All of us cocktailians -- and drinkers generally -- have a common hero. More than Harry Craddock, or Jimmy Russell, or Donn Beach, or even Jerry Thomas. No, who we really should bow down to is good ol' Ethyl Alcohol, which lubricates social situations, makes us feel great if we use it right, and has even saved our lives.
That's one of the big points that Anthony Caporale makes in his Off-Off-Broadway show The Imbible: A Spirited History of Drinking, now playing Friday nights through October 3 at the Huron Club at the SoHo Playhouse. The production was mounted for the New York Fringe Festival, and it was one of 13 successful plays chosen out of 220 or so for an additional run as part of the FringeNYC Encore Series. I went this past Friday night and had a grand time. Imagine a lecture on the 10,000-year history of alcohol...but with jokes, callouts to audience members, live demos, visual aids, original songs, goofy costumes, and The Backwaiters -- a trio of a cappella singer/actors who contribute harmonies in styles from barbershop to disco. It's rollicking, charming, and delivers a ton of information on my favorite subject without taking itself seriously, so it all adds up to an enormously enjoyable evening out. It's a fantastic value, too -- for your $21 ticket you get three cocktails thrown in as well. (Where else can you get three drinks for $21 in SoHo on a Friday night, to say nothing of the history lesson and a show?) The history is solid, and so's the entertainment.
(Photo copyright Dixie Sheridan, 2014.)
Caporale is a busy guy: he's the US brand ambassador for Drambuie, he runs the Art of the Drink web video series, gives talks at Google, and heads the Beverage Studies program at the Institute for Culinary Education. But he made a few minutes available to talk when I caught up with him recently. Here's our conversation, lightly edited:
Cocktailians: You have theater experience in your background -- what made you think of combining theater and booze?
Anthony Caporale: It's funny because the theater part predates the booze parts. I started acting when I was eight years old. I always tell people the reason I got into bartending was because I was acting...I had a mechanical engineering degree that I wasn't thrilled to use, and started out working in a restaurant, and got behind the bar after a month or so. I always tell people that I felt like from that point on, it was a Broadway play that I could perform every night -- and I only had to audition once to get cast. For me, that's what bartending has always been about. That two-month summer job turned into a lifetime of bartending full-time, even when I was working in engineering.
What I really enjoy is teaching and training people. I got into helping people open restaurants: I've opened probably close to two dozen restaurants, from mom & pop places up to $14 million operations like [Brinker International's] Maggiano's. The longer I spend in this field, the more I see that you really have to view the whole thing as entertainment. The biggest companies -- the Disneys, the TGI Friday's, et cetera -- they all get that the experience they're delivering is entertainment, but the product can vary. It can be food, movies, whatever...but they all see that what people want is the entertainment.
I'm the national brand ambassador for Drambuie, and when I started going around the country and doing lectures, what I realized was that the best presentations were the most theatrical, when I incorporated comedy and made it high-energy. I've been involved in theater companies in New York for 15 years or so, and started a theater company a couple years ago focusing on new plays. A friend who is a theater producer saw my Manhattan Cocktail Classic presentation and said, "Anthony, I think you have a show here." Everybody wants to know as much as they can about cocktails and spirits, and so four years later, my associate producer and I tried to get it into the Fringe Festival this year. We spent three insane months producing two full-length shows for the Fringe Festival, and I've been absolutely blown away by peoples' reaction. We've sold out every show so far, and we're looking at our eighth straight sold-out show. We got four stars in Time Out, our photo on the cover of the New York Times Arts section -- I just about fell over.
I think nobody has seen this kind of sneakily educational format in this kind of way. If you just want to have a few drinks and listen to some pretty songs, that's okay, and you can do that. But there's stuff in there for the hardcore geeks, too. I think you can take the show on any level you want.
When I was writing the script, it was clear to me that there was a lot more than I could possibly cover, so I wanted to paint -- in very broad brushstrokes -- the role of spirits in the development of Western civilization, and fill in the details with what happened with each spirit. I'm working on an Imbible 2 -- that's a joke in the show, but I'm serious. There's so much material that we could do one on whiskey alone, or gin, or absinthe. I mean, we could do an entire Imbible just on the Martini! We're looking to install the show to continue its run, either in this space or somewhere else. I especially want to make it a little different each time. Maybe have Sunday Imbibles with Bloody Marys? We'll see.
C: How'd you decide on the historical approach? Was it the costume potential, or what?
AC: I was lucky that I had a really great production team to work with. Once we had the subject matter, we worked on "theatricalizing" it. Hopefully, the message that people get out of it is that in this country, we tend to view alcohol through a very skewed lens -- that of Prohibition -- and we view it focused on the intoxication aspects. That view overshadows the historical aspects of alcohol, which is much more vast and much more interesting in my mind. I want to get the message out there that we need to view -- need to continue viewing -- spirits as a cuisine, and literally the sine qua non of our civilization. Without spirits and beverage alcohol, we would never have been able to survive gathering together in groups of more than a couple dozen. Without ethyl alcohol, you don't have a clean water supply, for instance. We need to appreciate beverage alcohol for everything it's done throughout human history, and not just what it's done in the past 85-100 years. It was important to me to establish context first.
C: What was the writing and production process like? Did you start with the history or the songs?
AC: My theater company is Broadway Theatre Studio. My associate producer originally targeted Fringe as something we'd want to be a part of. But because we specifically focus on developing new scripts, we had the resources to take this from the seed of an idea to a finished product. We're producers -- so that's what we do. It was about four years kicking around my head, and everything I did during that time sort of got filed away, as something that would or would not work as part of The Imbible. In every presentation, every class, et cetera, somewhere in the back of my head I was making notes about the story I wanted to tell and what would work in front of an audience. That was a huge advantage, being able to try out bits and jokes and lines and see how people reacted.
Not having a character was the biggest challenge. People want a character in plays that they can follow. So, the biggest decision was to use ethyl alcohol as that protagonist. It's almost like Superman -- the origin story, the super powers it has, the trials and challenges it encounters. In Prohibition, literally, its life is threatened, but it overcomes those trials and you end up seeing everything it's done, and you end up rooting for ethanol at the end of the show. We establish a context first, and by the end I was homing in on the audience having a connection with ethanol as a historical figure.
C: Has it been an easy sell? To producers? To audiences?
AC: It was by no means an easy sell at first; it was the first show to my knowledge that Fringe ever did that not only allowed the sale of alcohol, but had alcohol in the theater. They bent over backwards to allow us to use alcohol in the theater. They took a risk. And it was very difficult logistically to pull off -- we had to get a catering license, for instance, and we had to deal with the whole other aspect of batching and producing drinks and serving them.
C: I mean, you serve something like 150 batched drinks at each performance.
AC: Right. The number of moving parts is massive. And fortunately my background as a brand ambassador and spirits educator works with that, and I'm used to producing a bunch of cocktails, and I'm used to producing theater. Audiences and critics have been unbelievably receptive to this. The minute that I say that it's a play with drinks and music, they say "Count me in!"
It's really important to me as an educator to present spirits and cocktails in a positive light. I think that message is the message that the beverage industry wants delivered, that the Distilled Spirits Council wants out there, that these can be enjoyed responsibility and have benefit. It's the message that the brands want to get to the audience, and to engage the general consumer in a way that I don't think has done before -- for the brands to literally put their product in the audience's hand is great. I think it's a win-win. We're trying really hard to maintain those relationships on both sides, so the audience leaves thinking it got a great deal, and the brands get the message out that they want to. It's absolutely unique, and I don't think there's anything else that approaches that level of value, either in the theater world or the bar world right now.
(Photo copyright Dixie Sheridan, 2014.)