Upward of 120,000 people are expected to attend the Life is Beautiful festivalover three days this weekend, and many of them will be looking for adult beverages. And Life is Beautiful, with its emphasis on the culinary arts as well as the musical and cultural ones, isn’t about to force them to settle for the mundane.
“You do 80, 90 percent beer at the normal festival,” said Drew Levinson, director of strategic activation for Wirtz Beverage, who’s overseeing the festival’s cocktail program. “Fifteen percent cocktails, 5 percent wine.”
At Life is Beautiful, he said, “It was mind-blowing last year. This one does over 50 percent liquor, 45 percent beer and 5 percent wine.”
The reason, he said, comes down to the difference in what’s being offered.
“I’ve been to Coachella and Lollapalooza and most of these major festivals,” he said. “Order Jack, and you get a Jack and Coke. People go to these other festivals and say, ‘I’ll just take a beer.’ Premium spirits at a major music festival is unheard of. Usually you get unnamed, or very cheap well.”
That won’t be the case at Life is Beautiful, which is not only offering premium spirits, but premium spirits in a full menu of craft cocktails. And so that Jack may be in the form of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey, with Giffard Peach Liqueur, fresh lemon and mint in a Peach Dandy. Or Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire with Bols Creme de Banana Liqueur, RumChata and coconut cream in a Banana Slip.
Or premium spirits may come in the form of Milagro Reposado Tequila, with Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, lime and Barritt’s Ginger Beer in a Mi Amigo. Or Fernet Branca, Angostura and Barritt’s Ginger Beer in a Milano Mule. Or Ketel One Citroen vodka with lemonade and Jarritos strawberry soda in a Strawberry Blonde.
There will be 25 to 30 cocktails available, with four to eight at a time at each of the festival’s stages.
“That way as you travel around, you can have different experiences,” Levinson said.
But serving such cocktails at a festival naturally raises the question of speed, because nobody wants to stand in line for an hour when there’s so much going on. That apparently won’t be a problem.
“We will be able to put almost every drink down in front of someone within 10 seconds,” Levinson said.
The secret, as is the case with so much in life, is planning and organization. Levinson said when he worked at Bellagio, he learned to follow the example of chefs, who have their ingredients readily at hand and do in advance as much prep work — the peeling, the chopping, the juicing — as possible.
“We took a fresh-batching, culinary approach to the cocktail program,” he said. “What we’ve done is we took all the works for making a truly handcrafted, fresh cocktail and consolidated them into a batch center. In that area is where all the talent will be — guys from all over the country. We will start off with the most basic ingredients — limes and lemons, with a high-powered juicing machine that can juice dozens of gallons per hour. We just bought more than 2,000 pounds of sugar to make simple syrup.”
What then commences, he said, is an assembly-line process. Crews started setting up the commissary on Wednesday, with the prep work starting on Thursday and continuing throughout the weekend. The crew will mix each recipe in 40-gallon jugs.
“Garnishes are cut back there and prepped,” Levinson said. “We even add the water you would get in a typical drink when you shake the cocktail.
“Every one of these batches is tasted before it goes out, to confirm it’s dead-on. The most consistent cocktail you’ll ever get is at this festival.”
The 40-gallon batches will be divided into half-gallon jugs, packed into crates and delivered to festival bars by golf cart. The commissary and bars will be connected by radio. Within a target of 45 minutes — but more likely 15 to 20 minutes, Levinson said — the requested mix will be on its way to the bar. Over the course of the festival, they’re likely to go through 100 gallons of some recipes; for others, he expects to use four or five times that.
“The bartender only needs to put in the base spirits, fill to the next level with the batch and put it over fresh ice,” he said. “They can make a drink as quickly as they can make a Jack and Coke. That’s our goal.” And since the mixes will be made throughout the weekend, each batch will be fresh.
Cocktails will be priced at $11 or $12, depending on the recipe, with draft beers at $8 and wines ranging from $9 to $16.
Levinson said a similar cocktail program was used during the second Life is Beautiful festival last year, but that the processes have been refined greatly.
“We learned a lot last year,” he said.
Levinson said he’s served cocktails are larger events, but only one or two choices at a time.
“It’s something that’s never been done at this scale, with this many cocktails,” he said. “This year is going to be truly an awe-inspiring setup. We’ve been getting inquiries from industry people all over the country.
“There’s nothing like this in the country; I’m very confident of that.”