A New Concoction for Syracuse Nightlife

Ice Cream Social delivers a fresh alternative to the Syracuse nightlife scene

A new twist on nightlife will be unfolding at The York this Sunday evening, Sept. 20. Ice Cream Social, a small group of local professionals, will be throwing its first cocktail tournament, Craft Cocktail Battle, to celebrate an evolving nightlife in Downtown Syracuse. Chris Bily and chef Anthony Donofrio, of Modern Malt; Chris Fowler, of Syracuse First; Scott Friedberg, of Gilded Social; and Eric Hinman, of Urban Life Athletics make up the team to encourage a new way of thinking and respecting the atmosphere of the upstate city.

“It has nothing to do with ice cream. It’s more of a social group,” Bily said. “When you think of an ice cream social, you think of you and your friends getting together and enjoying ice cream. This time we’re crushing outside-of-the-box events and entertainment.”

Syracuse social life subsides come Sunday, after the evening pushes during the latter part of the week. Aside the energetic brunch scene late morning until afternoon, the upcoming Sunday nights will entice people to step away from their television programming to get out and enjoy themselves. However, the group wants to step away from the prototypical model.

“It was finding that niche,” Bily said. “It was determining what other social interaction we could stir up that was outside of a meet-up; having drinks and food; and then you get bored after 20 minutes and want to go home.”

“And it’s not a typical networking event where everyone is standing around,” Friedberg added.

He also said that attendees have the ability to hang out, relax and talk with new people in a pressure-free atmosphere. Friedberg’s company, Gilded Social, which is based on making connections, boasts live access feeds that connect to a the social media of a business or individual. These are put on display for patrons or clients to see. “It’s something new. It’s good to let loose.”

Fowler, the Syracuse First Executive Director, said that if there is networking, it will come naturally simply by conversing with those sitting around. The event is social and food-focused. He posed the question: “How do we continue to highlight and nurture what is unique about food and beverage in CNY?” The answer: Events like these.

The York, established earlier this year, is one of the many restaurants that have gained a new home in the heart of Armory Square, and owner Danny Vault is pleased to be involved with the forward thinking. After returning home from a decade-plus life in New York City, he brought firsthand knowledge and experience to this cozy city. This education has allowed him to view Syracuse as a palate for possibility. Hinman and Bily approached him not because of his knowledge, but the theme and backdrop of the restaurant.

Vault said that the larger cities, New York and Chicago to name a couple, are adamant about promoting this niche of urban community events. Neighboring cities especially are utilizing this type of thinking, considering the Rochester Cocktail Revival. “It’s a huge turnout, and it’s not just locals attending. The event has received national merit and recognition. Syracuse needs this.”

When Modern Malt opened this year, the gastro diner boasted not only a unique menu and dining experience, but a lineup of Prohibition era beverages. “We have to bring more craft cocktails to Syracuse,” chef Donofrio stated. “It’s really big in other cities and could be here if someone takes the initiative to show others the way.”

“The ‘scene’ is not focused,” Fowler said. “The ingredients are available,” he said. “But the artistry needs to be showcased.”

Making an effort to show the way is one tactic, but Vault said the next step is outreach. If people from all over, including Canada, are coming to the Rochester festival, what does CNY have to do? The Craft Cocktail Battle is not just socially focused, but locally focused. The bartenders are local. Although The York is the venue, an outside local business is providing the food. Owera Vineyards, Empire Brewing Company and Brewery Ommegang are also getting involved. When the reprising events take place, the next step could be to reach to different businesses outside of Syracuse area, looking throughout the state. Vault hopes the event catches on and grows to the point where bartenders from around the state come to Syracuse to compete. The cocktail competitions wouldn’t coincide with that of Rochester’s, so it would compliment the theme and provide more opportunities for those interested.

“The way we see this growing is through social media; generating that buzz,” Friedberg said. Social media would propel this event and future events of Ice Cream Social. After all, word of mouth is now digitized. Maintaining this presence will be the main ingredient towards success.

Beginning this Sunday, four competing bartenders will vie to make the best cocktail. Only one will move on. The following events will take place bi-weekly, and the following three will also serve as preliminary events. The fifth and final event will have the four bartender finalists compete in the championship round.

Bily said that they are looking to set the bar high when it comes to bartending in Syracuse. The focus is both quality and quantity, and it’s crucial to be consistent. The beverage battle will also educate. “It’s going to push creativity, skill set, knowledge — a lot of things bartenders should and will have,” said the Modern Malt partner.

Donofrio explained: “I’ll choose a different secret ingredient for each round, and the bartenders have to include that item. They’ll have seven minutes to complete the cocktail.” He said while the competitors are making their concoction, Bily will be walking around giving play-by-plays and fielding comments from them. No matter the end result, the bartenders showcase themselves and the business they work for. Everyone has a different opinion or preference for cocktails, and attendees will be able to find the “non-winning” — but good tasting — cocktails simply by knowing the bartender.

By the way, the crowd will be judging and determining the winner of each round, voting by volume on the cocktail and not the bartender. The competition is not to be a popularity contest, according to Bily. Each drink will have to be judged on flavor profile, overall presentation and artistry.

What makes a good cocktail?

“You have to allow the spirits do the work for you. Bartenders try to over mix and add too many ingredients. I always tell my bartenders … ingredients added have to enhance a spirit, to accentuate flavor profiles.” — Chris Bily

“I like different twists to cocktails, savory cocktails. We have one here (at Modern Malt) where we light rosemary on fire and dip it into the drink. A lot of people enjoy sweet cocktails, but they don’t really taste the spirit. In a real cocktail, you can taste the other flavors.” — Anthony Donofrio

“Inventiveness and flavor, mixing the predictable with the unexpected.” — Chris Fowler

“I really wasn’t much of a cocktail guy until going into this. Ever since we’ve decided to put on the event, I find myself looking at the cocktail menus at restaurants.” — Scott Friedberg

“I’m a former chef. I love the fact that cocktails are culinary driven. The use of high quality spirits is great, but I see the culinary side — fresh ingredients and the prefect balance. It’s like baking: everything has to be precise.” — Danny Vault

Tickets are available through Eventbrite: $20 ($21.49 with fees) in advance, $25 at the door. Admission includes one free drink, samples of the beverages created and food for the entire night. The York is located at 247 W. Fayette St., Downtown Syracuse. Each event takes place 7 – 9 p.m.

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