Tell someone you’ll be out of town for a work convention and you’re likely to get a sympathetic nod and maybe a send-off that sounds more pessimistic than hopeful (“Have fun…?”). Most business conventions evoke visions of onerous PowerPoint presentations, cheesy team-building exercises, and awkward happy hours where no one wants to get too tipsy in front of the boss. But if you’re headed to Tales of the Cocktail, either as an industry professional or lay libations enthusiast, be prepared for the exact opposite.
When I arrived in New Orleans late on Tuesday, the first “official” day of the convention, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 was already in full swing. The primary headquarters, Hotel Monteleone, one of NOLA’s most luxurious and historic accommodations, was packed to the gills with bartenders, promotional representatives, hipsters dressed in three-piece suits, and packs of aging hippies wearing t-shirts with slogans like “You can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning.” An intense and lively crowd to say the least.
Tales of the Cocktail (or TOTC as it is referred to by those in know) comprises hundreds of events ranging in topic, price, and duration. These events can be generally categorized as “tastings,” which offer attendees samples of different cocktails involving one particular brand (e.g., Tito’s Vodka) or spirit varietal (vermouth), seminars on various historical and industry topics, evening parties/happy hours, liquor-themed dinners at local restaurants, and night-time shindigs sponsored by a particular outlet or company. Many events overlap, so planning in advance is imperative lest you find yourself double-booked for a rye tasting and a gin seminar.
First stop for me on early Wednesday morning was the “The Market,” a pop-up shop open all day with TOTC cocktail memorabilia, barware (portable Gin & Tonic kits anyone?), and booze-themed food products such Sazerac hot fudge sauce. Just around corner was “Books and Bitters,” a boutique vending (you guessed it) a mind-blowing array of different herbal bitters as well as books ranging from cocktail histories, hagiographies of industry tastemakers, and recipes books. But I wasn’t at TOTC just to read about drinking, of course, so for the next two hours I made my way through a series of tasting rooms, the absolute best of which was that sponsored by AlambiQ. In addition to serving an array of refreshing muddled and blended drinks with Boiron fruit and vegetable extracts, they also had cute breakfast nibbles such as miniature quiches and beignets.
Suitably fueled, I headed to a “TED Talk”-style seminar where internationally recognized bartenders, e.g., Alex Kratena of London’s famous Artesian bar, and brand ambassadors delivered mini-lectures on, for example, why mocktails are the next big trend in the bar industry. The latter part of the afternoon found me at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta, where the winners of the “Story of the Bartender” contest read their personal tales while on-lookers noshed on smoked meats and gin cocktails. I ducked out early to return to the Hotel Monteleone in exchange for a significantly noisier scene and boisterous crowd at the rooftop rye party sponsored by Redemption Rocks. Samples of their famous ginger punch was on hand, but I was more interested in doing a vertical tasting in order to understand the full spectrum of flavors of their rye varieties. All in the name of research, natch.
A relatively early bedtime and dinner of three dozen or so oysters meant I was raring to go again on Thursday. At the “Suite Silencio” in the Hotel Monteleone, I savored a melon and mint mezcal cocktail while waiting for a complimentary chair massage. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so relaxed before noon. My early afternoon seminar, “A Bottle & A Cork: Bars of Old New York,” led by Esquire writer and cocktail historian David Wondrich was informative, humorous, and deliciously wet, with no fewer than five (small) samples of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century drinks that originated in the Big Apple.
Following a much-needed (because I was working so hard, obviously) nap, I vicariously journeyed to Peru via a Pisco party replete with models in native Incan costume and no fewer than five different stations featuring different punches. The absolute best was the “Golden Grape” made with tart green grapes, cinnamon syrup, orange juice, and cayenne pepper. Even two ounces was enough to kick me in the pants; a full serving would have had me running buck wild down Bourbon street.
What’s remarkably convenient about staying at either the Hotel Monteleone or the Royal Sonesta (both of which are the “official” lodging for TOTC) is that you can party hop with abandon and pop up to your room for a break. Thus, from “Peru” I had only to traipse a few feet to reach “Italy,” i.e., a reception on anise where I enjoyed a piquant “Cold Friends,” cocktail made with Varnelli Anice Secco, Lustau Dry Oloroso, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Then, an elevator ride up five floors took me to the rooftop pool where Hendrick’s Gin was throwing a fete, “The Bar of Hyperbolic Fabrications,” in which teams competed in spinning the most believable (or not) yarns regarding drinking adventures. It’s amazing the appetite you can work up drinking gin and elderflower tonics and watching other people lie: I easily put away a large bowl of beans and rice plus more char-grilled oysters later that night.
Still going strong, I rose relatively early to catch a showing of Fed Up, the critically acclaimed documentary that debunks much of the pseudo-science dogma surrounding exercise and nutrition. Sponsored by Belvedere Vodka, this screening was followed by a short talk on how to concoct cocktails without white sugar. To observe the real-world application of these lessons, I headed next to the “Prairie Organic Spirits” tasting room to sample their naturally-sweetened libations. Using “seed to glass” liquors, these fine folks created an array of botanical drinks like the “Rosemary Gin Fizz” served against a backdrop of greenery and flower displays. They also were handing out free muddlers. Score!
I skipped from the Hotel Monteleone to the Royal Sonesta to attend “The Great British Gin Invasion,” tasting room, where other attendees tipped me off to the fact that my British gin education wouldn’t be complete unless I stopped by the “Broker’s Bowler Cup” championship back at the Hotel Monteleone. After guzzling a bottle of water, I made a mad dash to the Monteleone and was promptly rewarded with one of my favorite experiences of the convention. Broker’s Gin hosted a gin cocktail competition where we, the audience (all wearing bowler hats) picked the winner (my vote was for the drink that utilized edible flowers), and chowed down on an endless fish and chips buffet. That event enlightened me as to the versatility of gin as well as reassured me that, yes, I can put away pounds of fried fish and still have room for dinner.
With the start of the weekend, the convention seemed busier than ever with more tourist attendees eager to whet their whistles. In the morning, I lingered over the fresh fruit displays while sipping a refreshing “master tonic” with melon liqueur, gin, ginger beer, and fresh beet, carrot, and apple juices at the “famers’ market” sponsored by Midori.
After a quick lunch at the iconic Johnny’s Po-boys, I made for the Pikesville Rye Whiskey tasting station, which offered the most creative service at the convention: complimentary old-school shaves for the guys and eyebrow waxing for the gals. Lines for these services were understandably a bit long, but that was just fine because at 110-proof, Pikesville Rye demands very slow sipping.
Following this coiffing/quaffing session, I transitioned to the decidedly more raucous Phenix Brand Drink Lab. Imagine a room filled with forty-odd people who have been drinking since 9am trying to crack coconuts to make their own “experiment” cocktail. It was messy but entertaining.
By evening I was ready to swap drinking for eating some serious NOLA cuisine (fried oysters with brie!), but if my liver had held out and I had packed some Cuban attire, I would have attended the “Spirited Awards,” an old Havana themed ceremony honoring the winners of various bartending, writing, and menu design categories.
I had to skedaddle early on Sunday, but if I was able to linger longer in Nawlins’ I would have surely hit up the final tasting room featuring Ms. Linda’s famous “Ya-Ka-Mein,” egg noodle soup before heading out to one of the many distillery tours available. Next year, I will take Monday off from work to savor one last day and recover.
A few final words of advice: Lasting over five full days and nights, Tales of the Cocktail is a drinking marathon, not a sprint, and as with all endurance races, you have to pace yourself and hydrate. Those that “win” Tales of the Cocktail (that is to say, finish strong and excited for next year rather than pass out at the end and resolved never to return again) are the attendees that sip, not guzzle, their samples. Remember, you’re in New Orleans! There is plenty of non-liquid fun to balance the booze, so pair that Hurricane with some oysters and soak up that Sazerac (or three) with a po’boy. Cheers!