Thirsty South man in the field Scott Henry is in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail 2013. Scott is an amateur tippler who applies his training as a journalist — more than a decade writing, editing and drinking for Creative Loafing Atlanta — to pester barkeeps across the country about their cocktail recipes, their mixing techniques, that bottle I don’t recognize on the third shelf … no, the one behind the Becherovka, just to the left of the Peat Monster …
Yesterday morning, Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Tuennerman dropped into the media lounge and got into what likely was one of many discussions over the course of the week concerning the much-debated question of whether Tales has gotten too big.
She explained that the number of seminars did not increase since last year, having held at 59 ticketed events over five days. But while the seminars are the heart and soul of Tales, they’re far from the only happenings that define the convention for many people. Most casual Tales-goers will attend only a handful of seminars — which typically cost $55 apiece — but are likely to drop in on perhaps a dozen or so of the tasting rooms, where distillers and distributors hand out cocktails, food and swag, all for free.
That’s to say nothing of the tastings that take place in the street outside the Monteleone Hotel, the parties at various locations around the French Quarter, and the arguably gimmicky peripheral events, such as the pedicab-trip-and-a-shave promotion sponsored by a single-barrel Scotch.
It’s these sorts of distributor-driven events that have driven many bartenders to complain that Tales has gotten too big and too commercial in recent years. And, from a purist’s perspective, they might be right. But I tend to think it’s not its size that gives the convention its character, but its tone. And that, with some exceptions, has remained pretty consistent.
Certainly, the seminars haven’t been dumbed down. If anything, they’ve gotten more scholarly. Just today, I attended one seminar about the flavor profiles of curacao, Cognac, Dutch genever and other popular spirits of the early 19th century, and another on the colorful history of the Prohibition-era bar scene in Havana. A friend of mine went to a seminar on the history of ice. I’ll repeat that: the history of ice.
And even when the sillier tasting events and product launches threaten to get out of hand with freebies and spokesmodels in tight T-shirts, there’s still a focus on the taste and/or the craftsmanship, not the buzz. For instance, I stopped this morning into a tasting for various spirits produced by the St. George Distillery of Alameda, California. I sampled cocktails employing their new pisco, the name of which escapes me, their assertive Terroir Gin and their Breaking & Entering Bourbon — the last in a whiskey milk punch, perhaps the closest thing there is to liquid crack. In other words, there was ample opportunity to get hammered, but the event was convivial but low-key, with patrons asking about recipes and botanicals.
At nearly every such event, there are knowledgeable liquor reps to tell you exactly how the spirit is made and, many times, even the company founders themselves, who can share trade secrets on their distribution travails and their upcoming releases.
So, Tales continues to grow. But, speaking as a veteran who’s been here several times since 2007, I’d say it’s evolving rather than devolving.