Cocktail batching horror stories

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Batched & bottled Negronis from yesterday’s event at Grape & Grain.

This past weekend, I visited with the Jacksonville, FL chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). The game plan was to talk about Cocktails for a Crowd — but although much of the book is informed by advice from bartenders, I was worried:  what could I possibly tell these USBG pros that they didn’t already know?

So I prepped for the event by turning to other bartenders, asking them for their craziest stories about batching cocktails. Here’s what they told me (names removed to protect the innocent & lightly edited). In general, I learned three lessons in particular:

Lesson #1: CLEARLY LABEL AND, IF NECESSARY, LOCK UP YOUR STUFF.

“We were batching cocktails for an event once for the Kentucky Derby in a hallway outside the main venue, and had about 35 gallons of cocktails picked up and locked in a closet by a janitor because he thought it was paint left out. We went for sandwiches before the event started. We came back and thought someone took them all. Had to come up with something on the fly. Found out a couple of days later what happened.” –Louisville, KY-based bartender.

“Spent a couple of days figuring out how to clarify lime juice for a pre-batched Moscow Mule.

Ended up making about a half gallon of clarified lime only for it to be thrown out because someone wanted the cambro to make ice-tea. [NOTE FROM KARA: A Cambro is a plastic storage container, aka. “restaurant size Tupperware.”] Two days work literally down the drain right before a busy weekend where the drink was supposed to be featured.

For awhile we would tape down the lids of the cambro with descriptions, dates, and death threats.”  – Oakland, CA-based bartender

Lesson #2: IF YOU’RE OFF SITE – IF POSSIBLE, BATCH AHEAD & BRING IT TO THE EVENT

“A former boss hired me to come to his 10-year college reunion & make drinks & give a talk. About 500 people where scheduled to be there. I got the specs, the menu, and prepared a talk related to historical drinks to the school.

I planned to make 60 gallons of cocktail. I got there at 1PM, the event started at 8PM. I showed up, and the prep kitchen is a porch. There’s one electrical outlet, and it’s as close to the floor as you can get. And the juicer is a $20 Black & Decker for grannies to make juice in the morning.

I made three to four gallons of citrus juice squatting down in a catcher’s stance, then standing up and emptying the container. By the end of the experience, the juicer was broken.

During the event, out of 500 people, maybe 12 had drinks. 98% of the drinks were thrown away. There were maybe 10 people listening to my talk. But one turned out to be one of my best regulars. So I’d say it was 100% worth it.” –NYC-based bartender

Lesson #3: BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

“I watched a large frozen spider fall into my punch (frozen inside a large chunk of ice). Out in Arizona when I worked at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel as a chef… Spiders would make their way in from the desert just outside because it was cool inside. they would eventually get into the ice block machine and end up quite frozen.” –MA-based author

About a decade ago I ran a Tequila bar. It was a busy joint so I used to make large batches of the many *flavored* house margaritas.

One day while I was doing the deed I had two batching containers on the floor with tops on them. I had a drink in my hand *quality control* when I decided to step over both buckets. My foot got caught on one of the lids which popped it open– my foot fell into the large vessel with a giant splash!

I reflexively threw my hands in the air from shock/surprise throwing my full drink into my face!

Thankfully there were only a few people at the bar to see one of my proudest moments. I proceeded to work the rest of that evening with a red stain up to my right knee.” — New Orleans, LA-based bartender

“I was helping prep for a major consumer event in Chicago and had to squeeze about three cases of limes. The hotel we were staying in was nice enough to let me use their professional juicer – otherwise it would have to be done by hand! – and I was set up in a corner of the kitchen with my cases. Even so it took a few hours, and ran into dinner service. As the kitchen was getting busier and busier, a chef walked by and accidentally bumped into the nozzle where the lime juice was being collected. A slow drip of lime juice started falling on the floor. Luckily we caught it after a few minutes, but still, sad.” –NYC-based PR rep

“Friend of mine dropped her new iPhone in a batch of Bloody Marys — wet and corrosive. Got her a case that is waterproof down to 7 feet, No problems so far anymore.”— New York state-based spirits blogger

Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands — of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend— fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.