classic kicked off its 2013 run with the annual Gala held in one of the most iconic venues in New York City: the New York Public Library.
To ascend the same steps as Dr. Peter Venkman and Dr. Egon Spengler, but while sporting a tux instead of a proton pack, is surreal…especially at night. Inside, a fairy tale-like atmosphere unfolds, with each room a new surprise as the mise-en-scène shifts from pre-prohibition frivolity to modern sensuality, with many stops in between punctuated by live music, costumed characters, colorfully lit corridors, and, oh yes, cocktails — some tens of thousands of them (served in proper glassware, mind you–a logistical challenge I can’t even begin to fathom. With more than 3,000 guests in attendance, it is sexy, pulsing with life, opulent, and a one-of-a kind experience. But, despite the intoxication of the glitz and glamour, the Gala has, in previous years, felt hollow, as mega-booze brands ply for your attention with every ounce of marketing muscle they can muster, and often not in ways that inspire loyalty, but instead repel with their excessive flamboyance.
But not this year, kids. No. This year was a phenomenal event. The reason? Quite simply: the New York Spirits Room. Twenty-four distillers from our home state were set up in one of only two air-conditioned rooms (trust me, this was a huge boon for guests as the mercury can rise to unbearable levels by midnight). Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who after his recent Wine, Beer, and Spirits Summit vowed to work to ensure locally-produced alcoholic beverages will have a table at major consumer events, he followed through on that vow in a huge way. As Cuomo put it, ““At the Wine, Beer, and Spirits Summit we heard how our small local distilleries and brewers had to compete on an unfair playing field with big name brands. We pledged that the state would step up to the plate and help bring these world-class products to world class venues, and with two dozen local distilleries participating in this year’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic, we are delivering on that promise and showing that our efforts are paying off.”
Kudos to you, Governor Cuomo; it was a fantastic showing for many of the producers I’m come to love (and many I’d never heard of before), and served as a stage for new fans to interact with the latest neighbors on the block.
Spanning the entire length of the eastern end of the room, with a talented, lively band providing backdrop music, was the procession of New York producers. Most of the tables had the actual distillers, themselves, while others were manned by crews of some of New York City’s finest, including bartenders from Death & Company and The Breslin. And it must be noted, for all the haters out there (myself included in that camp before Friday), that Blue Curaçao is decidedly NOT dead, as the team from Brooklyn Gin put up a simply stellar Tiki drink made with pineapple, cinnamon bark syrup, and the famous blue stuff.
But better yet, there was a distinct feeling in the air from the moment one walked in; from the guests, the bartenders, and the producers alike: pride. Pride in craft. Pride in community. And pride in New York. To have everyone in the same room, from those that have championed NY spirits for years, to those who were experiencing them for the first time, was magical. I literally had to pull myself away when I realized, “oh shit, I’ve spent nearly my whole night in this one room. I need to get out and at least say I walked through the majority of the Gala’s offerings.” It wasn’t easy to leave. And when I did, there was a throng of people waiting to get into the room. Looks like next year we’ll need a bigger boat…