Cocktail culture is reaching a rock star level of devotion. Check social media lately, and you’ll see that certain bars and bartenders have a devout following from fans, many of whom still haven’t had the chance to pull up a stool and taste one drop of their drinks. The world is a virtual place, but isn’t the whole point of cocktails to actually, you know, drink them?
That’s why the folks at Superfly, the team behind rock festivals Bonnaroo and Outside Lands decided to bridge the gap between cocktail fandom and live experience. They are presenting Cocktail Magic – the first ever cocktail bar tour, coming this month to New York and Boston, with plans for events in Chicago and Washington, DC in the near future. The venues in each city will feature booths from several local bars as well as some traveling from the other cities. It will be like going on the ultimate bar crawl, except all in one place, and with a bonus magic show!
I spoke to Julie Reiner about New York City cocktail neighborhoods, how customers have changed over the years and coordinating this impressive cocktail tour with Andy Seymour and Superfly.
Amanda Schuster: So many great bars from around the city are represented in this event. As someone who knows the city and owns and consults for bars in different parts of town, do you think regulars drink differently depending on the neighborhood?
Julie Reiner: Absolutely. I know that from consulting on places in Midtown, to Flatiron, to Pegu [in Soho] to Smith St. [Brooklyn] it really is different. And they could be blocks! I mean, we’re so spoiled on Smith St. we have these New Yorkers who are highly educated on spirits and cocktails, and can tend to be more adventurous. Whereas Monkey Bar in Midtown, there are things I would never put on the menu there, even Flatiron to some extent because the crowd can be less adventurous. I mean, even just a few blocks away, Park Slope [where Reiner lives] is mostly families and professional people who mostly get out on the weekends, so they just want to find a place with good Margaritas or beer.
AS: Is there a drink that’s surprised you with its success because it might have been a little weird?
JR: I put something on the menu at Monkey Bar called Nuts & Rye that was a boozy, stirred whiskey variation cocktail that did really well there and became their house rye drink. When I first starting consulting there years ago, I had to make sure I had a certain number of vodka drinks on the menu, fizzes, smashes, Moscow Mules…. But now I can infiltrate a couple more challenging drinks on the menu and they don’t just sit there. They may not be the top sellers, but they make the menu more interesting for people who are getting it. The word is spreading about cocktails; people are learning more about spirits and the seasonality of cocktails.
AS: People are more informed these days about what to order at a bar. You’ve witnessed an entire evolution. Sure, people in the beverage industry are going to know this stuff, but what do you think has contributed to the average customer understanding more about spirits and cocktails?
JR: It’s a combination of things, including more and more cocktail bars opening. When I first opened Flatiron, there were very few places you could go and get a drink with fresh juice in it! Now, cut to twelve years later, you can stumble down practically any neighborhood in New York City and find a quality drink. Restaurants… when Le Bernadin did a cocktail list, that was a big thing! They’re about food and wine, so to understand cocktails were an important enough thing to say, ‘We need to have this’ was a big deal. High end restaurants have followed suit and are putting out decent, if not great, cocktails, and even your average bar these days will know how to make a good Martini, Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Bartenders are more educated and so is the public. Then of course there’s the magazines, bloggers… it all comes together.
AS: Is there a spirit that has impressed you with its resurgence or popularity?
JR: Mezcal’s been really interesting to watch. Steve Olson gave me my first taste of mezcal and at first I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ But the traction that it’s gotten… for a while it was like Fernet, something to get used to. But now the public is really engaging it. It’s weird. It’s smoky. It’s intense. I feel like it’s like Campari. You have to try it a couple of times before you really like it. But then you crave it.
AS: How did you coordinate all these different bars from around the country to participate in Cocktail Magic?
JR: Superfly is very much in the music world – Outside Lands, Bonaroo, these big music festivals… they’re really great with design and the look of things. I had collaborated with them in the past and just love their whimsical ideas and how they bring them to life. The idea of this was kind of like cocktails going on tour the same way a band goes on tour. So we started talking about it and decided we should start with Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston and New York because these are all cities that have a cocktail scene and music scene and people who are interested in these sort of things. The idea is that we can feature the bars and the bartenders from that market but also have some from other markets who travel and showcase themselves. I’ll be at all four of them and Clover Club will be in Chicago, Boston and DC but the one here in Brooklyn will feature Leyenda.
There will be be DJs, there will be music, there will be magic! Hey, hopefully they’ll even bring monkeys! So they talked to me about it and I was talking about the logistical side of it and I said, ‘Well, you gotta get Andy Seymour.’ So we brought him in and he’s one of my favorite people in the industry, so smart and he knows everybody. So when it came to getting the right people involved, I knew that the two of us as a team could get it done. Get great bars and talented bartenders. The bars they designed [for the venues] are really beautiful. It’s not going to be your standard six foot banquet table. They’re like real bars with cool back drops. Everything those guys do aesthetically and design wise is really cool.
AS: So is the idea that guests will experience a snapshot of what it’s like to visit those bars?
JR: Well, they’ll certainly get a taste of what that’s like. But really, this is about bringing together that community. So it’s not going to be like Bar Room Brawl [Tales of the Cocktail bar event.] But obviously they will be there featuring their specialties. We’ll probably split the space up according to what is being served. These guys are doing more of a tiki thing, classics on this end… different experiences you can glide through. And then, hey, they’ll be someone making drinks disappear.
AS: That’ll be me, actually.
JR: [Laughs] In ways other than that, I mean. But yes, this will be a celebration of cocktails and great music.
Cocktail Magic will be in Brooklyn March 19 and Boston March 26. Buy tickets here.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.