If you had trouble last week finding a highly skilled bartender to make you an artisan cocktail, there’s a logical explanation: They were all in New Orleans.
Tales of the Cocktail, the nation’s premiere spirits event, convened in the Big Easy for its tenth anniversary. Starting in 2002 as a small, informal gathering that flew under the radar, this year’s Tales attracted more than 20,000 people. The attendees were a combination of industry insiders, mixologists, and members of the public who know a good party when they see one.
Ground zero for Tales of the Cocktail is the Hotel Monteleone, located in the French Quarter, although events spill out into the street and into nearby hotels as well. Seminars range 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 sponsors a tasting room during the week, and the packed lobby of the Monteleone is lubricated by servers circulating with trays of drinks.
A typical day at Tales might begin with a morning eye-opener at the Absolut Bloody Mary Bar in the lobby, followed by a 10 a.m. seminar on the difference between Pisco in Chile vs. Peru. Lunch is preceded by an edible fresh fruit cocktail made with Oxley Gin, served from their mobile truck parked outside the hotel’s front door. Afternoons are crammed with seminars, in addition to tasting rooms sponsored by brands such as Pernod Absinthe, Bulleit Bourbon, Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum or Jamieson Irish Whiskey. Anyone who felt their energy flagging could grab a bite from the Saveur Snack Stand in the lobby. After a brand-sponsored Happy Hour, a series of Spirited Dinners is held in restaurants around the city. I was fortunate enough to take in a dinner commemorating 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.
Tales of the Cocktail is an amazing experience, and only the strong survive. As it begins its second decade, it is one of the foremost parts of a cocktail culture that is truly exploding.