Cocktail Mixers

Jeffery Lindenmuth - November 2008

Jeffery Lindenmuth reports on a Crescent City mixology summit that continues to mature in size, international scope, and economic impact.

Were there a 24 hour theme park for cocktail enthusiasts, it would probably include a raucous jazz funeral for cliché cocktails, like the Sour Apple Martini, an authentic tiki party with throngs of revelers sipping from carved coconuts, and an Iron Chef–style Bar Chef Challenge, where competitors face off to create new drinks using secret ingredients, like ginger marmalade. It would probably look a lot like Tales of the Cocktail, held in New Orleans each July.

Now in its seventh year, Tales of the Cocktail continues to grow exponentially. According to founder Ann Tuennerman, 2008 drew about 20,000 visitors, topping last year's attendance of 12,000. It's difficult to obtain precise numbers of attendees because of the hundreds of activities throughout the five day festival that includes cocktail dinners, demonstrations, tastings, seminars, book signings, and competitions, so Tuennerman prefers to measure her success in garnishes. This year, for example, 294 different cocktails drank up 8,085 mint leaves, 2,340 jalapeño slices, and 560 gin-soaked dried cherries.

To appeal to professionals, new for 2008 was a greater number of industry-specific topics among the erudite seminars that remain the hallmark of the event. For "How to Create the Right Cocktail Menu for your Bar or Restaurant," successful bar owners, including Tony Abou-Ganim and Julie Reiner, coached attendees on finding inspiration and avoiding the "all-vodka menu." "The Next Big Spirit" saw panelists debating the prospects of rye, gin, dark rum, pisco, and even absinthe to become cocktail forces. In "How to Increase Publicity for your Bar, Bartender, or Cocktail Program," journalists and public relations pros helped attendees refine their media pitches.

Consumers and professionals alike enjoyed 90 minute à la carte seminars like "Eggs in Cocktails," with discussions on egg safety and the use of farm fresh eggs, as well as the sampling of cocktail recipes using egg whites, yolks, and whole eggs, including, of course, the locally famous Ramos Gin Fizz. In "Regional American Drink Trends," bartenders from opposite coasts did not face off as much as profess their mutual admiration for the East Coast's penchant for craftsmanship and California's culinary cocktail bent. "The History of Bar Snacks" traced complimentary noshes from early public houses to contemporary riffs, like Janos Wilder's Oaxacan spiced peanuts at J-Bar and Suzanne Goin's "dressed olives" at Luques.

The influx of visitors seeking refreshing cocktails during the soupy New Orleans summer resulted in fully booked restaurants and sold-out hotels throughout the French Quarter, which serves as the stage for the event. "My goal with Tales of the Cocktail is to get the global cocktail community together," says Tuennerman. According to a "Visitor Profile and Economic Impact Study," an official follow-up report in October, the seventh annual event's total economic impact reached $7.6 million, including state and local government tax revenues of over $560,000.

For the historic Hotel Monteleone, which acts as command central for the event, it's an opportunity to fill rooms and introduce new customers to the property. "The event is now so large that Ann could easily take it to the convention center, but what she wants to do is keep it here and give the visitors a sense of New Orleans. People walk around the city and become immersed," says Andrea Thornton, Monteleone's director of sales and marketing.

Thornton also says that she has seen a shift in average participant age, with more 20-somethings joining the cocktail veterans. "I think we can attribute a lot of that change to the blogging community," she speculates. "This year, Tales included a reception just for bloggers, and we had about 50 people typing away on their laptops." Most importantly for the Monteleone, the majority of guests stay for four nights, with enough spillover crowd to sell out its sister hotel, the Bienville House, and others as well.

"Spirited Dinners," which paired visiting mixologists with 24 local restaurants and chefs, had continued success for all involved.

Richard Hughes, executive chef/owner of The Pelican Club, boasts, "Summer is usually not the best time for tourism, but we've really done great and sold out well in advance for the two years that we've participated."

The Pelican Club offered passed appetizers and four courses, paired with cocktails by Tobin Ellis of Las Vegas, for $85. The dinner involved months of e-mail correspondence culminating in two days of on-site prep. "Cocktails offer even more flavor variation than wine--from dry to sweet, fruity or savory," says Hughes. "The drink prep can actually be more involved than the food prep," he adds.

Each team up had its own brainstorming backstory. Just one example was Ellis' Tangerine Mojave, a mix of Sagatiba Cachaça, tangerine puree, fresh lime, cane sugar, and fresh mint, to partner with arugula salad with goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, navel orange suprêmes, jalapeño/cornbread croutons and a creamy shallot/garlic vinaigrette. "Our thought process was that the slightly bitter arugula and salty nuts and croutons would be offset by the sweetness of the tangerine puree, the creaminess of the garlic vinaigrette would be cut nicely by the citrus, and overall the coolness of the drink would counteract the heat of the jalepeño," explains Ellis.

Also new this year was a noticeable international presence, making Tales a truly global gathering. The Spirit Awards, judged by an international panel lead by authors Simon Difford and Robert Hess, honored Salvatore at Fifty, London, with Best Drinks Selection, noting Salvatore Calabrese's expansive list of ingredients and library of historical Cognacs that make possible the mixing of almost any drink. "Salvatore has a grand selection of spirits, liqueurs, and syrups, which he regularly uses in the cocktails being served," says Hess. 1806 in Melbourne, Australia, which takes its name from the first recorded appearance of the word cocktail in print, was deemed to have the Best Cocktail Menu. The menu is divided into contemporary drinks ("Now") and historical drinks ("Then"). The 40 historical drinks offer a chronological tour of mixology, beginning with a Fish House Punch from 1756, progressing through the seminal Manhattan and Martinez of the late 19th century and culminating in 1990s classics like the Cosmopolitan and Caipirinha.

Milk & Honey, New York City, brought home Best Classic Cocktail Bar for its attention to historical accuracy and speakeasy style. Calabrese himself and Peter Dorelli, longtime bartender at The Savoy (London), were among the living legends who raised shakers under the strobe of flashing cameras at the "Bartender's Breakfast," a midnight to 3 a.m. gathering designed by Simon Ford, international ambassador for Plymouth Gin.

"I think this year, it became not just the American, but the world cocktail event. The biggest names in the industry are here, from the many U.S. historians to legends and influencers from the English scene," asserts Ford. "Through the Internet and events like this, the global community of bartenders has become much smaller."

Among the most coveted, and rigorous, positions at Tales of the Cocktail was that of cocktail apprentice, a new program developed in collaboration with Phillip Ward of Death & Company in New York City, that offered 15 cocktail newcomers the chance to work in the trenches, juicing gallons of citrus and cutting lemon twists for hours on end, alongside top mixologists. LaTanya White, owner of 71 Proof LLC, a consulting company based in Talla­has­see, Florida, says it was an opportunity for her to get up close to some of her inspirations, like female mixologists Charlotte Voisey of spirits company William Grant & Sons and Reiner, owner of Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club in New York City. "Coming from Florida, I don't have many chances to meet these people, and while we were batching drinks in the kitchen, we got to rub elbows with so many great mixologists," says White.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of Tales of the Cocktail remains its intimacy, despite its success. The event is a rare opportunity for literally anyone to share a cab with cocktail author Gary Regan, pull up a chair alongside master mixologist Dale Degroff at a jazz show, or enjoy the knowledge and Buddy Hackett barbs of Brian F. Rea, former head barman at the 21 Club and a bartender of 60 years, while just waiting for the elevator.

Tales of the Cocktail 2009 will take place July 8 through 12. For info: www.talesofthecocktail.com.