The Weekly Mix: The 2012 Manhattan Cocktail Classic Wrap-Up

by Deanna Dong, Caroline Hatchett, Nicholas Rummell, Katherine Sacks, and Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis, Caroline Hatchett, and Nicholas Rummell Nicholas Rummell
April 2012

For the overeager and/or uninitiated, the annual "what did you learn?" of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic might translate into "what do you remember?" But just like last year, we limited ourselves to a few boozy selections from the MCC's insane catalogue of events, parties, crawls, and even one intrepid bus trip to Jersey (where $7.50 tiki drinks pack as much punch, and even more kitsch, than their Manhattan counterparts).

Whereas last year we learned about barrel-aging, spirits blind-tasting, and agave lore (and worship), this year we focused on spirits almost entirely: the secrets of bourbon blending, the versatility of Scotch, the many layers of Chartreuse, the competition-inspired variety of Campari in cocktails, and the case for white whiskey. Along the way we caught some of the high-tech action at Booker and Dax, where Dave Arnold oversees a crew of mixos-gone-mad-scientist, and stood in intimidated awe of the 16 female competitors at Miss Speed Rack finals. Read all about it, or what we remember of it, below.

Speed Rack Finals
Thursday, 5pm-9pm
Emily Bell

Kicking off MCC unofficially were the 2012 Miss Speed Rack Finals, bringing 16 of mixology's most talented femme fatales together from across the country. Speed bartending competitions have built in excitement: stop watches, the thrill of spillage potential, and copious booze. But Speed Rack takes it to the next level, complete with studly male barbacks clad in pink bandanas (all event proceeds went to breast cancer research), a band of beautiful roller skating brand ambassadors (including Mrs. Amanda Boccato and Charlotte Voisey), and a DJ who at one point seriously indulged in explicit musical celebration of the speed rack pun.

The competitors had all dominated their markets—and included some friends and friends of friends, including: Yael Vengroff (who's since left our fair island for Houston), Natasha David (now bartending at Demi Monde), and Alba Huerta, who works under 2011 Houston Rising Star Bobby Heugel at Anvil Bar & Refuge. Judges included Dale DeGroff (who gave us the ocular equivalent of a "what up!," we're sure of it), cocktail godmothers Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders, and Amanda Freitag, a cooking competition regular who gave the panel culinary perspective. For each round, each of the four judges ordered a cocktail from the two competitors. There were more than a few repeats (Moscow Mules, Cosmos, Vespers, etc.) and familiar recipes (Singapore Sling, El Diablo, Absolut Gimlet) because the competition wasn't about concocting complex cocktails, but creating balance (in double time) with a few simple classics.

We had a lot of favorite moments—when Mia Mastroianna of L.A.'s Soho House screamed "Moscow Muuuuule!" during a high pour of vodka; co-emcee Simon Ford calling Lacy Hawkins' double shake "what this contest is made for!"; an unofficial toast with a passed bottle of bourbon; secretly dancing to "Burning Down the House," pen in hand; etc. But our favorite of favorite moments might have been when Miss Vengroff, raven-haired speed demon, took the win in the final round of competition against Huerta, and was promptly showered with victory booze.

Monastic Mixology: Cocktails with Chartreuse
Saturday, 12pm-2pm
Caroline Hatchett

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Craft cocktails and haute hotdogs: it's the high-low concept that recently earned 2007 New York Rising Star Mixologist Jim Meehan and his PDT team the first ever James Beard "Outstanding Bar Program" award. And his MCC Stories from Behind the Bar session started with that hallowed combination: Crif Dogs and Mixologist Jeff Bell's For Peat's Sake—a Last Word variation of celery juice, Luxardo, green Chartreuse, Ardbag Scotch, and Pernod Absinthe. The drink originated from an overstock of Pernod Absinthe, but it also highlights one of Meehan's favorite liqueurs, Chartreuse.

Core spirits—rum, whisky, gin, even vodka—are the same for bartenders around the world, according to Meehan. But it's modifiers like Chartreuse that make all the difference. Joined by importer Tim Master of Frederick Wildman & Sons, Meehan and Bell introduced attendees to the Old World magic of Chartreuse. Made in a cloak of secrecy by Carthusian monks since 1605, green Chartreuse, in the minds of its makers, is still medicinal product—even though alcohol levels were cut in 1764 to make the spirit more friendly to imbibers. And when Meehan, Master, and Phil Ward of Death & Company visited the production facility in the French Alps last year, the monks were "humbled and honored" to sample Chartreuse in the hands of some of America's best mixologists, according to Master.

So how do some of America's best mixologists honor the complexity of Chartreuse in cocktails? Meehan suggests pairing green Chartreuse with lime and sturdier spirits, as in Bell's Last Word variation. Honeyed and saffron-infused yellow Chartreuse pairs well with lemon, white spirits, and Champagne. But the true last word on the subject came from Bell, who ended the session with the Little Squirt. The combination of yellow Chartreuse, blanco tequila, mezcal, bell pepper, and Mexican Squirt grapefruit soda was nuanced, refreshing, and highly gulpable—especially served alongside cheese-dunked tater tots.

Bourbon Blending 101
Saturday, 2pm-4pm
Caroline Hatchett

According to Trey Zoeller, founder of McLain & Kyne and Jefferson's, bourbon is a measure of its blending. Sure, the wild Kentucky weather helps bourbon age three times faster than Scotch, and young white oak barrels kick in plenty of character. But for Jefferson's, those markers of quality are a given. Zoeller, who comes from a long line of moonshiners and bourbon aficionados, sends blends to market. He takes eight to 12 single barrels or small batches of whisky from outside distillers and marries them to produce a new, often more nuanced, product—with a friendly price point to boot.

Mixologist Scott Fitzgerald of NYC's Mulberry Project demonstrated his own blending prowess by building sturdy cocktails from Jefferson's range of reserve and small-batch bourbons, as well as its newly released rye. For his Barreled Honey Manhattan, Fitzgerald layered "barrel-aged bitters to give more complexity and spice, a light nutty taste from walnut bitters, honey on [the] finish, and bitterness from [the] Carpano." His Old Fashioned variation sang of the South—the pecan pie-eating South, that is—with a just sweet and classic combination of bourbon, nuts, and honey.

Attendees at the Vinatta Project event sipped Fitzgerald's potent brown concoctions, including flip and Sazerac variations, and made their own custom whisky blends from an elegant 1993, a powerful 1995, and a young-but-full-of-personality 2005 bourbon.

A Taste of Contemporary Scotland in New York
Sunday, 1pm-3pm
Nicholas Rummell

Think about drinking in Scotland. We'll forgive you if kilt-wearing hooligans singing "Jack McGraw" with tumblers of neat whisky is the first thought that came to mind (we haven't yet been to the highlands either). But we have been to Highlands, the single spirit bar in New York's West Village with more than 140 whiskies, many of them from small distilleries (including AnCnoc, which helped sponsor the event). Beverage Director John McCarthy and Chef Christopher Rendell are trying to steer diners away from the Scotch tumbler-cliché to a more modernistic viewpoint. "You're definitely seeing now a new uptick in Scotch cocktails," McCarthy says. "We see a lot happening right now. People are making Scotch Mai Tais, people are making Scotch sours."

Sunday's brunch featured Finnan Haddie Kedgerie (that's curried rice, sweet peas, and poached egg for the brogue-less) and Full Scotch Breakfast, which were paired with either Blood and Sand (the classic blood orange-and-Scotch creation) or McCarthy's own Presbyterian Revenge, a clever twist on the ginger ale-whisky drink combined with Cynar. A bit political, perhaps (Scotland's predominant religion, known as The Kirk, is Presbyterian, while Cynar hails from Catholic-dominated Italy) but the Revenge is actually a model for religious unity. The unpeated AnCnoc single-malt Scotch and earthy, bitter artichoke liquor get along famously, bound together by a slightly tart grapefruit and simple syrup.

Campari "Best Aperitivo" Cocktail Competition
Sunday, 5pm-7pm
Nicholas Rummell

At Campari's "Best Apertivo" competition (held at The Shanty, next to the New York Distillery in Brooklyn), 29 barkeeps sweat pink to make the best darned Campari cocktail this side of the Atlantic. In the end, Bartender Morgan Schick of Jupiter Olympus consulting (looking calm and collected throughout the hectic throwdown) won for his Fiore di Melo (Campari, Hibiki whisky, Sherry, and honey syrup, topped with sparkling cider), earning him a free trip to Beijing to compete in the "Best Aperitivo" International Cocktail Competition.

Also among the competitors at the Campari challenge was Bartender Kyle Reutner, of Honolulu's Town, who mixed the same Pa cocktail we had during our recent tasting in the Hawaiian islands. The cocktail, which is a play on the local word meaning "to begin," is a great starter drink: low alcohol, a hint of citrus from the homemade grapefruit soda, and understated bitters from the Campari. "It's something you can sip two or three of out on the long lanai, watching the sun go down," says Reutner, who wanted his cocktail to be indicative of Hawaii and the laid-back attitude on the islands (not a contrived, multi-ingredient monstrosity with a massive, elaborate garnish)."

Dave Arnold and Bar Techniques
Monday, 2pm-4pm
Emily Bell

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If bartenders were little kids, Dave Arnold would be the kid with awesome, expensive toys, the kid you'd make an excuse to visit every day after school even if you were afraid of his dog or they didn't have any fruit snacks in the house. But unlike some kids—we remember who you are—Arnold isn't just a "look at my cool stuff" exhibitionist, strutting around his playpen while you sit looking on. He wants you to play, too, and Monday's Bar Techniques session was all about sharing the wealth that makes Booker & Dax at Momofuku Ssam Bar the leader in the art of the scientific cocktail craft.

Okay, so Arnold isn't about to give you his centrifuge, rotary evaporator, or even his stock of NO2. And he's definitely not about to hand over the custom-welded cartridge heater which he uses—like fire pokers of yore—to super-heat his hot cocktails. But he does want you to understand, say, how after a quick 4,000 rotations per minute at 4,000 times gravity, something like canned peaches—which he actually used a week prior at a FIAF demonstration—turns into a pure, flavorful, stable clarification. Or how you can use liquid nitrogen to muddle herbs into a powder, as he did for the Bangkok Daiquiri, where Thai basil gets a kiss of the cold stuff, lending a deeply cool, minty, and very fresh anise flavor to the mixture of rum, simple, and saline solution (Arnold's secret weapon in flavor enhancement, and something we're seeing more of across the board).

From Our Farms to You: Whiskey-n-Victuals
Monday, 5pm-7pm
Deanna Dong

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We've heard of an 18-year whiskey, but at "From Our Farm to Yours, Whiskey-n-Victuals" session at The Fat Radish, we were introduced to the 18-minute whiskey. White Pike, a family distillery in upstate New York, puts out white whiskey, an updated version of the Southern classic moonshine, crafted by Master Distiller Thomas Earl McKenzie, a true Southern gentleman from Alabama. Made of 59 percent corn, 28 percent spelt, and 13 percent malted wheat, the product spends barely any time in the barrel, resulting in a smooth, clean finish. White Pike points out the versatility of their white whiskey, which it recommends mixing, sipping, or shooting. Mixologists at the event created cocktails with a springtime flair, using citrus flavors (grapefruit, lemon, orange), and drinks were paired with small-bites made with Prescott Frost organic beef.