Saturday, May 15, 2010

Scenes from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic Gala

The above picture depicts what just one table looked like thirty minutes into the Manhattan Cocktail Classic's May 12 gala. The invitation of 1,000 willing imbibers inside the Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library to have at countless cocktail stations serving endless refreshments of all sorts was not quite the scene of debauchery I anticipated. Cocktail industry folk and cocktail enthusiasts, owing to their deep-seated respect for the craft of assembling intoxicants, generally know how to hold their liquor and keep their bad behavior to a minimum. They're lushes, not louts.

There was a bit of difficulty getting in at first. The gala started at 9 PM and, wouldn't you know it, everyone showed up at 9 PM, with lines snaking down the grand stones steps on to the sidewalk. I haven't seen so many tuxes since the last time I went to opening night at the Met.

Inside, it was sultry as New Orleans, given the ill-timed humidity of the day, and the brass-heavy band was blasting. Celebrants quickly discovered which rooms were air-conditioned. There was the Belvedere room, a cool-toned, black-and-white affair with an excellent DJ. But to stay there, you have to drink vodka. And who wants to do that?

A better option, and one initially hard to find, was The Stork Club, on the north side of the basement level, where products owned by the conglomerate Diageo reigned. The large vaulted room looked nothing like the Stork Club, aside from a blown-up photo of Sherman Billingsley and the fact that they were serving Stork Club Cocktails at one station. Here was yet another insistent, brassy, multi-member percussive band. I liked them, but Sherman wouldn't have.

But no matter. The music was good, the room was cool, there was ample seating, and the drinks here were the best executed of the affair. I had a Mint Julep made with Bulleit Bourbon, a Southside with Tanquerey 10 (prepared by none other than Misty Kalkofen of Boston's Drink) and a Mary Pickford made with Zacapa 23 year old rum. None missed, despite having been prepared in multiples and in haste. 

Another plus of the Stork Room—there were no harlequins or mad hatters or burlesque girls. Something in the cocktailian's gene make-up causes them to love louche dress-up. Anything you might find inside Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge sets their hearts abeat. Most of these outlandishly dressed, working-for-the-night actors could be found in the Bacardi room. There, if you could get past the hard-to-breach entrance (the security force was very serious), you would also find copious amounts of food, including whole pigs carved up by Fatty 'Cue staff. Also, tables of boxed fresh fruit from Driscolls, as if it were a farmer's market.

Elsewhere, boys and girls dressed up as ushers and usherettes (or bellboys, or cigarette girls—not sure) handed out shots of rum from wooden trays around their necks. An old woman decked out as an enormous Queen Victoria was perched atop the station for Hendrick's Gin. There was a table piled high with fruits, vials, potions and jars of botanicals. A sign said "Cocktail Therapy. The Doctor Is In." I think the idea was that mixologists led laymen through the process of creating their own cocktail. I didn't wait to find out; the line was far too long. 

Guests were give ample chances to make good-natured fools of themselves. There was a photo studio, sponsored by one vodka or other, where you could pose with a couple girls dressed in what seemed to be sexy air hostess costumes (again, these could have been more cigarette girls). After the picture was taken, a wonk on a large computer quickly photoshopped the image. This helped to add to the vague prom-night feel of the bash. (People were dressed to the nines, particularly the be-gowned women.) And some people actually lined up to have their appearance judged by a man and woman in masks. "A fair and honest appraisal of your appearance with Gill and Jill Bumpy" read the sign at the table. Gill and Jill banged out their ripostes on manual typewriters. I asked why this was. The appeared to be mutes. No reason was given.

There were some new products on offer. The limited edition Beefeater Summer was being whipped up into a punch. Farmer's Gin, a small-batch Minnesota gin, was being introduced to the New York market. And there was a pink lemonade vodka, the implications of which made me shudder. 

For those in need of relief, there was an entire grooming salon set up by Truman's Gentleman's Groomer (on Park Avenue) near the second-floor men's room. Massage chairs, manicure station, shoe shine stand, barber's chairs, the works. The much-more-subdued combo here played cool California jazz. 

Otherwise, the library's reading room was transformed into the Virgin Room, where one could sit and sip bottled water and energy drinks. Ironically, his is the only place I spotted Pegu Club mixologist Audrey Saunders, one of the founders of the Classic. I guess even a cocktail expert can get enough of cocktails sometimes. 

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