Tales of the Cocktail, America’s premiere annual cocktail event, celebrated its tenth anniversary last week in New Orleans.
Over 20,000 people streamed into the Big Easy for five days of tastings, seminars and sponsored events. The attendees were a mixed bag of mixologists and industry professionals, along with consumers who know a good party when they see one. Ground zero for the festivities was the vintage Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter, with overflow events spilling out onto the street and into a cluster of nearby hotels. Seminars ranged from the historical (top cocktails of the past ten years) to the unusual (cocktails based on beer or coffee) to the positively geeky (how to make your own vermouth or bitters). Virtually every major spirits brand sponsored a tasting room during the week, and the packed lobby of the Monteleone was lubricated by servers circulating with trays of drinks.
What’s a typical day like at Tales? Begin early in the morning with an eye-opener at the Absolut Bloody Mary Bar in the lobby. Proceed to a 10:00 a.m seminar such as 150 Years of Blending, sponsored by Bacardi, or a comparison of Pisco made in Chile vs. Peru. Grab some lunch, but not before indulging in an edible fresh fruit cocktail made by Oxley Gin, served from their mobile truck parked outside the hotel’s front door. From 12:30-2 p.m., immerse yourself in the history and modern presentation of Curacao, the world’s pre-eminent orange liqueur.
During the afternoon, visit the tasting rooms of Pernod Absinthe, Bulleit Bourbon, Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum and Jamieson Irish Whiskey. If you feel your energy flagging, indulge in a bite from the Saveur Magazine Snack Stand in the lobby. From 3-5 p.m., bone up on Traditional Chinese Medicinal Ingredients or attend a Flavor Innovation Workshop at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. Stop in to the Diageo Happy Hour from 5-7 p.m. at the Old U.S. Mint, then attend one of the Spirited dinners held around the city from 8-11 p.m. I was fortunate enough to take in the 40th anniversary of the Sidney Frank Importing Company at Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, which featured a multi-course menu paired with cocktails created by three top bartenders.
“It’s amazing what can happen,” said legendary bartender Dale Degroff, addressing the crowd at this year’s Spirited Awards ceremony. “This was just a little Southern Comfort event where all of us were hanging out at the Monteleone. There weren’t more than 12 presenters, and we just sat around and had drinks together. For the past four or five years, it’s been the biggest cocktail event on the calendar.”
Ironically, it was Katrina that catapulted Tales into hyperspace. Southern Comfort withdrew as a sponsor after the hurricane; founder Ann Tuennerman sought out support from other companies, and the event began to grow. For Degroff, who practically launched the cocktail revolution single-handedly in the 1980s while supervising the bar at New York’s Rainbow Room, Tales is part of a culture that has truly exploded. He now serves as a consultant for companies like Marriott, and has watched the craft cocktail movement go mainstream. For consumers who were trying in vain to order an artisan cocktail around the country last week, the explanation was simple---all the bartenders were hanging out in New Orleans.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories---the type a writer could never make up.”