From Berlin To Brooklyn, Bar Convent Makes a Bold Debut
The announcement that Bar Convent - the largest scale beverage convention in Europe that takes place every fall in Berlin - was coming to Brooklyn in the spring was met with excitement, but also a bit of skepticism. The Berlin is event is very specific to Europe in many ways - how was it going to work in the states? Could they pull such a thing off in New York City?
The answer is thankfully yes. Bar Convent Brooklyn, which took place between June 12th and 13th at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint was much smaller in scale, but very much resembled the creative and inclusive tone of the Berlin convention in many respects - including its layout, variety of exhibitors, educational content, attendees (nice to see many people from abroad came over to check it out) and even the food and parties. However, the Brooklyn event had an advantage over the one in Europe - because of its smaller size and location, there was a true sense of community on display throughout the event - it was like a hugfest wrapped in a drinks convention. In Berlin it takes a while to move through the halls of the event because of its sheer size and number of attendees. In Brooklyn, it was because it seemed everyone was happily chatting and visiting with familiar friends.
The unofficial kickoff to BCB was the Indie Spirits expo the day before, which showcased a wide range of boutique offerings spanning many categories, including the creative range of spirits from Baltimore Whiskey Company that included a cool new range of apple brandies smoked mezcal style and their signature Baltamaro releases - fernet, coffee and Szechuan. Also making its debut at the show was the range from the U.K.'s Chase Distillery, including their range of gin - and Oak Smoked Vodka! Later on in Brooklyn, Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo and Blue Quarter and Damon Boelte of Grand Army teamed up with The Sexton Irish Whiskey for a Backyard Bash at Roberta’s Pizza, home of the Heritage Radio Network where The Speakeasy podcast is recorded. Suckling pig, fresh wood fired pizza, Irish whiskey and cocktails were served while the sizable crowd rocked out to DJ Lindsey and the band Them Fangs.
The bash was boss, but an an early curfew was in order to begin the task of tasting all the new spirits debuting at BCB. Some of the standouts:
Laird’s Straight Applejack 86: a revival of Laird & Co.’s Laird pre-Prohibition recipe, made from US grown apples
Café Bébo: We were happy to see this product, which we tasted in Berlin last fall, making its US debut. Named for a Havana Nightclub, this delicious coffee liqueur is made from Cuban Arabica coffee beans - delicious in an espresso Martini or mixed with cream liqueur.
Luxardo Sour Cherry Gin: London Dry gin mixed with Luxardo Marasca cherry juice. Is it really gin? Is it technically a liqueur? Does it matter when it tastes this delicious?
Kalak Single Malt Vodka: What the craic? Yes, vodka made from copper pot stilled 100% malted barley in West Cork, Ireland - and it’s actually quite tasty, which is not something I thought I’d say. The name is a phonetic spelling of “Cailleach” - Queen of Winter.
Ford’s Officers Reserve: a sneak peek at the first new extension added to Ford’s Gin is a soon-to-be-released overproof gin, rested for a few months in sherry cask.
Calle 23 Criollo: a new high proof (49.3% ABV) tequila from the talented Sophie Decobecq is named for the smaller variant of blue agave grown in Jalisco’s Los Altos region used to make this expressive and striking variation
New bitters play on familiar tastes
A great cocktail in the classical sense comes down to a great bitter, after all. Bitter Truth’s Bogart’s Bitters - a replica of now extinct Boker’s Bitters - is finally available (along with Golden Falernum) to authentically revive classic pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes. Along the same lines, it was also fun to see Bitter Del Professore from the Jerry Thomas Project here stateside after enjoying drinks made with them at the bar in Rome years ago. On a more modern bent, Bitter Queens (tagline: Be the star of the bar) showcased a variety of flavors such as Tobacco and 5-Spice, though my favorite was the Sarsaparilla.
Sipping in Style
One of the joys of visiting the event in Berlin are the stylish kiosks and bar concepts set throughout the convention hall, and the Brooklyn offshoot was not short on eye-popping, well adorned displays from the Samson & Surrey team, Woodford Reserve, Beam Suntory, Heaven Hill, Hennessy, WIlliam Grant & Sons. Monkey 47 Gin went all out with fantastical monkey themed wallpaper and matching bartender aprons (not to mention delicious cocktails). Campari’s bar is typically a buzzy centerpiece, but props to the extra dive bar concept behind the main bar. Kenta Goto of Bar Goto created a serene pitstop amid the chaos for tea cocktails featuring Iichiko shochu. Showing some flare, Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe sherry was poured theatrically by Alvaro Plata from a venencia. Turn 180 degrees across the way, one could admire Master Distiller Jared Brown and bartender Will Peet showing off their well honed cocktail throwing skills, pouring perfect ribbons for drinks at the Sipsmith Gin booth (incidentally, these skills were well on display a week later at the 100 Martinis event at Manhattan Cricket Club).
In the event’s secondary space down the street from the main venue, a few flights up, attendees had an opportunity to visit Belvedere Vodka’s own lounge popup, featuring tasting sessions of their range and the debut of the new Single Estate Rye. Down below, it was a joy to once again see Martini’s Caffe Torino popup serving a range of relaxing aperitivo cocktails. I even scored a serendipitous private tasting session with Master Blender Beppe Musso, who gave me a personal tour of the Riserva Speciale vermouth range - Ambrato, Rubino and the Bitter aperitivo, all of which placed medals in the 2018 NY International Spirits Competition - which he tells me he created for “...people behind the bar to create their own color [spectrum] of cocktails.”
Old acquaintances get a revamp (but bad news for black cats)
As consumers and bartenders look toward lower ABV options for refreshment, fortified and aromatized wine was one of the biggest trends on display at BCB. Perfect timing for Heaven Hill, who brought the relaunched Dubonnet with its new recipe, (which is really based on the 19th century recipe), a more authentic take with amped up cinchona bark, black tea, natural herbs and a Muscat wine base. The label has changed back to the one resembling the 1940s bottle depicting Sir Joseph Dubonnet’s striped cat instead of the black one. Produced domestically, expect to see it on shelves in July.
Hotaling & Co. J.H. Cutter: Anchor Spirits recently became Hotaling & Co., and as part of their reboot, have released this nifty new whisky (no “e” in homage to the early days of the J.H. Cutter co.), which consists of sourced bourbon from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers blended with their own Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey and Old Potrero Port Finish Rye.
Caravedo Pisco: The pisco formerly known as Pisco Porton (now named for Hacienda La Caravedo where it’s produced in Peru) debuted its Mosto Verde - the first to print nutritional information on the label. (In case you’re wondering, just over 100 calories for a standard 1.5 oz pour.)
Hayman's - one of the first labels to revive the Old Tom gin style has also undergone a makeover. Now the entire gin range from this English producer is bottled in apothecary type packaging, with the Old Tom revamped sans black cat on the label, but bottled a slightly higher proof.
Education Director Angus Winchester curated an impressively far reaching variety of seminars. Each day included a different roster of talks (no wristbands - just go and listen!) from noon till close at 7pm, with topics ranging from bartending (skills, management, wellness), distilling, spirits category education, sustainability, media issues and drinks history. (Note; just hope they fix the acoustics for the main stage next year.) Gotta love an event where a part of the day could be spent listening to Steve Olson lead a master class on agave, hear bartender training tips from Bobby Heugel, learn how to track a bar menu’s carbon footprint with Tin Roof Drink Community’s Claire Sprouse and Chad Armolt, get a history of the still one day and the history of California brandy on
another from David Wondrich, learn about Pineau des Charentes from Ms. Franky Marshall, demystify shochu with Jesse Falewitz and Stephan Lyman, track the evolution of the gin and tonic with Rutte Gin and Camper English, get systemic wine tasting tips from Hannah Lanfear of WSET, discover the history of Applejack from Lisa Laird herself and travel the high seas of maritime cocktail history with Jared Brown and Keli Rivers of Sipsmith Gin.
Needed a breather and some sustenance? Outside the main venue, grub could be ordered from hired food trucks, which varied each day. The picnic table setup adjacent to them was almost like a high school cafeteria, though with so much mingling, it felt as though every table was the “popular” one.
Nearby, there was need of a buzzy jolt, Stephen Myers was set up to pour Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur and cocktails. Next door, Dewar’s steampunk cocktail cabin held camp next to the Leblon Cachaça Caipirinha stand. And because no visit to Brooklyn is complete without a garden party, Q Drinks didn’t disappoint with a stand complete with lawn chairs and flamingo lawn ornaments for their refreshment bar.
Wait, there’s more
Yes, there were after parties. Big, stylish (and from all accounts, very fun!) boozy bashes were scattered throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan over two evenings, including the Bacardí welcome party, the Q Drinks barge party, and happenings from Monkey Shoulder and many others. However, after a long day of tasting and gathering intel, what was really needed by this aging gal was a quiet garden gathering and a place to put my dogs up. Luckily Alexandre Gabriel and Citadelle Gin seemed to anticipate this need, and threw a small, convivial Gin and Oysters party at Maison Premiere to refresh the senses.
That’s a wrap, Brooklyn! See you in the hood again next year.