A chance to attend a cocktail competition at the Metropolitan Opera is not something one receives every day. So when Allen Katz (above, flanked by Tyne Daly and Kevin Denton) extended an invitation to such a perverse cultural mash-up, I immediately accepted. Every time I talk to Katz, the director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, I learn something new. He makes gin (or plans to); he sings; he lived in Italy for two years; he was an intern to Stephen Sondheim. In this instance, I found out about his passion for opera. Here's the account I wrote up for the Times:
Mixing Cocktails and Opera
By Robert Simonson
An hour before the singers in the Metropolitan Opera's Dec. 10, 100th-anniversary performance of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" bent an elbow at the Polka Saloon, a single mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham, bellied up to the Grand Tier's Revlon Bar for a round of cocktails.
Ms. Graham was one of the judges of an unusual competition that saw some of the city's more prominent mixologists mix it up with the uptown opera crowd. She was joined by cocktail book author Gaz Regan; actress Tyne Daly, an opera fan who will play Maria Callas in an upcoming Broadway revival of the play "Master Class"; and Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York.
Mr. Katz, a longtime opera fan, used his connections at the Metropolitan Opera to build a bridge between the disparate worlds. "Why not bring to the opera, if you will, another cultural institution—that of the bartending community, that has by and large not had an experience like this," said Mr. Katz, dressed in jeans, a gray, pin-striped jacket and a white ten-gallon hat. Last year, he rounded up nearly fifty local bartenders and took then to the final dress rehearsal of "The Tales of Hoffman." Only one had previously been to the Met. That was followed up by a friendly contest in which a few of the barkeeps devised cocktails inspired by the Offenbach opera.
This year, the Bartender's Choice was "La Fanciulla del West," a 1910 composition set in the Wild West. In order to hold the bartenders' interest, Mr. Katz has tried to pick operas that "have a throughline of alcohol or drinking." Since the first act of the Puccini work takes place in a frontier saloon, it was a natural.
The bartenders' liquid creations showed they had not been napping at the dress rehearsal they attended. All independently concluded that a whiskey drink was the order of the day; there were no flavored vodka drinkers among the '49-ers. Brad Farran of Brooklyn's Clover Club—seeing that the opera's anti-hero, the bandit Ramirez, mentions picking blackberries—decided to incorporate creme de mure in his drink. A brief reference to hyssop in the first act led Kevin Denton, of the Gramercy Park Hotel, to lace his libation with hyssop-infused honey. And every one of the bartenders—including James Menite of Fornino and Eryn Reece of Mayahuel—made sure to use an Italian amaro or liqueur of some sort. At least two contestants took the task seriously enough to bring their own ice. Mr. Menite when so far as to make his own mozzarella cheese for the garnish of his Bloody Mary-like production, christened Spaghetti Western.
"We're thinking of the Italian opera meets the American west, premiering in Manhattan in 1910," said Ted Henwood of Telepan, delineating his drink. "So the first cocktail that came to mind was the Manhattan: whiskey, Italian vermouth. I decided to build it on an image in the opera. Three lovers come together, one is shot and bleeding, the other is chasing him. He hides upstairs in the rafters of the woman's cabin. The good guy comes in looking for him and in his jealousy he is going to take her by force. As he goes to grab her blood drips down from the rafters onto his hand. He realizes his rival's upstairs." His concoction featured corn whiskey, Amaro Nonino and Luxardo cherry liqueur. The name of the cocktail: Sangue del Bandito—The Blood of the Bandit. Appropriately, the drink was the blood red.
Mr. Regan and Mr. Katz are accustomed to tippling at all times of day, but the other two judges approached the task with a certain wondering curiosity. "I have been known to enjoy a cocktail," said Ms. Graham, who was walking tall in cowboy boots and a leopard-skin cowboy hat. "But I have not been been a whiskey drinker until tonight. Vodka is my drink." Ms. Daly also counted herself something of a cocktail novice. "I like Plymouth gin," she said, "but I generally drink my liquor straight."
In the end, the two worlds were not as far apart as they might first appear. Ms. Graham revealed she was once a bartender "a hundred years ago." And Lynette Marrero, of Peels in the East Village—who won the competition with her Smoking Gun (Rittenhouse rye whiskey, Amaro CioCiaro, Bittermans Mole Bitters, Angostura Bitters, and smoked demerara syrup)—used to tread the wicked stage; she appeared in a pre-Broadway production of Frank Wildhorn's "Dracula."
Ms. Marrero—who also triumphed during the 2009 contest—was rewarded with tickets to several performances at The Met this season. Each of the other participating bartender will receive one pair.
"We're single-handedly bringing down the median age of the Met audience," quipped Mr. Katz.