Tuesday, October 6, 2009
A View of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic
I attended the two-day "preview" of the new Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a cocktail caucus that is now supposed to materialize in Manhattan every May. Or, rather, I attended half of it. My schedule only permitted me to hang about on Saturday. Luckily, that gave me the opportunity to attend a panel by Milk & Honey's Sasha Pestraske. Petraske doesn't do many public seminars; his appearances at events like Tales of the Cocktail have been few. (His eye-opening talk on ice, in 2007, is still talked about.) That's a shame, because his “Cocktails for Your Home Cocktail Party" at MCC was easily one of the best cocktail panels I've ever attended, well-organized, cogently delivered, full of wit and packed with useful insights and tips. He went well over the time limit, talking for two and a half hours, and the audience remained rapt until the end.
I wrote up an account of the convention for the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog, including a run-down of Petraske's panel. Here it is:
It was nearly impossible not to be offered a drink within five minutes of entering the Manhattan Cocktail Classic at Astor Center on Saturday.
The convention’s first refreshments were served before noon, and they were not Bloody Marys. White Ladys (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice) were passed out in connection with one of the convention’s first seminars of the weekend, “Have Cocktail Shake, Will Travel,” an account of the fruits of the American bartender exodus that followed Prohibition.
Over at the event’s “official bar,” a dozen original creations with New York-oriented names (Little Brazil, NY Postal Road Julep, Bowery Smash) were built by a rotating teams of four bartenders. A camera crew filmed Misty Kalkofen, of the Boston bar Drink, as she delicately slapped both sides of a sage leaf—the garnish for a creation called the Botanical Garden—on the back of her hand before slipping it on top of the gin-based drink.
John Myers, a Portland, Me., bartender with a mustache of 19th-century thickness, had flown in specifically for the convention. He said his shift behind the bar was due to begin at 4:30, though he had only been given the recipes for the 12 new drinks on Thursday.
“New York is the cradle of bartending,” said Mr. Myers. “Historically, the way things are done was codified here. All the great cocktail manuals were published here. Masters like Jerry Thomas worked here.”
Lorna Wilkerson was one of the ticket-buying civilians at the convention. A Queens-raised, Boston-based obstetrician and gynecologist, Ms. Wilkerson said she would like to open a bar. “I think with the way health care is going, I don’t know how much choice I’ll have,” she said, only half-joking. Ms. Wilkerson said her interest in cocktails began when her father, returning from his first trip to Hawaii, built a tiki bar in the basement of their home.
“When I saw the event announced in July, I e-mailed immediately and said, ‘Is this for real? Because I have four c-sections in October. I’m going to move them if I can come in.’ They said it was real, so I booked my flight.”
Ms. Wilkerson has a bone to pick, however, with the higher echelon of New York bartenders. “I like the intimacy of your really good bartender, which, if you’re good, you connect on a one-to-one level. You do that as a doctor as well. That’s how it should be. I brought a friend of mine to New York two or three months ago, and she made the mistake of asking for something with vodka and basically got a tongue lashing. I think that’s unfortunate. I love cocktails. I like the history of it, the tradition of it, and I’d like to bring my friends in. I think if I opened a bar, it would be a be more egalitarian.”
She perhaps found a kindred spirit when she attended “Cocktails for Your Home Cocktail Party,” a panel led by bar owner Sasha Petraske. (All the Saturday panels were sold out except one.) Though Mr. Petraske owns Milk & Honey, arguably the most exclusive cocktail bar in New York, he is opposed to the over-intellectualization of the bartending profession. “Getting people their drinks is just as important as making them well,” he said. “No drink in the world is worth waiting 20 minutes for.”
“This is not wine,” he continued. “It’s incredibly different than wine. Cocktail are for drinking, and not thinking about. We don’t do what a winemaker does. Anybody can make a good daiquiri—but nobody does.” Ah, there’s the rub.
Among the other nuggets of wisdom to be culled from Mr. Petraske’s presentation: civilized people hold a rocks glass at the lowest point; “citrus to order is the height of service, cutting ice to order is an affectation”; don’t put Champagne or beer in a frozen glass; a home “party party” means five drinks per person, a “civilized party” three drinks per person; if you shake a drink and then fine-strain it, thus eliminating the bristling layer of ice shaving on top of the drink, “it’s like having a child and killing it”; and, if you overserve people at your party, it’s your fault.
“It’s your responsibility to not overserve,” he argued. “Your guest’s judgment is impaired; you’re sober. If they’re really aggressive about getting another drink, a way around that is to serve them a non-alcoholic drink. They probably won’t notice. If they come back to you and say, ‘Hey, you served me a non-alcoholic drink,’ then they’re probably sober enough. Serve them another drink.”