“When we first started Thirst there weren’t hundreds of cocktail bars in the city, and now there are. You throw a stone and hit a cocktail bar.”
That reflection comes courtesy of Maureen Hautaniemi, a co-founder of Thirst Boston, the education-focused cocktail festival that will return to its namesake city for the sixth time the final weekend in April. Like more than a few of the bars that sprung up during the city’s cocktail revival, Thirst is starting to feel like something else: an institution.
“In the past six years many cities have had their own cocktail festival, but I think that Thirst has stood the test of time,” Hautaniemi says. “Six years is a big deal.”
“Every time I would come home we always wondered, Why doesn’t Boston have a cocktail festival?” Hautaniemi says. “It just seemed like the right time to find some partners and create one that showcased the Boston hospitality industry. It’s grown to encompass a little bit more of New England, so we try to do outreach and work with bartenders in all of the other New England states.”
A broader focus on New England isn’t the only way that Thirst has changed since its inception. Its first year was at the Hotel Commonwealth; its second, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. The Boston Center for Adult Education has hosted the last three and proved a match for Thirst’s evolving approach to cocktail education.
“At the beginning of Thirst we had all classes that were sort of lecture-style with PowerPoint presentations. Since then, we’ve really evolved to be a little bit more hands-on,” Hautaniemi says. “One of the benefits of working with the Boston Center for Adult Education is they have teaching kitchens. We have classes that have hands-on components, so you’re actually making cocktails or you’re working to carbonate beverages instead of just hearing about them in a lecture.”
While the focus of Thirst remains local, it’s increasingly attracted high-profile presenters from outside of the region. But to preserve the festival’s hometown focus, they’re typically paired with locals. This year features a class on rum punch hosted by Jim Meehan, founder of acclaimed New York City bar PDT, as well as Brother Cleve, a tiki drink historian and longtime fixture of the Boston cocktail scene.
It’s not just out-of-town presenters who Thirst is looking to host. The festival also established a “Thirst Scholars Program” that solicits applications from bartenders across North America, ultimately bringing 10 of them to Thirst to attend classes, receive distillation training, and help prepare cocktails during the event.
Even the festival’s most proudly local event, the State Lines party held Saturday night at the Innovation and Design center, has a smidgen of outside influence. At this state fair-themed shindig, bartenders from across New England represent their local scene at state-specific pavilions. But each year has a “wildcard” pavilion featuring bartenders from a state outside the region: This year will see Washington take its place at the party.
Industry workers and cocktail-loving laypeople are important to Thirst, but there’s another demographic Hautaniemi is excited to attract: brands.
“By bringing that national spotlight to Boston once a year we’re able to not only show people in the press what is going on and what we think is special, but also show national liquor companies that Boston is a place where things are happening and the bartenders are of a high quality. That allows them to take a second look at Boston and allocate more funds towards marketing or hiring more brand ambassadors in the city,” Hautaniemi says.
Six years in, Thirst has stayed fiercely local—even as it has increasingly invited outside parties to get in on the action. According to Hautaniemi, that’s always been a part of the plan.
“Our philosophy is that if we create something of high quality for our community, other people will come and visit it,” Hautaniemi says.
Thirst takes place 4.26-28 this year at the Boston Center for Adult Education and additional locations across the city. A full list of classes, event schedule, and tickets can be found online at thirstboston.com.