The words "Ketel One and soda" may ring out at many Long Island bars each Friday night. Ordering a cocktail in 2019, however, is a much more creative exercise than just a decade ago. Vodka with matcha tea and falernum, rye with tamarind juice, a rum negroni? Check, check and check.
The transition from rote mixed drinks to showstopping cocktails may have seemed slow and steady — but an under-the-radar phenomenon has helped push this evolution: cocktail competitions, sometimes invite-only and sometimes public, that pit bartenders against one another in jousting matches that birth innovative drinks.
Starting this weekend, Long Islanders have several opportunities to take part in these bouts, both as tasters and judges, beginning with the fourth annual Long Island Cocktail Festival, at Mulcahy’s in Wantagh, on May 19. In late June, more than 100 cocktails will share the patio with paella and roast suckling pig during the Carltun Cocktails & Food Festival in Eisenhower Park. Also in late June, a smaller but industry-focused event put on by the Long Island Bartenders League is set to go down at Tullulah’s in Bay Shore.
THAT'S THE SPIRIT
Event planner Matthew Kourie founded the Long Island Cocktail Festival in 2016, and, for its fourth installment, will welcome 14 competing bartenders repping places as diverse as Spiro’s Lounge in Rocky Point and the forthcoming Bakuto in Lindenhurst. “It’s really like an indoor street fair of cocktails and spirit exhibitors,” Kourie, a Baldwin native, said of the event. Bartenders — many of them at the top of their games — each work with a different spirit, from rum to mezcal. At least 18 of those craft-spirit purveyors will dole out samples, too.
Attendees receive a tasting pass that earns them one drink from each table, both bars and spirit exhibitors, and they vote for a crowd favorite.
A BUSHEL OF MIXED DRINKS
The Carltun in Eisenhower Park is known for its elegant Palm Court, New American cuisine and fine wines (sommelier Fadi Yako tends an enviable cellar). On June 24, Yako and executive chef Rodrigo Bernal will shift their focus to cocktails, at least 100 of them, accompanied by a giant vat of paella, a spit-roasted suckling pig and other dishes dotted around the Carltun’s patio.
Wait ...100 cocktails?
“Yes, and guests will be able to vote for their favorite,” said Yako. The Carltun's bar team will come up with 25 drinks for the event, while mixologists from spirit companies will blend the rest. “The top 10 [crowd favorites] will be served in our restaurant over the summer,” he added. The Carltun is offering a designated driver ticket, too — and with at least 20 food stations, both drinkers and abstainers will have plenty to eat.
Babylon-based bartender Tracy Johanna, who has placed in several local and national bartending events, said competition helps fuel innovation. “[Cocktail competitions] drive you to be outrageously creative while respecting and honoring the spirit you’re working with,” said Johanna, who will manage the front of house and bar at The Linwood, a restaurant soon to open in Bay Shore. “The end goal is obviously to win, and when you do, it’s the best feeling in the world. But losing is just as important. It pushes bartenders to always continue learning and getting better.”
Johanna took third place during the second Long Island Cocktail Festival; both that year and the next, Frank Antonetti, owner of Huntington's The Rust & Gold, earned the people's choice award. Also in 2018, Antonetti began organizing competitions for the Long Island Bartenders League, with each benefiting a local nonprofit. The next event, said Antonetti, will bring together bartenders from southern Suffolk County at Tullulah’s in Bay Shore on June 19.
If it sounds like a lot of drinking, it is — but taxis, Uber and Lyft have made such competitions less risky to attend. "Public transit [LIRR] is right across the street from Mulcahy's, so there's no need to drive," Kourie said.
FOURTH ANNUAL LONG ISLAND COCKTAIL FESTIVAL
When: Sunday, May 19, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 7:00 p.m.
Where: Mulcahy’s Pub & Concert Hall, 3232 Railroad Ave., Wantagh.
Cost: $22.50 to $75, with VIP options available
More Info: nycocktailexpo.com
LONG ISLAND BARTENDERS LEAGUE COMPETITION SOUTH SUFFOLK SEMI-FINAL
When: Wednesday, June 19, 7 p.m.
Where: Tullulah’s, 12 Fourth Ave., Bay Shore.
More info: @thebartendersleague on Instagram
THE CARLTUN COCKTAILS & FOOD FESTIVAL
When: Monday, June 24, 6 to 10 p.m.
Where:The Carltun, 1899 Hempstead Tpke. (in Eisenhower Park), East Meadow.
Cost: $50 until June 1, $60 after; $40 for designated drivers
More info: eventbrite.com