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Manhattan Cocktail Classic: The modern bar and the modern consumer

One of the first seminars I attended on the first day of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic was called "History: What Is It Good For?," famed cocktail historian and writer Dave Wondrich looked out into the crowd of attendees and declared that if the New York Times were to write an article in 1982 saying that a room full of people were gathered to hear about the history of cocktails, people would think it very strange.

"People did not care about the history of cocktails historically," he said.

Wondrich's opening musings on the interest in cocktails, its history and various related details, was a statement on how far consumers have come in regards to cocktail awareness.

Spanning five days from May 13-17, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic is in its third year. Coming up ahead in July is Tales of the Cocktail, which has been bringing together professionals, enthusiasts and curious consumers since 2003. This year, the Tales folks even held a mini festival in Vancouver, Canada. And the San Francisco Cocktail Week, which will celebrate its fifth birthday this year, will be happening in September.

If anything, people are hungry for knowledge about what it is they are drinking as much as they want to know about what their locally-sourced cow was eating, what farm it came from and who the farmer was (a comparison made numerous times during the seminar).

Wondrich and his fellow panelists of bartenders as well as business owners, Philip Duff (Liquid Solutions), Chad Solomon (Cuffs and Buttons) and St. John Frizell (Fort Defiance) wanted to hold a discussion with the audience on the role history plays in modern bar culture.

Wondrich pointed out that while the veneration of cocktail history is a more recent development, it isn't exactly unusual considering how Americans enjoyed looking back to the past. It's evident in our entertainment. People devour shows like Mad Men and Deadwood. The question of the day seemed to be, "Why history and why now?"

People almost seem to now expect bitters and knowledgable bartenders behind the bar who wear vests and suspenders when they go to a place that touts itself as a venue that serves high-end cocktails.

While Wondrich's ultimate question of why wasn't fully answered, a common ground where all the theories met was that both guests and bartenders want to have a story to tell about the drinks they serve.

As one member of the audience who self-identified as a young bartender into cocktail geekery commented, this history helps give a sense of craftmanship to an occupation that still hasn't entirely caught up with the occupation of chef as far as professional recognition goes.

In light of all this discussion, it struck me how a lot of this sounded familiar. It's a topic we've covered before here at NRN numerous times, even in our most recent NRN 50 issue that was all about the different ways operators can maximize profit. Guests aren't just looking for a good meal or a good drink when they walk into an establishment. Restaurants and bars sell an experience as much as they sell what comes on a plate or in a glass. Food with a story or giving guests a feeling of exclusivity or good service appeals to guests. As twisted as it sounds, earnestness and sincerity sells. People who buy products or services nowadays are more swayed by the feeling and connection that a brand gives to them before they even handle the product.

A lot of whats on trend for modern bar and cocktail culture, from seating only bars to places that will only let you in if you have the right number and password, already helps physically set that tone of an adventure or being let in on a secret. But what if you're a bar opening in a small town and you can't exactly afford to install the Batcave in your joint? Simply having a bar staff that can intelligently explain to a guest the ingredients in their drink or tell a story about how it came about is a great example of engagement and showing you are serious about the drinks menu.

At one point during the seminar, Wondrich paused to ask the guest about one of the drinks being passed out. He asked if they liked it and how it tasted. He then added, "Now, what if I told you this is a Singapore Sling." Not just any Singapore Sling, but one made with the exact recipe used at the Raffles Hotel Singapore in the early 20th century.

"Doesn't it taste better?" Wondrich asked the crowd. He fell silent a beat or two as he took another sip while the audience murmured in a sort of "ah-ha" moment. He then chuckled and answered his own question, "I certainly think it does."

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