It's the start of cocktail festival season, kicking off May 11-15 with the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, now in its third year and bigger than ever. Lesley Townsend, founder and director, explains what's new, how New York is staying ahead of the game in the international stakes - oh, and what makes her yawn.
What's going to be different about the MCC this year?
So many things. The biggest new thing is we've added on entire trade conference: the Industry Invitational. It's taking place at the very posh Andaz hotel on Fifth Avenue. So in addition to all the events at bars across the city, the hotel will host 50 professional presentations, tech and app demos, tastings and competitions just for the trade.
What particular events you are looking forward to?
I've always said the most interesting thing is the intersection between cocktails, art and theatre, so I am looking forward to the Bowmore Scotch event with Sleep No More. Their show is like a wacky interpretation of Macbeth and it has been staged in this massive building that's made from knocking through three empty nightclubs for, like, a year. We have a special Bowmore spirited performance going on - the significance is that the show will already appeal to consumers who wouldn't ordinarily describe themselves as cocktail enthusiasts, so this is a different way to convert them, with Dave Wondrich's drinks and whisky. Now we're talking.
Are there more events this year?
The number of events is exactly the same as last year, with around 75 ticketed events, but that's not taking into account the Industry Invitational. There's more geographic spread, with more events taking place in Brooklyn than last year and a Tiki tour happening through New Jersey and Staten Island, which is the home of many original Tiki bars.
What can we expect from the gala?
The gala is very dear to my heart, it's so cool to be throwing the biggest cocktail party in New York. It's become one of the hardest places to get in to and we get so many angry emails from people that couldn't get tickets. This year we are trialling near-field communications, so if guests like the cocktail you are drinking, they can just tap the wristband and the next day you'll automatically receive the recipe and method on email. The next step will be creating pre-populated shopping carts with all the necessary ingredients. Ultimately it means brands can sell more product - data is the only thing that matters. It's a more sophisticated approach to spreading the word.
What makes the New York scene still stand out today?
For me, what I think is amazing is that cocktails have become ubiquitous. If a new restaurant doesn't have a beverage programme by a recognisable bartender it won't succeed. There may well be cities with better individual cocktail bars - you could make a case for London, Berlin, San Francisco or Tokyo - but in New York, I can count on one hand the number of restaurants that haven't offered me a formal menu with hand-crafted cocktails, places where it's normal to have an amari list or a choice of Madeiras. The modern 'trend' might have started in PDT, Employees Only and Death & Co. but now those are the givens, it's the level of attention to detail elsewhere that you probably don't see in other cities. That's not to say the drinks are always good, but certainly the concept is ubiquitous. It really stood out when I went snowboarding recently in the Rockies - there were really nice restaurants with drinks menus from the '80s.
What trends are you seeing in terms of cocktail ingredients?
The trend to savoury cocktails and drinks with salt or vinegar shows how our collective palate is developing. There's something that happens when you are drinking a lot of cocktails and your palate becomes experienced: you develop nuance and stop craving the sugar bomb. But the geekery has got to a crazy level: the in-jokes I'm hearing is that 'this small-batch bourbon is not small enough', that there are complaints when customers hear the bitters aren't made locally in Red Hook. In terms of New York geography, Williamsburg is still exploding in terms of bars.
What trends are over?
I am extremely tired of all the arguments about whether bartenders should call themselves mixologists. Is it pretentious? Is it keeping things real? I don't care. I'm bored of listening to the unending battle. We are becoming a spoof video of ourselves. One trend some people think is awful but I am totally on board with is the ability to make a reservation in a bar: you show up, they don't have space, but they take your name and call you in an hour. I think it creates a far better experience to go into a bar and sit at a table and not have to lean over other people to flag down a bartender. It encourages mindful drinking.