Am just back from New Orleans, where I spent the last couple days as a guest of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktail conference that brings together bartenders, drink historians, liquor companies, and cocktail aficionados for a 6-day extravaganza that I heard referred to more than once as “spring break for bartenders.” As can be imagined, morning seminars were slightly more sparsely-attended than evening ones, and were accompanied by no small amount of hair of the dog.
I was down from Friday through Sunday, and spent the majority of my time geeking out on cocktail history, which was to be had in abundance – presentations on that front ranged from a roundup of forgotten 19th-century bartenders to a discussion on how best to resurrect historical cocktails, as well as a threatened (but not performed) experiment to see whether navy gin (thus named because it’s high enough proof that, if you spill it on gunpowder, the gunpowder can still be lit, making it a good thing to have on ships) does in fact live up to its name.
Other highlights included the annual Spirit Awards, naming the best bars, products, and bartenders in the industry. It’s rare that this happens in any field, but frankly, I agree with almost every one of their picks, most especially the Best American Cocktail Bar (Pegu Club), Best Cocktail Writing (Dave Wondrich), American Bartender of the Year (Jim Meehan), and World’s Best Cocktail Bar (PDT, where Jim Meehan is not-coincidentally the heart and soul behind the bar). Best New Product was Bols Genever – I’m always happy to see more gin, and traditional gin at that, hitting the market, and the Bols was featured in one of my favorite drinks of the conference, the Genever Collins, demonstrated at a feisty panel, where, among other notable quotes, punch was referred to (in contrast to the austerity of a martini) as “the extravagant drag queen of the gin cocktail world.”
Brief outtakes from other moments: Phil Greene demonstrating the proper form for an airborne absinthe wash (performed pre-Sazerac, and while wearing a rain poncho to protect his suit); a raucous limoncello demo with Danny DeVito and John Besh, broadcast live on New Orleans’ legendary Chef and the Fatman radio show; a fake-mustache-involving*, only-somewhat-successful attempt at a Harry Johnson-style stacked glass pour; a homemade bitters contest and tasting, with more than one participant copping to having procured the necessary herbs at “the hippie herb store;” a short history of Bourbon street’s burlesque bars, presented in part by two former dancers now in their 80s (Wild Cherry and Evangeline the Oyster Girl); and a really remarkable, The Game-style presentation, the last of the conference, about how best as a bartender to manipulate your guests into doing what you want them to.
All told, Tales was a fascinating experience, and a highly-recommended one — and, even though I’ll probably spend the next week slowly sipping water while simultaneously avoiding bright lights and sudden noises, it was worth every sip.
Rupa Bhattacharya, Culinary Writer
*Mustaches were a recurring theme at the conference, both in the context of historical bartenders (that they all had them) and modern bartenders (them too) – but honestly, I think I saw just as many Hawaiian shirts as I did mustaches. I’m wondering whether Tales 2109 will involve people ritualistically, only semi-ironically putting on Hawaiian shirts the same way this year’s non-mustachioed presenters did mustaches.