Tales of the Cocktail

The eighth annual Tales of the Cocktail—probably the world’s largest celebration of distilled spirits—gets under way in New Orleans this week.

Hosted by the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, TOTC has grown from an informal gathering of bartenders and spirits geeks into a large, comprehensive and impressively organized event. This year’s festival will feature over 50 panel discussions and seminars, including  Armagnac, the Art of the Aperitif, Amazing Amaros and Brilliant Bitters, Prohibition and Gin, Rum Running (a historical perspective), The Many Faces of Canadian Whisky and Religious Spirits. These panels are moderated by industry experts, and many sell out in advance.

We’ve all heard of food and wine pairing, but what about pairing spirits with food? At TOTC there are the Spirited Luncheons and Spirited Dinners, at which a team of authors, mixologists and chefs du bar work with leading New Orleans restaurants to come up with cocktails that pair with five and six-course menus. For those who crave an educational focus (or a tax write-off), the U.S. Bartenders Guild offers both their Spirits professional and Advanced Bartender exams during TOTC.

Needless to say, a bit of drinking goes on during the event. There are dozens of Tasting Rooms, where spirits brands showcase innovative cocktail recipes. Local bars of all sizes get in on the action. Last year’s shopping list for the four days included 13,884 mint leaves, 11,250 limes and 12,000 pounds of ice. That’s what I call a party.

The host organization is particularly focused on the preservation of New Orleans classics such as the Sazerac and the Ramos Ginn Fizz, and establishments that serve authentic versions of these drinks receive awards. They also “retire” the world’s worst cocktails in official burials. This year, a jazz funeral procession will lead cocktail connoisseurs to the Roosevelt Hotel, where they will bury Sex on the Beach (probably the same thing the musician’s union wishes they could do with Proud Mary).