Highlights of the 2011 Manhattan Cocktail Classic

by Emily Bell, Kathleen Culliton, and Francoise Villeneuve
Kathleen Culliton, Shannon Sturgis, Francoise Villeneuve, and Autumn Stein
June 2011

The Astor Center: Where the Party Starts

The 2011 Manhattan Cocktail Classic, the annual festival of workshops, seminars, and tastings of all things spirited, swept the StarChefs team (not to mention the mixo-happy hordes of NYC), into a lively and sodden whirlwind of a weekend. There were over 75 events to attend on almost every corner of the island from the New York Public Library to the brink of The New York Harbor. While we sipped on South Sides, Chocolate Jesuses, and the occasional Hanky Panky, spirit experts and gifted mixologists did their best to impart wisdom upon contentedly-cocktailing MCCers. Time constraints (and sympathy for our livers) prevented StarChefs from taking in every activity, but we still managed to soak up a fair amount of info (and some hella hangovers.)



2009 StarChefs.com Rising Star Mixologist Maxwell Britten of Maison Premiere and Colleague

Manhattan Cocktail Classic Opening Night Gala

High proof raunchy fun in the stacks fulfilled many a cocktail buff’s librarian fantasy at the annual gala, held inside the stunning main branch of the New York Public Library. Every level of the historic building was filled with booths dedicated to individual spirits, spun into craft cocktails by star mixologists like Jeffrey Morgenthaler (behind a mini version of what’s now become an icon of his—the barrel) and Orson Salicetti. Ladies and gentlemen of the press (including Time Out New York’s Eat Out Editor Jordana Rothman), mixologists, cocktail enthusiasts, and Gotham’s well-heeled ladies went from booth to booth sampling the goods—blissfully ignoring the usual signs forbidding food, drink, cell phones, and flash photography. Among our favorite tipples: the perfumed Oxley Classic English Dry Gin cocktail “Royal Air Force,” feminine and fragrant with lavender syrup, maraschino, and lemon juice and garnished with lavender; herbaceous “The Balation” cocktail at the Zwack herbal liqueur booth was an intriguing mixture of vermouth, lemon juice, simple syrup, orange marmalade, Peychaud's bitters, soda water, and spiced rum, garnished with orange peel; Fee Brothers struck again in a smoky and spicy cocktail that paired Tres Vidas Mezcal, Fee Brothers aromatic bitters, agave nectar, lime juice, green bell pepper slices, and chile chipotle meco.


New Oak and XO Cognac Barrels Look and Smell Completely Different and Impart Completely Different Flavors

Age: The Final Frontier—Barreling Spirits & Cocktails

with Phillip Duff

When it comes to crafting a cocktail, throwing it in a barrel and aging it doesn’t often come to mind. But barrel-aged cocktails have become something of a sensation in the past year, as the presence of Simon Difford at this session confirmed for us. Philip Duff of Liquid Solutions decoded the trend started by Tony Conigliaro and Jeffrey Morgenthaler with samples of non-aged tequila, tequila aged in cognac casks, tequila aged in sauternes casks, and a blend of sauternes-cask-aged tequila and cognac-cask-aged tequila. Excellia and G Vigne Gin were aged to Duff’s specifications for the event, brought to the United States, and tasted at the seminar, illustrating his talk on the history of barrel-aging, coopers, and the telltale mold of illicit distilleries. The flavor and color extraction (from the barrel by the solvent alcohol) and controlled slow oxidation that takes place when cocktail meets barrel became patently obvious when we tasted the tequilas. But what would it mean in cocktail form? Well, it translated into softened flavors, and an increase in toasted and vanilla aromas and flavors. We loved the barrel-aged Hanky Panky, a G-Vigne Nouaison concoction with vermouth and Fernet Branca, for its softened flavors. But cocktails that rely on freshness like the White Lady—made with G Vigne Nouaison, Cointreau, Lactart and an Egg White—we preferred unaged.


Classic Cocktails, Classic Film: NY Nightlife

with Nora Maynard

A well-mixed cocktail can mysteriously move time forward (when downed in concession with a half-dozen compatriots, that is). But for the first time at the “Classic Cocktails, Classic Film” workshop, a Southside and a Red Snapper transported imbibers into the past. Nora Maynard (freelance writer/old-movie-buff/cocktail-connoisseur) led a guided tour through the best bars of New York City, with the very best of companions. We were strong-armed out of the Oak Room with Cary Grant; Ray Liotta snuck us through the kitchen into the Copacabana; and we toasted George Sanders with a sneer at The Cub Room.  Between clips of Maynard’s favorite sips on the silver screen, the audience got a chance to shake it with the best of them (had William Powell had been in attendance, he’d reminded us, “a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”)


The Blind Tasting Lineup

Spirits in a Blind, or How Spirits Professionals Describe Spirits with Something other than "I like it."

with Doug Frost and Steve Olson

It’s not uncommon for spirits gurus Doug Frost and Steven Olson to start their days with a systematic tasting of, say, eight spirits. Which makes their rapid-fire, info-chocked Monday presentation at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic all the more impressive.  After teaching us the fine art of tasting (first, you rinse with the spirit and spit; then you taste, coating every part of your mouth, inhaling to enhance the aromatics—and, optionally, spit again …) they took us through a blind tasting of eight spirits. Most mixos in the audience had a good handle on the basics of aromatics and viscosity, but Olson and Frost took us deep into each glass, teaching us to “get underneath the obvious.” After a few timid guesses (“Orange flower?” “Bell pepper?” “Caramel?”), the audience really got into it and revelations abounded. What turned out to be Frapin VSOP Cognac demonstrated “roncio,” or the not unpleasant taste of fruit spoilage (think oxidized apple or fig) that comes from aging in European oak. Meanwhile a damn respectable Crown Royal XR Canadian Whisky showed the coconut affect of ageing in American oak. Don Julio Blanco Tequila had a surprisingly tobacco-y finish,  which we expected from the smoky-sweet Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Vida, in addition to jalapeno, green pepper, and apple. And a Talisker 18-year Single Malt Scotch Whisky had a few surprises of its own beneath the usual smoky suspects—think linoleum, smoked fish, and Band-aid. The takeaway, besides a warm fuzzy feeling, is learn your palette, and learn to see beyond it.


Three Agave-based Cocktails

Agave Spirits Cocktails Beyond the Margarita: Enhancing the Terroir of Mezcal and Tequila in Libations

with Steve Olson, Ron Cooper, David Grapshi, Andy Seymour, Ryan Fitzgerald, Misty Kalkofen, and Sean Kenyon

Any bartender attending who did not yet know, love, and worship the agave plant and all its fermented, distilled glory left Tuesday’s seminar a wide-eyed and pleasantly buzzed convert. Of course, the point of the star-studded tasting wasn’t drinking, although master mixos Misty Kalkofen, Sean Kenyon, and Ryan Fitzgerald each prepared a cocktail to showcase the wonder of agave (in tequila, tequila, and mezcal form respectively). The real point—driven home by self-professed “agave fanatic” Steve Olson, agave apostle Ron Cooper, and 38-year spirits industry vet David Grapshi (whom we can thank for importing silky, peppery Siete Leguas Blanco into the United States—“I want to create the tête de cuvee”)—was appreciating the integrity of not only the products, but also the cultures and centuries of tradition and terrorio behind them.  The message got through, and not just because we tasted eight different agave-based spirits that showed an incredible range of texture, flavor, and finish. In fact, it really was the first sip—as Ron Cooper proclaimed, “you drink a little mezcal or tequila, and your consciousness is transformed.”


Bruising Mint at Cienfuegos

Stories from Behind the Bar: Cienfuegos

with Mayur Subbarao, Beverage Director, Jane Danger, Beverage Director, and Avery Glasser

The operation that houses Cienfuegos is a tri-partite cocktail haven. And at this year’s MCC we got to taste all of it. Upstairs, the bright, funky-spastic Cienfuegos, cocktail maven Jane Danger had already mixed up a bowl  of The Damn Son Punch!, a light pink mixture of Damson Ginger Liqueur, Chairman’s Silver rum, fresh lime, Regan’s orange bitters, cane syrup, mint, and soda water (it’s serious fun, the MO of Cienfuegos). Downstairs, Mayur Subbaroa treated us to his take on rum—“a misunderstood spirit” stranded in Tiki and daiquiri land—at El Cobre. His Chocolate Jesus is Subbarao’s personal rum worship (which is maybe why it’s named for the Tom Waits song). Combined Bittermen’s chocolate mole bitters with crème de cacao, Cynar, house-made sweet vermouth, house-made and cacao-infused Del Maguey Vida, and El Dorrado 12-year, it made a strong case for the serious, stirred, heavy rum drink.  Next door, at Bitters Tasting Room Amor y Amargo, Avery Glassmen—founder of Bittermen’s—showed us how bitters of all varieties can be selected to enhance the properties of a cocktail. Bittermen’s Hellfire Shrub bitters enhanced the Francaise Four-Play, a concoction of Bonal Quinquina, yellow Chartreuse, Cognac, Lillet Blanc, and club soda.  All in all, the afternoon was a tipsy tease of what this LES triple-threat has to offer.


Skyy Compari Whisky Ambassador Kristina Sutter sips a dram

Skyy Compari Whisky Ambassador Kristina Sutter sips a dram

Women and Whiskies

Kristina Sutter and Lisa Pike

How does one woman taste eight whiskies (and a few whisky cocktails to boot) in two hours? Like a pro, naturally. Under the tutelage of Skyy Compari Whisky Ambassador Kristina Sutter, the ladies at Women and Whiskies—novice drinkers and mixos alike—sipped their drams like serious dames: with a few droplets of water to release aromatic compounds and a table full of foods (chocolate, wheat grass, molasses, and pear) to help distinguish flavor profiles in the different spirits. With sips to illustrate a speedy lecture, Sutter broke down the differences between Scotch (including highland and island—the latter of which is known for its smoky, peaty undertones), Irish, Bourbon, Tennessee, and Japanese whiskies (oh! and Canadian, if you count that as whisky). Beginners learned that wooden barrels—whether they’re straight from the forest or have previously aged a spirit or wine—give whisky 100 percent of its color and the vast majority of its flavor. And pros learned tips for pairing whisky with food (it’s a spirit that can stand up to strong flavors). Sutter’s recommendations: peaty island-style Scotch with smoky barbecue, older Sherry barrel-aged Scotch with steak and lamb (younger is a good fit for oysters), and any whisky with caramel flavors—think grilled onions or tarte tatin.

Related Photo Galleries