Tales of the Cocktail: New Orleans event proves booze industry knows how to party
The Crescent City’s annual gathering for liquor industry leaders is an ‘endurance test’ of seminars, tastings and, of course, daunting amounts of booze
Source: The Guardian
Paul Oswell in New Orleans
21 July 2015
The relentless humidity of July in New Orleans doesn’t make it the most seductive time to visit, yet the grand old Hotel Monteleone was last week packed to the rafters with anyone who’s anyone in the global spirits and cocktail industries.
Tales of the Cocktail is an annual gathering that began in the Crescent City 13 years ago when Ann Tuennerman led a walking tour of the boozy city’s best watering holes. Together with her husband Paul, Tuennerman now oversees the largest event on the cocktail and spirits calendar, earning them the nicknames “Mr and Mrs Cocktail”.
“It’s a week-long party, a marathon, a convention and an endurance test,” said David Wandrich, drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine.
The party culminated with a globally recognised awards ceremony on Saturday night, the end of a weeklong collection of seminars, tastings and, of course, daunting amounts of booze.
Industry legends were there to pass on their wisdom, and people paid top dollar to see Dale DeGroff (aka King Cocktail), or hospitality magnate Danny Meyer. This being New Orleans, though, there was also a good chance you’d end up sitting next to them at a bar at 3am, for far less money.
For niche producers, this informal networking web is invaluable. The price for sponsorship or running a tasting room is high if you’re not, say, Tanqueray, but chatting in line at restaurants or nonchalantly sitting at the bar with your product in front of you can be successful guerrilla marketing tactics.
Several small business owners talked to me about “selling at Tales without paying for Tales”.
“It’s essentially being everywhere and talking to everyone instead of paying for a huge presentation,” said one. “Because we’re not Diageo, we’re just some guy with a garage full of product.”
Jared Hirsch and Jennifer Absinthia Vermut were in from San Francisco and make a small-batch syrup called Caged Heat. “I was [chatting] outside the hotel at 4am and had a random conversation about bottle sizes,” said Vermut. “It will probably transform our business.”
All week long, the craft cocktail bartenders who descended on New Orleans were easy to spot: scrupulously groomed facial hair, full sleeve tattoos. “This is like Mardi Gras for Steampunks,” said one pedicab driver.
Brand managers with corporate credit cards offered an economic boost in the city’s hottest, and slowest, time of the year. The most lavish of the week’s parties were thrown on Thursday night by Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, who between them own most of the liquor brands you’re regularly drinking.
(Diageo – sellers of Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky, Tanqueray Gin, Captain Morgan rum and George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey among so many others – booked an 80s cover band despite, as one disgruntled local so rightly put it: “You can throw a stick in this town and hit a world-class brass band.”)
Back at the Monteleone, the literary hotel home to the storied Carousel Bar, the Tales seminar programme was astonishingly detailed. Daily talks included the physiology of shaking and the science of the perfect frozen drink.
Origin stories are an obsession of the cocktail world. Arguments raged over whether the first Harvey Wallbanger was actually served at the Blackwatch Bar in Los Angeles in 1952, and whether a surfer called Tom Harvey actually banged on a wall after drinking one. The provenance of almost every famous cocktail is a fabulous mess of claims and counter-claims. It all adds to the mysterious allure.
As the weekend arrived, water bottles were being gripped ever more tightly in the hotel lobby, even hardened boozehounds feeling the demands. The awards took place that evening, The Dead Rabbit in New York named best bar, best bartender going to the improbably named Ivy Mix, also from New York. The awards raise profiles significantly, The Dead Rabbit and Ms Mix now among an elite group of “destination” bars and bartenders (if you want to have Ms Mix fix you something, head to Leyanda in New York. The queue may already be forming).
By Sunday, everyone was wearing sunglasses indoors and suffering existential hangovers. I stopped by the Bourbon O Bar in the French Quarter, which this year featured a modified bubble tea machine that shook four Ramos Gin Fizzes at a time. A century ago, the drink (which requires heavy cream and a lot of shaking) was made by a line of “shaker boys” under famous New Orleans barkeep Henry Ramos.
I met Daniel Castro, a working bartender from Toronto. I asked him what he gets out of Tales – education, history, professional development? “It’s more than that,” he said. “Even the best people get disillusioned working a bar night in, night out. Tales reminds me there’s community. Without this human exchange of ideas, well, we may as well all be that modified bubble tea machine.”