Hard to believe last call on Tales of the Cocktail was already well over a week ago! The annual, nearly week-long cocktail convention held in New Orleans brought together an international group of bartenders, apprentices, writers, spirits brands and enthusiasts to discuss and learn about booze, capped off with eventful evenings of celebration. Much can happen in that amount of time, and for that reason, we can’t do it justice in one article. So here’s Part One.
Old booze is new booze
There were definitely some surprising twists this year, perhaps the biggest focused on one particular spirit – vodka. Yes, after spending so many years shunned to the attic like a neglected, mutant child of the cocktail world no one wants to acknowledge, vodka was front and center thanks to major brand presence from Absolut Vodka and its parent company, Pernod Ricard. It seemed their mission was to prove vodka can play nice with craft ingredients like all the other spirits on the playground. In some cases this worked, but in some it failed hard. At the Absolut Welcome Party, Arnaud’s restaurant was transformed into an imaginative and what some described as “bonkers” series of themed rooms and vignettes that brought guests into situations that simultaneously resembled Eyes Wide Shut, Sleep No More, the Great Gatsby, Alice in Wonderland, 1984 and even Re-Animator. Each “story” corresponded with its own cocktail, and most, if not delicious,
Tristan Willey at the Absolut Welcome partywere at least clever, especially the molecular “plasma” cocktail from the I.V. drip in the “mad scientist lab” and the punch fountains in the grand ballroom.
were at least clever, especially the molecular “plasma” cocktail from the I.V. drip in the “mad scientist lab” and the punch fountains in the grand ballroom.
I am also told the Absolut spirited dinner the next night at Bevelo Gas and Electric Lights was equally quite spectacular. However, they also hosted a little popup tasting there to showcase the new Absolut Elyx with a mini Swedish smorgasbord and matching cocktails. A beet juice Bloody Mary sounded like a great idea, and in the heat of a New Orleans afternoon, I was practically drooling for a frosty Ramos Elyx Fizz. However, while the setting was lovely and both drinks were gorgeous to look at, neither of them were measured properly or tasted before serving, which is a huge, surprising misstep for such a prominent brand. The Bloody Mary was too beety with no balance of other flavors and the fizz, well, have you ever accidentally brushed your teeth then taken a sip of grapefruit juice? Too much lemon clashing with anise (why would you put anise in a citrus fizz?), not enough simple syrup and a walloping amount of vodka. It’s sad to leave such a pretty looking event so thirsty.
Tapping into your inner cocktail nerd
Luckily, it was easy to clear my palate with a Mary Pickford at my next seminar – When Americans Invaded Cuba with cocktail historian Jared Brown. In fact, one of the highlights of TOTC this year was the seminars, with a roster of new topics and well thought out presentations that balanced research and overall geekery with delicious fun for the attendees. The Cuba seminar began with a discussion of June “Thirsty First” 1919, the official start of Prohibition when Americans flocked to places like Cuba to drink legally. Then onward through the tiki years and into present day following the formation of the Cuban bartenders guild, which was originally created when Americans outnumbered Cubans in bar jobs. The Airport Bars seminar featured brand ambassadors Charlotte Voisey and Jacob Briars dressed as flight attendant and pilot to transport the class to the golden age of luxury travel and into the future, when more local establishments are slated to represent their respective cities in new airport venues with a redirected focus on the kind of hospitality that’s been missing since the early 70s. Along with consultant Doug Draper, they also named the ten best airport bars in the world (congrats to One Flew South in Atlanta!), and discussed how to order drinks
when not in one of them. Digging Into the Roots of Tequila was not only an overview of the spirit, but a fascinating (no really!) in-depth discussion on the botany and conservation of the agave plant with an impressive
panel of experts that included Amy Stewart, Don Lee, Miguel Cedeño Cruz, Enrique de Colsa and moderated by Elayne Duff. But the seminars weren’t only about booze history, there were also discussions on the bar business, ingredients, modifiers, methodology and even ice!
TOTC does a wonderful job using New Orleans as a historical backdrop. The Pernod Ricard event at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum was a relaxing afternoon respite, using the vintage soda fountain-like atmosphere to serve up Pernod ice cream floats, test tube cocktails, boozy candy and other treats.
The Midnight Moon event at the Courthouse brought us back to the bad old days of running moonshine, the precursor to Nascar racing. Authentic cars from the 1940s graced the streets and guests had the opportunity to have mugshots taken.
There was also a stellar all-day event held at the new Cane and Table for the Irish Whiskey House popup with Dead Rabbit, who were subsequently awarded Best New Cocktail Bar honors at the Spirited Awards! It was all the fun and hospitality of being at Dead Rabbit in New York City, minus the Wall Street crowds and with the freedom to walk about and mingle with all the people you love to drink with. Sean Muldoon held court in the back yard, which was a gracious setting for BBQ, beer, Jameson highballs,
shots of Green Spot or Yellow Spot whiskeys and even entertaining cooperage demonstrations! Jack McGarry along with DR bartenders Pamela Wiznitzer and Franky
Marshall served cocktails and punch up front, and looked to be having great fun doing it as they chatted up guests.
And that’s mostly what we did in the daytime, boozehounds!
Next installment: the tasting rooms and the parties!
For what to do in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail, read about how to choose your own adventure here.