Five lessons I learned at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic

After last week’s shoutout for classic liquor brands to remember, here’s a snapshot of newer, hot-to-trot brands, plus a few key learnings I took away from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Cheers!

1) Rums are the “IT” Liquor

It was only recently that I started to truly appreciate the sipping value of rum, falling in love with such brands as Zacapa. Walking around the Classic, I was thrilled to see an influx of rums, which, according to various mixologists I talked to, are the latest trend in top bars around town.

When I came across Dos Maderas Rum from Spain, my heart skipped a beat. This was a rum to remember at an unbeatable price (the 8-10 year aged rum sells for just $29.99). Made by the Spanish Winery, Bodegas Williams Humbert, the Barbados-sourced rum is aged for five years before being shipped to Spain. It is then aged further in sherry barrels from the winery, giving it a wonderful, smooth flavor with caramel notes.

2)      This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Vodka

As someone who can appreciate the value of vodka, I was happy to see the clear liquor is holding strong. But the brands I saw, well, let’s just say they weren’t your grandmother’s vodka…

These vodkas are unlike anything you’ve come across before. There was Hophead Vodka made from Hops from Anchor Distilling Company out of San Francisco (an amalgamation of Anchor Brewing Company, Anchor Distilling Company, Berry Bros. & Rudd and Preiss Imports). This vodka was AWESOME with that bitter, hoppy flavor and no harsh vodka-alcohol burning sensation. In addition, I tasted a marmalade vodka from Chase Distillery out of the UK (made with potatoes), which was bright and flavorful (their straight vodka won for best vodka in 2010 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition), as well as Fair Vodka, made from Quinoa lending a smooth, fruity – but not sweet – flavor with a hint of spice. And then there was Left Coast Hemp Vodka, made from, you guessed it, hemp out of Canada.

3) Independent Distilleries are Taking Over

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced 24 New York state distilleries would participate at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Despite any political motivation, I was pretty impressed with the level of quality that came from these companies. There were more distilleries than import companies showing off their brands.  And in addition to those 24 distilleries, (check out Breuckelen Distilling and New York Distilling Company), there were great companies from outside of New York, including Deaths Door Spirits and House Spirits. They reminded me of tales you hear about everyone and their mother making bathtub gin. But this is the good stuff. Gin, whiskey and vodka are the heart liquors of these craft distilleries making headway in the U.S.

4) There’s Room for Everyone, Even a Liqueur

Mixing in with the vodkas, rums and gins at the MCC were the liqueurs, including Sorel (pronounced Sor-El), which celebrated their one-year anniversary at the Classic. Created by Jackie Summers of Jack from Brooklyn, Sorel is a liqueur made from Barbados-sourced hibiscus and perfected in Summers’ Red Hook, Brooklyn kitchen. The liqueur has a delicious flavor of nutmeg and ginger that isn’t syrup-y sweet like many other liqueurs. When I visited the Sorel Bar at the Classic, cocktails by Frank Stilo were being served. I was lucky enough to have a Jackie Brown (pictured here), featuring Sorel mixed with rum, clove simple syrup and lemon juice. It was DELICIOUS and perfect for the summer! And Frank, who hails from Café Noir, said he looks at Sorel like a “new colored crayon – I can play and do things with this that I can’t with the other colors.”

More than anything, I was o impressed that a small liqueur brand was playing in a field with some heavy hitters. Sipping on the delicious cocktails, I was truly inspired in chatting with Jackie Summers, who has gone through his own personal journey in creating a fantastic brand that is already making major headway.

5) The Classic has More than Just Booze

With over 200 liquor sponsors, there were non-alcoholic brands that took the spotlight – showing that the Classic goes beyond alcohol. Vitamix blenders, Celebrity X Cruises and a slew of other products came before mixologists and on-premise accounts to highlight they too can play in the world of mixology. It was refreshing to speak to representatives of companies who were excited just to be part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and not the usual suspects, providing an outside perspective.

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