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Imbibing to revive

A merry band of barkeeps puts Rochester on the spirits map

The word ‘revival’ conjures mental images of large white tents and evangelical masses falling to their knees in repentance as thundering voices from a pulpit call them to renew a spiritual commitment. But the word is used locally these days in ways the teetotaling Wesley brothers never imagined. In Rochester, ‘revival’ is part of the moniker for an up-and-coming festival that’s also gathering masses for a renewal— well, of sorts.

It’s 8 p.m. on a Monday in late March when the barkeeps gather in the tasting room at Black Button Distilling on Railroad Street. Most of the people in the room worked through the weekend, and this, now, is their weekend—but they’re here anyway. In the center of the room there are trays of charcuterie and colorful cheeses and baskets of water crackers (expecting pepperoni and Ritz? C’mon, these are fancy cocktail folks). A man with disheveled brown hair stands beside the edibles, talking and scribbling notes on a legal pad. The others surround him in a half circle, creeping up to grab meats and cheeses every few minutes, washing them down with beer and tumblers of Black Button spirits.

Chuck Cerankosky isn’t a preacher. He’s not the great and powerful Oz. But he is leading a revival, and he is the “man behind the curtain” of a powerful collaboration: the second annual Rochester Cocktail Revival, which returns May 7-10 after a rousing success last year. “It’s good for Rochester because it creates a culture, a seed in the city. People start to look for jobs and say ‘maybe I’ll give living here a whirl,’” says Cerankosky, an Ohio native who co-owns restaurants Good Luck and Cure, but originally came here to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology. “We weave the fabric of entertainment for the city, and it’s good to showcase Rochester as the epicenter of the Finger Lakes region.” Katie Conroy, assistant organizer of the festival, agrees. “As people leave the bigger cities to come to the smaller cities—to start a family, to lower their living expenses—they’re finding that they’re not having to give up what they had in a bigger city,” she says.

Last year, Cerankosky dreamed up the Rochester Cocktail Revival and worked with Jon Karel (formerly a manager at The Revelry, now an owner at Buffalo Proper down the Thruway) and Joe Fee of Fee Brothers to found the first event. Throughout the meeting, Cerankosky keeps the group on task, and even manages to slip in a few punny jokes along the way (his staff rolls their eyes, but he’s found a fresh audience in The Revelry crew). As the meeting progresses, there’s a clear difference between the bartenders—some muddle, some shake, some stir, some serve drinks on the rocks—but there’s also a camaraderie among them, especially the younger lot like Zack Mikida and Sarah Eichas, head bartenders at The Rev and both in their mid-twenties.

It’s evident this whole project is much more than a four-day event—it needs to be more.“RCR is great because it really puts Rochester on the map, whether it be brands or people from out of town or people who just don’t know about our bars,” says Eichas, “it really makes them take notice that Rochester is a bigger thing than what most people know.” Her colleague, Zack Mikida, chimes in. “The idea that there is now so much enthusiasm and camaraderie between bars and restaurants, it’s so cool to see that,” he says. “The hope is to have the idea of this four day event in the back of our minds year ‘round.”

But it’s not just the barkeeps working to make the food and beverage industry more appealing to outsiders. There are more than twenty local businesses involved in the RCR—from the South Wedge’s Abode organizing a vintage pop up shop to Fish & Crown creating the marketing materials for the event—and 150 individuals, from hospitality staff to speakers and promoters. Jon Swan, who owns participating RCR venues Ox and Stone and the Daily Refresher, says “it kind of goes along with the food movement—the increased interest in people from the suburbs coming downtown and general popularity of all the restaurants in town.” He smiles and adds, “Cocktails are fun and people love them, and that’s it.”

And if there isn’t enough support for the community in RCR’s mission already, the whole revival is also a fundraiser: the proceeds benefit Gilda’s Club of Rochester, which offers support for victims of cancer and their families. “If the weekend is not enough to imply it, the amount of work and talent going in is meant to show our gratitude to Rochester and how that translates into this becoming a scene,” says Cerankosky. “We’re not competitors, every bar has a flavor, and there’s an intense sense of camaraderie. We’re thankful to the customers who drink their way through this adventure we laid out in order to form this cocktail scene. That’s what the word revival means here—that the family, or believers, gets together and fervently celebrates around this one ideal. There’s nothing amazing going on in any city that’s not going on here.” 

Leah Stacy is the editor-in-chief of (585) magazine and won’t say no to a good Mezcal.

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