Lesley Townsend - Festival Founder

- interview by Sara Gorelick

In New York, the month of May is synonymous with change of weather, blooming flowers, fresh Spring ingredients on menus and for those in the cocktail industry - the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Sara had a chance to ask Lesley Townsend a few questions about her experience as Founder & Director of one of the most anticipated festivals of the year. Check out what this whirlwind had to say about the MCC, her back story and what she likes to drink on her downtime.

SG: You are heading up one of the most highly anticipated cocktail festivals of the year. What's that like?

LT: It's taking five shots of moonshine and being forced to run a triathlon. Thanks for asking.

SG: Well, where did the idea come from?

LT: It's kind of an obvious idea, actually. New York has a festival for everything, so it just seemed like an oversight that it didn't have a festival for cocktails. Anyway, ideas are a dime a dozen - its all in the doing. And I just happened to be the first person stupid/ballsy/masochistic enough to try to pull it off.

SG: What does it entail to create the MCC?

LT: 360 days of painstakingly raising the money needed to produce the festival; and then 5 days of spending it all. Guess which is the fun part!

SG: Would you say it's a full-time job all year to put on such a big show or do you get a bit of a break in there?

LT: It's more than a full-time job, but - thankfully - the cocktail industry quiets down a bit over the summer months, first while everyone's busy with Aspen and Tales in June and July, and then in August (because it's August). That's when I get to regroup, do some real strategic planning, brainstorm big-picture ideas, overhaul the brand identity just for kicks, etc.

SG: Changing the brand identity...what has changed about the MCC since last year?

LT: Not much outwardly, but a lot behind the scenes. We totally revamped our sponsorship model, in an effort to make it a more level playing field for the great diversity of brand sponsors involved. That was the biggest systemic change. And then a million other little details that very few people probably noticed. And of course, the first ever Bar Fellowship Program, which was hugely exciting (if only because it actually happened).

SG: Do you have a favorite event within it all?

LT: I know the Gala is the boring answer, but I have an absolute love affair with the Library. Every time I walk through the doors, I feel like Charlie walking into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. (Or maybe Violet?) It's such a majestic piece of architecture, such an iconic piece of New York City's history. And through whatever bizarre twist of fate, I get to take over that building once a year and throw a giant, crazy cocktail party in it. Of course there are a zillion things I want to change or improve each time we do it - but the fun is in the challenge, in the massive scale of what we're pulling off.

SG: What do you hope one gets out of attending the MCC?

LT: I hope that we're able to shake people of complacency when it comes to what they drink. I remember reading an article a few years ago in which the journalist stated that there's simply "no excuse" to ever have a mediocre meal in New York City, and I feel the same holds true for cocktails. People (or Americans, in particular) I think would be far better off if they spent a little more time thinking about what they eat and drink, rather than just blithely tossing back whatever was put in front of them. Mindful eating, mindful drinking. Something like that. Oh - and also, it's May, and people need to get the hell out of their apartments and enjoy the city in full bloom!

SG: Amen sister. What has surprised you most about this whole experience?

LT: The fact that, even two years into this, I still take everything so insanely personally. When someone tweets that they had a mediocre cocktail at an event, or that they didn't like the band as much this year - it's like they slapped my dog. (And yes, I read every tweet, every Facebook post, every blog mention...and then I cry into a pint of ice cream and watch re-runs of Gossip Girl until the pain has subsided.) Whenever they taught that truism that "you can't make everyone happy all of the time," I must have been out sick that day...

SG: Tell me a bit about your history in the industry.

LT: I've had a pretty meandering path, when I really think back on it. I studied Ancient Chinese History in college, which (obviously) led me to work in the non-profit educational reform sector for a while. Then I went to grad school for digital video post production and special effects, which led me to a (brief) career editing bad commercials and sports specials. Then I started getting really interested in wine, so I conned my way into a job as a salesperson at Astor Wine & Spirits, thinking it'd be a great way to improve my wine knowledge while having a relatively low-stress, clock-in/clock-out kind of job for a short while. That turned into a job as the Director of Communications for AWS, and then from there, I was offered the ludicrous opportunity to act as the founding director of the not-yet-existant Astor Center. And after spending two years getting Astor Center up and running, I left to start this crazy thing. Let the record state that I am NOT a bartender, nor do I made any pretense of being any semblance of a cocktail expert. I tried to make a Negroni at home last weekend and it was just downright embarrassing.

SG: Nice. What is your favorite type of spirit?

LT: I will get b---chslapped for answering that. Come on now!

SG: Touche. Do you have a favorite cocktail?

LT: (See above.) But generally speaking, I lean more towards the boozy/bitter end of the spectrum.

SG: What would we be surprised to learn about you?

LT: I have the tolerance of a nine year old. Seriously: two drinks, and I'm a babbling, stumbling mess. The universe has a sense of irony.