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Tales of the Cocktail 2013: Part Deux

Tales of the Cocktail 2013: Part Deux

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.

Czech herbal liqueur ice fountain at a free tasting event
Czech herbal liqueur ice fountain at a free tasting event

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.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013: Field Report

Tales of the Cocktail 2013: Field Report

Monteleone Tales of the Cocktail

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 …

For those unfamiliar with TOTC, this is the pre-eminent cocktail convention in the U.S. and, quite probably, the world. Speaking of which, so far this morning, I’ve heard two different French accents from the presenters’ dais, one from Ireland and another from Mexico. That’s to be expected: TOTC has such a stature in the booze industry that it’s able to draw distillers, mixologists, cocktail historians and other experts from around the globe. A few minutes ago, I was chatting with Gary “Gaz” Regan, the celebrated bartender, author and spirits ambassador whose bearded visage adorns the labels of his own popular line of bitters. If you’re a working bartender or simply an enthusiast, like yours truly, TOTC is the one place where you can expect to bump into living legends like Regan, Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich at a tasting or, hell, even in the men’s room.

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Spirit Master Gary Regan sets up for a botanically minded cocktail tasting

At this very moment, I’m sitting in a packed conference room in the fabled Monteleone Hotel, listening to a panel discussion about how terroir affects the taste of Mexican tequila. Not being a tequila afficionado, I’d never thought about the subject, but, tasting the Don Julio Reposado from the highlands and lowlands, it seems to me that the lowlands produces a dryer, flatter taste, while the highlands sample is much more peppery and spicy, making it a better candidate for drinking neat. Lest one imagine that Tales is simply an excuse to get loaded, I must say this seminar is fairly technical, even scholarly. Everyone here just sampled chunks of raw, fresh agave to get a sense of how the pulpy root contributes to the mouth-feel of the resulting tequila.

For those of you who have been to TOTC, I have some bad news: no samples. Yes, you heard me. No mini-bottles of liquors — either in the media swag room, in the tasting rooms or at the many tastings. I was told earlier today that someone found out this year that minis — the familiar 50 cl bottles you get on airplanes — are illegal in Louisiana. Now, keep in mind that minis have been distributed at the 10 previous TOTC, but this year, after the state made it known that the bottles violated state law, the convention pulled all its minis. I was told there’s a store room somewhere in the Monteleone stacked to the ceiling with contraband minis that will not be handed out. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

OK, on to the next event…