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[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

My, that was a long weekend.

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic was held this weekend in New York. The five-day conference kicked off with the Gala on Friday evening. From there, it branched off into two days of public events, held at restaurants and bars around the city on Saturday and Sunday, and three days of the Industry Invitational, a group of seminars and tasting sessions held for members of the trade and the press, Saturday through Monday.

Surrounding the Classic were various ancillary events, not officially part of the Classic. Most notable were the Speed Rack finals, Thursday night, which I attended. I then bookended the weekend with the Independent Spirits Expo, Tuesday afternoon.

Now that it's over, I wanted to step back and observe a bit, tallying up the trends and themes I noticed throughout the festival.

Punches

You could hardly turn around at the Classic without finding punches—bourbon punches, gin punches, rum punches, mezcal punches, and even vodka punches. It's not hard to understand why. They're easy to make for a crowd and even easier to serve when you have a couple dozen people crowding your table, waiting for a drink.

Some of them were great; others, not so much. The great ones were balanced between the base spirit, citrus, and sweetening agents. The not-so-great were too sweet or too tart from citrus. I had a few that were probably delicious at the beginning but were just out too long. The ice had melted, and the punch was insipid. The best punch I tasted was the mezcal punch at the Del Maguey table at Speed Rack. Smoky, tart, and complex, it tasted as good at the end of the glass as with the first sip.

Low-Alcohol Boozing

As I get older, I find that I'm starting to appreciate less-boozy drinks all the more. One highlight of the weekend was tasting through the Haus Alpenz portfolio of vermouths and aromatized wines. Alpenz imports Dolin's vermouths and Cocchi's aromatized wines. Keep an eye out, though, for Cappelletti Americano Rosso, a product new to the U.S. market that should hit shelves by the end of summer. (Americano, in this context, has nothing to do with the continents or the nation. It's derived from amer, or bitter, the same root that brings us amaro/amari.)

The Americano Rosso is a treat for restaurants who have beer and wine licenses and can't make cocktails with hard booze. It's bitter enough to stand in for Campari and other bitter liqueurs, so it should provide a little extra flexibility for low-alcohol mixed drinks.

Another highlight was the vermouth seminar offered by Atsby, a brand of vermouths from New York. There, we sampled two cocktails featuring Atsby along with straight pours of the vermouths, and it was all paired with treats from NYC's Murray's Cheese. Each cocktail or pour was matched with a cheese from the board. We all know that wine and cheese are perfect cocktail-party pairings. Next time, why not stir up some vermouth cocktails to supplement your wines?

Bottled (and Canned) Cocktails

Negroni Sbagliato... Canned

[Photo: Jessica Leibowitz]

One trend I was surprised not to see more of was the individually sized bottled cocktail. The idea behind these drinks is simple. You batch up a cocktail, pour it into single-serving bottles, and cap it off. You can carbonate them, but you don't have to. I found only two (although had I gone to a class at Pouring Ribbons, I'd have enjoyed others). Xanté pear-brandy liqueur offered a tasty bottled cocktail of mezcal, Xanté, and citrus at Speed Rack, and most notably, Campari offered a really fun idea at the Gala: a Negroni in a can.

A Gin-Soaked Party

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A table of vintage gins and other spirits, courtesy Old Spirits Company. [Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

One of the highlights of the Industry Invitational, held Saturday through Monday at the Andaz Fifth Avenue, were the tasting rooms in various locations throughout the hotel. I was happy to find a number of new gins to sample, including bottlings from the Chase Distillery, Victoria Spirits, Brooklyn Gin, Berkshire Mountain Distilleries, and Right Gin. And, if I may say, I'm happy to see that most of them have walked away from the idea that juniper is scary. You are gin! Be gin! I'm tired of gins in which the juniper is fourth behind lavender and cubeb and bergamot. Be gin, dammit. Embrace the juniper.

Mezcaleros

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Fidencio's Arik Torren leads a tasting. [Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

I was initially disappointed not to see more mezcal around the festival. I had a mezcal punch and straight shots of Del Maguey while at Speed Rack, but I didn't see much of it at the Gala or Invitational. The Indie Spirits Expo, however, more than made up for it. Among the brands represented were Wahaka, Fidencio, and El Buho. At another booth, Mezcal from Oaxaca represented an affiliation of 12 independent mezcal brands.

The diversity of mezcal is immediately obvious when you're tasting so many at one time. Mezcal uses 100% agave, of course, but from there, the families who make mezcal have freedom. Most mezcal is made from espadin agave, which is commonly cultivated in Oaxaca, but some producers use wild or semi-wild agaves, each of which provides a different character to the product.

I tasted whiskeys with rice, millet, and quinoa used in the mash bill. The subtle differences in those whiskeys reminded me of the distinctions I tasted between mezcal made of various agaves.

Some mexcals were smokier than others (one, from Fidencio, isn't smoked at all); some more herbal; some bone-dry, and others creamy in texture.

Did you attend the Classic this week? What trends did you notice?

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He lives with wife, son, and cats in Brooklyn. You can reach him on twitter at @dietsch.

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