WRUR 88.5 Different Radio

Rochester Cocktail Revival moves forward despite unrest, coronavirus

Sep 9, 2020
Originally published on September 9, 2020 9:43 am

The world has reached the point where, after a tough day at work, you can’t pull up a barstool and unwind with an expertly made Negroni cocktail without feeling like it’s an act that puts your friends and family in danger.

Not since the coronavirus pandemic, “when the world changed,” Chuck Cerankosky says.

“But we’re all still here. The bars are still here, we’re struggling to survive. We’re trying to navigate through this forest of precautions and guidelines and morality.”

A local cuisine dynamo, Cerankosky is currently co-owner of four of Rochester’s more ambitiously cultured bars and restaurants: Good Luck, Cure, Jackrabbit Club and Lucky’s. He’s also the director of the Rochester Cocktail Revival. Now in its seventh year, the event took a detour around its usual June date, in hope of sidestepping COVID-19.

But here we are, in September, and because of a horribly mismanaged response in this country, the pandemic is still killing as many as 1,000 Americans a day. And the Revival is going ahead this week, celebrating cocktail culture even after a weekend where Rochester's Black Lives Matter marches, and protests triggered by the death of Daniel Prude, were national news.

Three of the 20 bars and restaurants that are a part of the Rochester Cocktail Revival -- Ox and Stone, The Daily Refresher and Swan Dive -- were hit by a small group of vandals Friday night as the long line of protesters moved along Alexander Street.

Patrons at the three venues had unexpected front-row seats to civil unrest. Video posted on the internet is disturbing, with diners at Ox and Stone fleeing as tables and chairs are overturned.

Yet none of the clubs or restaurants have backed out of the Rochester Cocktail Revival, which opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday. In fact, the three clubs released a remarkably forgiving and understanding statement that placed what happened Friday night in context to the mood in our nation:

Despite what videos might depict, we lost some glassware last night. You cannot deny the anger and hurt our community is feeling right now. As always, the actions of a few agitators are amplified louder and louder as videos are shared and conclusions are drawn. We, now and always, stand with those standing against injustice.

Stay safe. Listen. Love.

Ever better.

And so the Rochester Cocktail Revival forges ahead. It’s smaller, scaled back from previous years. What Cerankosky calls the low-proof version, if you’re reading the tiny print on the label. A Rochester Cocktail Revival that is not about drawing crowds, but preserving the culture.  

“People want something to celebrate, man,” Cerankosky says. “They’ve gotta have something to look forward to, holy moly.”

Holy moly indeed.

Cerankosky’s an Ohio native, but has lived here for 21 years, refusing to leave after picking up a degree in industrial design from Rochester Institute of Technology. 

“We’re here to serve people, and we’re suddenly thrust into the position of having to police people’s behavior,” Cerankosky says. He’s not complaining, just stating a fact. The rules set out by the state of New York -- which the numbers show have done an excellent job of slowing COVID-19 -- are nevertheless difficult to navigate, are in a constant state of flux, and have been open to different interpretations.

“It’s hard work and, quite frankly, it’s demoralizing as a restaurant operator or a bar operator because we’re not allowed to do the business that we need to do to survive,” Cerankosky says. “So the thought was to help boost the scene and make sure we retain all we’ve worked for, in showcasings or highlighting or obtaining recognition for all of the great bars and restaurants.”

The Rochester Cocktail Revival opened on Tuesday this week and runs through Sunday. Besides Cerankosky’s venues, and the three hit by Friday's incidents, Roux, Stone-Tolan House, Branca Midtown, Radio Social and Vern’s will play host to events. Sometimes the cocktails come with appetizers, sometimes a full dinner, sometimes with a little music.

And a theme. At Thursday evening’s “Booze and Botany” event at Stone-Tolan House, cocktails will be served in the property’s apple orchard.

The events are outdoors. Social distancing is built into this year’s Rochester Cocktail Revival.

“Some of the nightlife features of the Cocktail Revivals are these bar parties or takeovers,” says Cerankosky, a Negroni man (one part gin, one part vermouth rosso and one part Campari, garnished with orange peel). “We’ve had breakdancing competitions and concerts and art events, and that’s not gonna happen. But what will stay are a handful of spirit dinners.”

Spirit dinners, such as “Creole + Cocktails” at Roux, a New Orleans-inspired event with gypsy music. For the health conscious, Branca’s “Vinyasa + Vodka with Rocco” combines an 11 a.m. Saturday yoga class with a broccolini salad and a “juice cleanse cocktail.”

Saturday’s 1 p.m. seminar at Good Luck is called “Bewildering Depths: The Many Lives of the Martini.” Cocktail historian (how’s that for a job title?) Robert Simonson will use the first hour to discuss the 140-year-old history of martinis. In the second hour, he’ll mix four different martinis.

“All of these speakers, man, we’ve brought them in for years,” Cerankosky says. “They’re all characters. They’re hilarious. It’s awesome.”

Rochester has the high-end cocktail clubs for the job. “I think in Rochester, it’s very strong, especially as measured per capita,” he says. “There’s a lot of great cocktail bars here for the size of our dining scene.”

So more venues pile on with the Rochester Cocktail Revival Backbar Menu: Cheshire, Fee Brothers, Swan Dive, Cub Room, Lento, Bitter Honey, Locals Only, Tapas 177, Nox, Bar Bantam, Bar Mecca and Cristallino Ice. They’ll be serving specific cocktails. Cure will be selling cocktail-making kits associated with a video you can watch of a bartender making that drink when you get home.

That’s about the only virtual aspect of this summer dominated by virtual entertainment.

“I’m not ignoring the virtual possibilities,” Cerankosky says. “But almost to your point of, how much Netflix can you watch …?”

Too much, if COVID-19 has its way. There are estimates that anywhere from a third to 70 percent of restaurants and bars will not survive the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Cerankosky says.

“We’re gonna be OK. I think that my places will be OK. I think. But I think as far as I can see, three months out … I mean, we’ve never dealt with anything like this.

“We can all hang on if we have a reasonable landlord and they’re not up against a wall. And our employees can be supported financially somehow until we need them all back, and we can find them again. So far it’s OK, but man, does it keep going on and on and on.”

He doesn’t want to be overly pessimistic. The restaurant business is tough enough as it is. After they’ve bought the food and paid the employees, “they’ve always operated on thin margins.”

“You can only not make money for so long, then what are you gonna do? We do the Cocktail Revival because the city needs us. These are cool places, those 20 that are listed in the schedule.”

A schedule that includes three cocktails on Sunday, the final morning. But you have to run two miles, from Radio Social to Lucky’s and then back to Radio Social.

Or walk. It’s been a rough-enough year.

“Let’s give people a reason to come out, if they feel comfortable,” Cerankosky says. “Walk outside, walk outside in an apple orchard and drink some cocktails you don’t have to make.”

Yes, let the professionals do the work. The bartenders. The artists. The musicians.

“From a certain angle of culture,” he says, “that’s what makes a city sing. Just like other things, like a collection of art galleries and music venues and bands. You know, I don’t want to give up. I want to find a way for us to celebrate what we tried to make, and try to give people something to look forward to.”

Most of the events are already sold out. A portion of the proceeds go to Gilda’s Club Rochester, the nonprofit cancer support group. For more on the event and tickets, go to rochestercocktailrevival.com.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.