I think it's safe to say that most of the attendees at Friday's opening gala of the fifth-annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic went home with the makings of a fierce hangover. I, on the other hand, went home with both the hangover and some fun lessons to share with you all. Not to boast, but being even a little productive at that event is an accomplishment, given that it occupies all four floors of the New York Public Library with cocktails to taste every step of the way. I was halfway drunk just moments after stepping through the front door!
In addition to highlights that included performances by The Roots' Questlove and OutKast's Big Boi, a mirrored dance floor (brave were the women who stood on that in short cocktail dresses), and mint-julep ice cream, here are five of the coolest things I discovered.
1. Cocktail Mashups
One of my favorite drinks of the night was a G&T-Aperol Spritz mashup from Frank Cisneros of Dram and The Drink, in which he replaced the Prosecco that's traditionally in an Aperol Spritz with gin along with a splash of tonic. The cocktail was fantastic, getting its sweet-bitter flavor from both the Aperol and the tonic. It was incredible how both of the original drinks were instantly recognizable, yet somehow still blended into their own unified, beautiful thing.
I asked Cisneros if he had any tips for making other successful cocktail mashups. "I spent years as a DJ," he told me. "And any good mashup should be better than the sum of its parts." The key, he said, is to find two drinks that have enough in common that the substitution is a simple one. "My friend [and bartender] Damon Boelte and I tried to mash-up a daiquiri with a sazerac. We called it a snazerac, or a sazeraquiri, but it doesn't work. Those drinks are too different."
2. Serrano Pepper Infusions
Over at the Los Amantes mezcal table, I tried a tasty drink that was infused with serrano peppers and flavored with pomegranate and rose syrup. When I asked the bartender why he had used serranos to infuse the liquor, he said he liked them more than jalapeños. "They have better flavor and a more consistent heat," he explained, adding that jalapeño heat is too unpredictable, ranging from mild to atomic. His drink supported his theory: It had a pleasant green-pepper flavor and just enough spiciness, without any aggressive burn.
3. NY Distilling Company's Chief Gowanus Gin
I love gin. But in my years in the food industry, I've had to suffer through more than one gin tasting where it was served neat. I can say, with some authority, that most gins are absolutely repulsive at room temperature. But I was lucky to get a sip of the fairly new Chief Gowanus Gin from NY Distilling Company. They describe it as a "New Netherland" gin, a spin on an antiquated style dating back to Dutch New York that the NY Distilling team created with the help of cocktail historian David Wondrich. It's made with unaged rye whiskey, juniper berries, and Cluster hops, and rested three months in oak barrels. While recognizably a gin with plenty of juniper and other botanical flavors, it was smoother and more easy drinking than most, perhaps thanks to the aging and inclusion of rye. Whatever the reason, I'd describe it as delicious, at any temperature.
4. Teeny Tiny Flasks
Bottled cocktails have been all the rage for a while now, but I was still tickled pink (or maybe I was just seeing pink elephants?) to find these cute little 100mL (3-ounce) mini-flasks. There's something about their tiny size that makes slugging (or sipping) a strong drink that much more fun. I highly recommend getting a ton of these for your next party and filling them with pre-batched cocktails. Serve 'em chilled, people will love it.
5. The Doubled-Down Vice
I've always wished I could enjoy the tradition of smoking a cigar while nursing a good brown liquor. But as much as I've always loved the fig-and-leather scent of dried tobacco, I've also just as strongly hated the smell of it burning. The folks who produce Widow Jane Bourbon took advantage of that delicious pre-incineration tobacco smell by infusing Dominican tobacco leaves in 130-proof rye, then blending it with their Bloody Butcher High Rye Bourbon. To my taste, it's the best of both in one easy format. I may never adopt the habit of the whole cigar-and-booze thing, but I can definitely see myself settling into a worn club chair with a glass of this good stuff.
6. Bonus Reminder: Don't Forget Batavia Arrack
Batavia arrack, the Javanese spirit of fermented sugarcane and red rice, isn't exactly a new thing (Serious Eats wrote about it back in '08 when importers first began bringing it to the States), but it hasn't quite gone mainstream either. Once upon a time Batavia Arrack was a fairly common punch ingredient. As I drank St. John Frizell's whiskey punch with lemon syrup, I noticed a flavor that I couldn't place but really enjoyed. "Batavia arrack," he said. "For funk and body." Let this be a reminder to me and anyone else who needs it: Maybe it's time to bring a bottle of batavia arrack home.