In New York, there are few occasions for hope as reliable as a cocktail, and few better than a party. The beginning of any party, even a bad one, is imbued with a kind of bright expectancy. And the beginning of a massive, opulent gala held in the marbled magnificence of the Fifth Avenue library, especially one with more than 25,000 very good cocktails, is an opportunity for the most outrageous kind of hope. The kind of hope that can make even a gala-jaded Upper East Side society matron, upon entering a room with nine cocktail stations and straw-hatted jazz band, dreamily raise her hand to the pearls at her throat and murmur, “This is great. My god, this is this great. This is grand.”
The opening night celebration of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic—which drew 2,900 aficionados, arrayed in tuxedos, sequined gowns, lacy sheaths, smoking jackets, velvet blazers and all manner of hats and feathered plumes—was a lavish, debauched spectacle befitting the outsized, increasingly dominant role that craft cocktails have come to play in the city’s drinking culture. Tickets, despite costing $195 to $395, sold out rapidly.
The press invitation had cautioned us to eat dinner beforehand—though there would be food—and to pace ourselves, both of which turned out to be not so much advisable as mandatory for staying upright throughout the four-hour bacchanalia. There was music and dancing, along with stilt walkers and living statues, plus sweet and savory edibles, but all these offerings paled in comparison to the drinking: 73 different cocktail stations, many of them serving multiple varieties of specialty cocktails, splayed over four massive floors of the library.
There was such an abundance that revelers would frequently take only a few sips of a drink before abandoning it in search of the next and possibly better drink. Waitstaff (about 600 people were working) wandered the fête, swaybacked under the weight of buckets laden with half-full glasses, gingerly stepping through the increasingly drunk crowd. A crowd that was not only under the influence of excessive quantities of alcohol, but in the grips of a mania. How else to describe the rage for craft cocktails that has swept the city of late, leaving in its wake a thirst for ever-more elaborate concoctions and an army of tipsy devotees who think nothing of paying $18 apiece for them?
Jay Beam—“B-e-a-m, as in Jim Beam”—a bowler-hatted aficionado, and his companion, Joyce Darbyshire, were clutching cans of negronis, a new product for enthusiasts on the go who don’t want to haul around the raw ingredients: gin, sweet vermouth and Campari.
“We used to drink wine, but, well, wine is just wine,” said Mr. Beam.
“We just got so into cocktails, they’re fascinating,” Ms. Darbyshire explained. (Yes, that’s her real name.) “Reading up on the history of a cocktail, then going into a bar and watching someone make it for you …”
“Of course, when you get a glass of wine, it’s not like it’s just someone pouring a glass of wine,” Mr. Beam interjected, “but cocktails are an art, a craft.”
“It’s an alchemy!” exclaimed Ms. Darbyshire. “You wonder, ‘How did you ever think to put that and that and that together?’”
When neo-speakeasies like Milk & Honey and Please Don’t Tell first started opening their unmarked doors in the late ’90s and early aughts, they helped to revive an American tradition that had been largely moribund since Prohibition—when the craft disappeared under the constraints of grim ingenuity—bootlegged booze being often very bad. Rather than accentuating good spirits, 1920s drinks were designed to mask inferior ones, resulting in scarcely quaffable creations like the Alexander, made of gin, crème de cacao and cream. And when it came to bad drinks, the hangover was a long one.
The speakeasies took a craft which had been straitlaced and relatively unimaginative in even the best bars and transformed it into something inventive, edgy and exciting, reviving forgotten classics, pushing the envelope and educating barflies on the differences between Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark. Cocktails went from being the thing you had before or with dinner to an event in and of themselves. The hush-hush appeal of the speakeasies, and the theatricality of a lot of the bartending that went on there (Apotheke put their bartenders in lab coats), only made the movement more irresistible.
A decade later, a scene once contained to neo-speakeasies has reached a level of total saturation. Neither the scuzziest dive nor the most beer-and-a-shot-centric sports bar seems exempt from the froufrou cocktail menu.
“In the 1990s, New Yorkers were drinking gin and vodka martinis. Now people are walking into bars demanding drinks with carambola and spicy honey,” said Raff VanCouten, who manages the bar program at the whiskey bar Maysville.
My local wine store in Bed-Stuy carries both Aperol and Damson gin liqueur (just the libations a Brooklynite might need to pick up on the way to a barbecue), and the Greene Grape market in Fort Greene offers not only aromatic bitters but orange, lavender, cardamom, chocolate, Peychaud’s and barrel-aged whiskey bitters.
“You can’t open a restaurant now without having a specialty cocktail list,” Anthony Caporale, an instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, told The Observer. “Having one doesn’t make you better and different anymore. But not having one ensures that you’re different—and worse.”
Cocktails are a natural fit for a city in love with connoisseurship, status and drinking. As Moby, who no longer drinks, said in a Believer interview last year, “Certain places have a specific or accidental utility. Perth, Australia, is a great place to be a surfer. And lower Manhattan is a district for drunks … No one comes to New York to be healthy; they come in listening to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and get off the plane wanting to get drunk.”
In addition to be a rather boozy city, New York is also a very competitive one. Bars now vie to outdo each other with expensive and edgy concoctions. Bacon bourbon or a salt pork Campari no longer seem shocking; nor does the $200 price tag on a martini made with 1950s Gordon’s gin (not a spirit known to improve with age) at the Experimental Cocktail Club.
The spread of the craft cocktail movement has also meant a glut of fine but ultimately forgettable cocktails—the infinite variations of the gin, St. Germain, lemon and soda water cocktail, invariably named after a street by the bar to disguise its sheer ubiquity—along with some truly terrible ones.