For its first-ever Seattle Cocktail Week, the Washington State Bartenders' Guild is planning a series of neighborhood bar crawls next week. But agendas for Cocktail Weeks in San Francisco and Portland--where the festivities kick off this Thursday--provide a hint of what ensuing years might hold: Scheduled events in those cities included syrup-making workshops, gin personality tests, sustainable tiki-drink seminars, and bartender competitions. Cocktail Weeks tend to be geared toward mixed-drink cognoscenti.
But what does a Cocktail Week offer local drinkers who don't know a Manhattan from a martini? Typically, not much. While Portland Cocktail Week's co-founder Lindsey Johnson stresses that many of her program's events attract everyday cocktailians who wouldn't travel to booze events such as the Manhattan Cocktail Classic or Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, she characterizes Cocktail Week attendees as a spirits-savvy crowd desirous of liquor-cabinet arcana and face-time with spirits legend Dale DeGroff.
"The cocktail IQ is really high," Johnson says, adding that the same goes for Seattle. "Most people want higher-level sessions. They're interested in these things, so why not do it?"
I asked myself that very question this month while attending Victoria's "Art of the Cocktail," a spirits celebration featuring many of the same presenters as conferences held in San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver. A few of the seminars were quite good, but the participant demographics were worrisome. Nearly every registrant was young, white, tattooed, and capable of quoting esoteric bitters recipes.
Hand-wringing about homogeneity in the high-end food and beverage industry is nothing new, but it's not just an academic exercise. Talented bartenders and visionary distillers need customers: If cocktail culture is to continue to thrive, it can't cater only to the already-indoctrinated few.
Art of the Cocktail presenter Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, served drinkers of different ages and professional backgrounds when she tended bar. But she rarely had a customer of color. "Cocktail bars are a really white environment," she told me. "The bar I worked in, it was totally white."
Sismondo worked in Toronto, a city where 47 percent of the population classify themselves as "part of a visible minority," according to municipal statistics. (Portland is 72 percent white, making it the whitest big city in the country; Seattle is fifth on the list, with a population that's 66 percent white.)
Diversity isn't just a racial consideration, of course. An event at which the most accessible session covers barrel-aged cocktails is relevant to a very narrow subset of consumers. Beer drinkers and wine fans are unlikely to be wooed by Irish whiskey samplings and classes on bar-tool selection: They need introductory courses and the assurance that nobody will laugh if they express a preference for flavored vodka.
While I firmly believe Seattle drinkers deserve to learn about mezcal and tinctures on their home turf, I hope Seattle Cocktail Week will ultimately distinguish itself as a democratic and inclusive alternative to the current crop of cocktail events along the Pacific coast. While organizer Andrew Friedman, owner of Liberty, didn't return messages seeking more information about what's planned, a weekend post on the event's Facebook page (which is stuck with the wrong dates for the Week, since it acquired so many fans that Facebook wouldn't allow a page-name change when the program was postponed) indicated a 100-page guide to the Oct. 27-Oct. 30 festivities is in "final draft" form. Here's to there being plenty of user-friendly options in the mix.