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.