When Lesley Townsend Duval launched the Manhattan Cocktail Classic five years ago, “cocktails were a trend,” she says. “You could count on two hands the number of cocktail bars in New York City.” But coming off a stint with Astor Wine & Spirits, during which she helped launch Astor Center, she believed the city needed a cocktail festival, and so she decided to put one together.
“I noticed out loud that there wasn’t a big cocktail festival in NYC,” she says. “And that was weird, given that there’s a festival for literally of everything, and NYC is the epicenter of cocktail culture in a lot of respects.” It took her a year and the help of a team of founding advisors — an A-list group of spirits professionals that includes celebrated bartenders like Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, and Sasha Petraske — to get it off the ground, but she rolled out a two-day preview in October of 2009, and the inaugural festival took place in May of 2010. “It really took off in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated,” Duval says.
That’s partially because the drinking landscape has changed significantly since that first party. “It’s no longer a trend,” says Duval. “It’s just a part of our eating and drinking culture. When you go to a restaurant now, any restaurant, you expect to be given a cocktail menu, and you expect those cocktails to be really good. Cocktails have a very solid position next to the wine list and the food list, which was not the case 10 years. The ubiquity of cocktails is kind of amazing — I kind of forget that there was an era before this.”
And as we’ve grown to love cocktails, we’ve expanded what we’re drinking, too. Sweet tipples have given way to drinks with bitter and salty notes. “I can’t even tell you the number of cocktails I’ve had in the past year that have salt as a garnish,” says the organizer. “And this isn’t a salt-rimmed margarita — it’s beautiful maldon salt crystals on top of the egg white foam.”
You’ll be able to get a good look at what’s going on in the world of cocktails at this year’s event, which follows the structure of past festivals: Duval’s group runs the opening night gala at the New York Public Library on May 9, and the Industry Invitational, a two-day trade conference on May 10 and 11. “All of the other events” — and there are dozens — “are organized by bars and brands, bartenders, you name it,” says Duval. “Every year it’s different because it’s crowd-sourced. I never know what the festival is going to look like until everything comes together.” And while the public isn’t invited to the trade show, drinkers of all stripes are welcome at most of the other parties, which are ticketed individually through the Classic’s website.
What does Duval recommend you attend? “If I may so immodestly say so, the gala is an event that everyone should go to once,” she says. “It’s a really fun event. It’s a magical night for people who’ve never experienced it. It’s black tie, and there’s live music and great cocktails.” Otherwise, scroll through the events for what fits your fancy; she also points to the Indie Spirits Expo, a great way for consumers to get acquainted with a number of smaller brands.
Tickets are on sale right now. The Manhattan Cocktail Classic hits town May 9 through 13.
Page through for photos of last year’s event.