Leo Robitschek On Getting Prepped for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic


Leo Robitschek at the NoMad in New York. [Photograph: Alice Gao]

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic kicks off tonight with the Gala at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Organizers expect to serve something like 22,000 cocktails tonight; prepping that many drinks takes some planning and hard work. I talked to Leo Robitschek, bar manager at NoMad and Eleven Madison Park, about the process of preparing and batching up cocktails for such a large gathering.

The Gala is probably the biggest cocktail event of the year in New York City. I understand you'll be prepping Campari cocktails for the event.

When Campari emailed me asking if I would work alongside gaz regan and Jacques Bezuidenhout, two individuals who I truly respect and admire, I was honored and excited.

Tell me about the cocktails you'll be serving.

I will be serving a proprietary cocktail called the Pabo Amargo. It's a variation on a Boulevardier using Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Diplomatico Rum, East India Solera Sherry, and Campari.

I've written before about making bottle-sized batches of cocktails for parties. But in that case, the process entailed taking a 3-ounce cocktail and batching it up to a 25-ounce bottle. You're obviously working on a much larger scale here, but is the idea the same? Just scale each ingredient up and then adjust at the end for balance?

Batching isn't a perfect science. For the most part you can simply scale up the ingredients, but you should always decrease items that are concentrated in flavors such as absinthe, bitters, and Chartreuse. It's nearly impossible to remove an ingredient from a batch once you've mixed it in. Adding more of an ingredient to balance a cocktail, though, is easier and more cost effective.

In batching, how do you adjust for small ingredients like bitters? What's the equivalent of 1,000 dashes of bitters, for example?

This varies based on the brand of bitters. Most of the brands use different size orifice reducers for their bottles. Thanks to Dave Arnold and Don Lee we know that 41 dashes of Angostura is equivalent to 1 ounce of bitters—or 160 dashes if you use the Japanese Bitters bottles sold at Cocktail Kingdom. These measurements also have many variables such as how full the Angostura bottle is or how an individual bitter dashes. As a general rule of thumb, I initially reduce the bitters by 1/2 when batching. I then taste the batch and adjust for flavor.

Once the cocktails are batched up, how are they served? Are they kept on ice and then simply poured to order, or are they shaken over ice just before service?

You can chill and pre-dilute a batch and then just pour it, but we choose to not pre-dilute the cocktails. We'll be shaking or stirring each one to order.

Are there certain ingredients, such as fresh juices, that degrade when batched in advance? If so, how do you account for that? With ingredients such as fizzy waters or sparkling wines, do you usually add those at service, to keep them from going flat?

The citrus conversation is like opening a can of worms. There are many schools of thought when it comes to citrus, including types of juicers and shelf life. I generally batch citrus in advance but will only use the batch for the first 12 hours. Carbonated beverages are usually not batched and are instead incorporated into the cocktail as a finishing ingredient, unless you are planning to carbonate the batch at a later time.

Can we expect any surprises, such as bottled fizzy cocktails?

You will have to join us at the Campari bar to see...

What garnishes will you need to prepare in advance, and how many, approximately, of each kind?

We are preparing orange twists, lemon twists, and orange wheels. About 300 of each.

Ice must be a challenge at an event like the Gala. How do you make sure it stays cold and hard and frozen until service? What do you do if it starts melting?

The trick is assessing your ice and changing your stir or shake durations as a result. This is even an issue at the best bars. Fresh ice from the freezer or an ice machine is different from ice that's been sitting in a bin for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or an hour. The only way to ensure consistency is straw-tasting drinks as you serve them.