Cocktail Festival Shifts Creative Control to Sponsors, Outside Producers

By Anna Sekula May 26, 2010, 12:32 PM EDT

Photo: Philip Anema

Manhattan Cocktail Classic
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Unlike the scores of multi-day tastings and big fetes that corral the city's culinary talent, New York doesn't have any annual festivals exclusively dedicated to cocktails and the people who make them. At least, that's what Lesley Townsend discerned while gathering mixologists like Audrey Saunders and Dale DeGroff for the 2008 grand opening of Astor Center. Hoping to bridge that gap, Townsend, prompted by what she described as “the bigwigs in the spirits and cocktail industry,” founded the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, which flooded the New York Public Library, the Bowery Hotel, and two dozen other venues with more than 4,000 alcohol enthusiasts and liquor brands during its four-day run.

Held from Friday, May 14, through Tuesday, May 18, the inaugural festival employed a crowdsourcing approach to events, which allowed the expo to expand its offerings while giving sponsors and outside entrepreneurs the freedom to create their own affairs.

To prepare, Townsend experimented with a two-day event in October. “We decided to do a preview event, the purpose of which was threefold. The first was to let me go through the motions on a smaller scale and see if we could pull this off. The second point, which was very, very important, was to let sponsors dip their toes in the water before allocating huge portions of their annual marketing budget and let me gain their trust. And third, to start drumming up attention in the media,” said Townsend, the director of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic.

What she learned informed how she approached the festival to create something larger without too much overhead. Based on feedback and her awareness that large spirits companies have in-house marketing and event departments, Townsend opted to shift creative control to sponsors and open the floor to ideas and promotions. This meant Friday night's kickoff at the New York Public Library incorporated Diageo's Stork Club-style space alongside a Willy Wonka-themed area from Remy Cointreau, while Gran Sierpe and Cuca Fresca transported 40 people to several bars atop a double-decker bus on Sunday afternoon.

A consequence the festival director didn't anticipate were the many workshops and activities conceptualized by independent producers and companies and pitched to brands. In one case, beverage consultancy Tippling Point brought together 10 Cane Rum, Ardbeg Scotch, Belvedere Vodka, Hennessy Cognac, and Grand Marnier as partners for a cocktail cruise aboard the Royal Princess. Another gathering teamed blog Dizzy Fizz with Sailor Jerry Rum, Plymouth Gin, and others for a punch-focused fest at Ramscale Gallery.

While Townsend admits to some missteps with the inaugural run—including no air conditioning at the kickoff—she sees the 3,500 tickets sold and 70-plus events on the festival lineup as a sign the Manhattan Cocktail Classic has a future as an annual event.

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