Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Boston Cocktail Summit: Overall Impressions

What is your favorite spirit or cocktail?

The city of Boston has a rich and vibrant history of alcohol, distilling, cocktails, bars, restaurants, speakeasies, bartenders, mixologists and much more. The rest of Massachusetts and New England has a similar history as well. So it is only appropriate that there be a festival to celebrate all such matters, to reach back into this fascinating history as well as to blaze a path for the future.

Consider the fact that the spirits category now occupies 31.8% of the US alcohol market, a figure that has been slowly increasing over the years. In comparison, wine occupies only 15%, a figure that is increasing, while beer occupies 53.2%, which has actually been decreasing over the years. Spirits are very popular and cocktails are all the rage.

The first annual Boston Cocktail Summit has now come to a close. For three days, Thursday through Saturday, there was a gathering of bartenders and mixologists, spirit and cocktail lovers, distillers and vendors, authors and readers, and others as well. The Summit was not just for industry people but was open to any and all who had an interest or love of spirits and cocktails. There were a myriad of events, from educational seminars to tasting rooms, from author signings to elaborate parties.

I attended all three days of the festival as a media guest, and overall I was very happy with the festival. As it was their first festival, there were definitely some challenges and logistical problems, but the concept and the content showed great potential and I eagerly await next year's event.

Most of the Summit events were held in two hotels, the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge and the Boston Park Plaza. A few of the other events, especially on Thursday, were held at different locations, such as local bars and restaurants, from Citizen Public House to The Black Rose. You essentially paid only for the events you wished to attend, with the average cost per event being $25-$35 though there were some free events as well. If you wanted to attend all three days, you could also purchase a special 3 day Summit Pass for $325, which garnered you a savings of at least $200.

There was a great diversity of events, from cocktail parties at local bars, like the National Vodka Day Party at Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale, to over 50 seminars & panel discussions on a wide range of spirit and cocktail topics. There were book signings in the Author's Lounge and a pop-up branch of The Boston Shaker cocktail supply store. You could taste a myriad of spirits and cocktails in the various tasting rooms, from local craft distillers to some of the big name brands. There was plenty to do, and much to sample and drink. You certainly had to monitor your alcohol intake or you might end up slurring and staggering the halls. Fortunately, the attendees seemed to be careful and I didn't notice any problems with drunken people wandering the halls.

A number of well known spirits and cocktail experts attended the event, including Tony Abou-Ganim, Wayne Curtis, Dale DeGroff, Paul Pacult, David Wondrich and others. They signed their books, led seminars and hung out with everyone at the various parties. There were also a number of local celebrities who attended, some of the top bartenders, mixologists, writers and others, in the city. You could also meet and chat with numerous distillers, some local, who were presenting their spirits in the tasting rooms. Everyone I met was very personable and down to earth. Just a bunch of cool people who like to drink.

There was an air of fun and festivity throughout the Summit. Kind of hard not to have fun when there is so much alcohol freely flowing. Everyone I met was very friendly and there was a nice sense of community within the halls. Even got to meet a couple people I had previously known only online. The event was not overly crowded so you were able to relax and leisurely talk with the vendors in the various tasting rooms, learning much about their products. I know that some people were concerned about the seeming low attendance level, but it was difficult to fully assess that number of attendees when they were split between two hotels. We also have to realize that this was only the first Summit, and even more people are likely to attend next year. I think it was a great start.

With over 50 seminars available, they covered a wide range of interesting topics and it was tough to decide on which events I wanted to attend. Some of the seminars were geared more toward industry people while others would appeal to any lover of spirits and cocktails. There were seminars teaching you how to make cocktails while others allowed you to taste a variety of spirits. Whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, pisco, mezcal, amari, tequila, absinthe and more were showcased in these seminars. There was plenty of practical information available and I wished I had been able to attend many more of the seminars.

I ended up attending four seminars, with logistics preventing me from being able to easily attend more, but I very much enjoyed all four. The speakers did very well, the content was interesting, and each seminar was both educational and entertaining. The panels I attended included: How The Spirits Industry Works, The Subtle Nuances of Vodka, Jameson Black Barrel and The Resurrection of an Icon: Rum on the Rise. I will be posting more about these seminars in the next couple weeks.

The Bacardi 150th Anniversary Party went with a 1950s Havana theme and they did a great job of imbuing that ambiance into the party. At these parties, the bartenders were preparing numerous cocktails, and it was an open bar so you could taste and try a number of different drinks. The Beam's Bourbon County BBQ was a bit of a let down as many attendees were expecting more of a dinner event but it ended up being only some passed appetizers. The hungry attendees mobbed the servers as they entered the patio and those servers didn't make it ten feet inside before their plates were empty. The event description should have been much more specific on the nature of the event.

In the tasting rooms, I spent plenty of time on Saturday sampling a variety of spirits and cocktails, finding some new ones which greatly appealed to me. A jalapeno infused Tequila, rum from Colorado, smoky Mezcal, an elderflower rum from Vermont, compelling Irish Whiskey, Pisco cocktails and much more. New England distilleries and spirit producers were well represented. This was a great opportunity to check out new products as well as others of which I was unaware. In the next couple weeks, I will be sharing my discoveries with my readers.

Sweet Potato Tots! Obviously, as I spent plenty of time at the Sonesta, that meant I had to stop by the ArtBar, at least a couple times, to snack upon some crisp, lightly sweet and delicious tater tots. I was far from alone and I watched many an order of tater tots exit the kitchen. They make a great cocktail snack, or a side dish with lunch or dinner.

My main complaint with the Summit were the logistics of running the event in two separate hotels. As these hotels were a distance apart, this caused difficulties as you almost had to choose to remain at one hotel or the other for much of the day, or otherwise waste time in traveling and miss certain events. When I signed up for the Summit, I had carefully chosen my events, trying to arrange my schedule around the two hotels so any travel was minimal. Unfortunately, the Summit had to reorganize matters at the last minute, changing the locations of numerous events. That led to my schedule no longer being a good choice so I had to adjust.

For example, I attended a seminar at the Park Plaza and once it ended, my next seminar, which started right away, had been rescheduled for the Royal Sonesta. There was no way I could get to that other hotel in 5 minutes so I couldn't attend that seminar. The organizers though did allow people to attend a different seminar if such a situation arose. Having all of the events at one hotel would easily resolve those issues, and the organizers seem cognizant that it was a problem this year. So I expect next year they will work on that matter.

We need to remember that this was the first time this event has been held, so there were bound to be such logistical issues. What was most important, the concept, content and passion, were clearly evident and the lessons learned this year will create an even better Summit next year. I enjoyed myself very much at the Summit, and it was educational, informative, tasty and fun. Others I spoke to also seemed to enjoy many of the events, and they would be likely to return again next year. Kudos to the organizers of the Boston Cocktail Summit for all their time and effort in bringing this event to a reality. Let us look forward to an even better event next year

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