The Rise and Rise of the Cocktail Fest

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Lesley Townsend, founder of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, took that trope and ran with it when she decided to allot equal–size booths to each exhibitor, no matter whether big (like Campari) or teensy (like the Earth–Friendly Kansans). “There’s something really satisfying about creating a level playing field for all the brands,” she says. “I think it resonates strongly with our festival audience. They can tell this isn’t being sold out to the highest bidder; it feels authentic and representative of the entire industry, not just those companies with the deepest pockets.”

But who is that audience? Industry professionals, for sure—mixologists, event sponsors, artisans, liquor brewers and distillers, academics, and media—the 2010 Tales counted 65.3 percent of attendees among that professional group. “The event is programmed for the bartender,” says Tuennerman of Tales. “If you are a professional, it is a must–attend.” But what of the remaining 34.7 percent? “It’s quite an odd mix of people,” says Wondrich, citing as typical IT (information technology) people, doctors (!), lawyers, and even—encountered recently at a Washington, D.C., event—a pair of Jesuits. “But most appear to be well behaved when in their cups,” he adds “No seedy alcoholics—I see less than I do in a bar. It’s fairly self–policing. You hold your booze and you don’t go crazy.”

Townsend—who founded the Manhattan Classic last year because she noticed New York had a festival for “literally everything” except cocktails—breaks it down further: “The typical attendee is a young professional, urban, single, wealthy, and likely to be considered an influencer. Most attend as part of their regular participation in the hip social happenings of the city.” But she cites a higher purpose, too. “People—Americans, in particular—would be far better off if they spent a little more time thinking about what they eat and drink, rather than just blithely tossing back whatever was put in front of them. Mindful eating, mindful drinking.”

Sort of…religious? Well, no. But the language of devotion does have a way of creeping into the cocktail bar. “Festivals are great for spreading the gospel,” Wondrich says. “Every year a new country shows up [at Tales]. A few years ago there were a couple of guys from London, the next year, a huge contingent. I met a couple of guys from Copenhagen. They got interested and organized the first Danish fest.” Apparently, the planet is being stocked with superior libations, one nation at a time.

OK, so enormous, commercially motivated gatherings devoted to strong alcohol are spreading goodwill, mindfulness, and community spirit. But, the dark side? Obviously, alcoholism is the specter at this feast. But hell, nobody’s pretending these are Shirley Temples. Nobody’s forcing Negronis on Jesuits. Also, the cocktail circuit—despite Lesley Townsend’s efforts to level the field—is not really a sweet collation of artisanal producers; it’s actually lorded over by multinational drink conglomerates such as Diageo, Anheuser–Busch, Brown–Forman, LVMH, and SABMiller. And the big guns have invented a whole new dubious career path for young people wanting in on the cocktail action—the brand ambassador. Ubiquitous in bars, these are alcohol pushers, essentially, and they’re a powerful arm of the beverage industry—whose interests they promote by wielding new cocktail recipes, free beverages, mixology clinics, and their own personal coolness at social gatherings. But Wondrich says they don’t necessarily bring down the tone at a fest: “It goes brand by brand—if they’re giving you a Champagne cocktail they’re your best friends.”

How much bigger this can grow is anyone’s guess. It’s not that hard to imagine a future in which every one–horse town with an arts week or a Fourth of July parade felt compelled to add cocktail festival to the tourist attractions and municipal highlights. “I can’t see this peaking’ any more than I can imagine New Yorkers deciding they no longer care about eating good food,” says Townsend. Wondrich goes further. “It’s spreading. It’s becoming a drug culture. Young people in their 20s are doing it with cocktails”—and here he expands on how preferable a well–made Manhattan and the lifestyle that surrounds it is to, say, a needleful of smack: “They feel drawn to that world in my books, which are little fantasies of convivial life in days gone by.” After all, what we now call a handcrafted artisanal libation used to be known as…a drink. The convivial life is partially reconstructed every time a good barkeep combines a couple of liquors with a modicum of skill…and it’s not that hard. Before there was Midori and Kahlua and sour mix, there were Old Fashioneds and Tom Collinses and Whisky Sours. They’re not that complex. “It takes 15 seconds to make a good Manhattan,” Wondrich points out.

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