New Yorkers Shake Things Up at Tales of the Cocktail
Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.
New York’s top cocktail talent last week stowed their shakers in carry-ons and traveled south to Tales of the Cocktail, the annual booze conference in New Orleans.
As in previous years, it was worth the trek for many of the city’s bars and bartenders, who picked up some of the top honors at Saturday’s Spirited Awards, the industry’s version of the Oscars and the culmination of the alcohol-soaked week.
Ivy Mix, who co-owns the recently opened Leyenda in Brooklyn with Julie Reiner, was named American Bartender of the Year. She is the second woman to win the title.
Employees Only picked up two awards, including Best American Bar Team.
The Dead Rabbit won two of the biggest awards, World’s Best Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu. The Financial District bar now has seven awards overall.
As cocktail culture expands, winning an award at Tales can sometimes translate into cachet among consumers. And of about 17,000 attendees, visiting New Yorkers make up one of the five biggest groups by region, organizers estimated.
Employees Only was named World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2011; their two new wins brings their total awards to four.
“Two weekends ago, people were pointing to our awards and saying, ‘Oh yeah, they won in 2011,’” Employees Only general manager Eric Lincoln said. He added, “It brings a different clientele that maybe wouldn’t have discovered us on their own.”
Two years after their first Tales wins in 2013, Dead Rabbit co-owners Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon have a partnership with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events to open a bar in Chicago. They have a book deal, a potential Irish whiskey project in the works and they each got a U.S. green card.
“All those things are very much off the back of Tales of the Cocktail and being named as the world’s best,” Mr. McGarry said. “People want to buy into that.”
But for bars that are already busy, it’s hard to say whether awards means more sales.
“When we’ve been nominated or won in the past, we’ve never really seen a real spike,” David Kaplan, co-owner of Death & Co said. “We’re such a small bar that it’s hard to chart those little increases.”
The recent publication of Death & Co’s coffee table cocktail book brought in a noticeable influx of customers wanting to talk about the drinks featured in the book, Mr. Kaplan said. The book was nominated for a Spirited Award but didn’t win.
Some awards just buy bragging rights.
One of the biggest events earlier in the week at Tales is the Bar Fight Club, where seven teams recreate their home bars and sling drinks for a crowd of about 1,500.
For the spirits brands behind Bar Fight Club, throwing a successful party is no guarantee of future success. The party cost organizers the 86 Co. and Del Maguey about $90,000.
“Does it result in sales? I don’t know,” the 86 Co. co-founder Simon Ford said. “Does it result in goodwill? Definitely yes.”
The Thursday evening event offers no cash prize. Even so, the participants don’t skimp on rebuilding their bars for the four-hour event.
Brooklyn’s Extra Fancy, which tied for second place with the official judges and won the People’s Choice award, spent between $6,000 and $9,000 on their bar, including hiring a local metalworker to make a rolled steel bar top like the one in Brooklyn. Ten of Extra Fancy’s employees came down to compete, hauling Extra Fancy matches, napkins and rope for a nautical design.
“It cost a little bit to be there, but it’s a stage that there isn’t anything like it,” Extra Fancy beverage director Rob Krueger said.
“People will say, yeah they won Bar Fight,” he said. “It might be the difference between choosing to go somewhere else and choosing to come to our bar.”
For Leyenda’s Ms. Mix, she hopes her big win will lead to more recognition of her new bar, opportunities for travel and the chance to open more bars, perhaps in other countries.
“That’s the biggest bonus about this,” she said. “If it provides me with more opportunities, then bring it on.”