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.

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…

High West Barreled Boulevardier


You like Negronis, right? Good.

You like whiskey, right? Good.

You like whiskey-based cocktails, right? Sometimes? OK. I get that.

Ever had a Boulevardier? No? You really should do something about that, like, now.

The Boulevardier is one of my favorite cocktails – typically one and half or two parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, one part Campari. Sound familiar? It’s a bit like a Negroni – another great cocktail – one part gin, one part sweet vermouth, one part Campari. I say “a bit,” because even though the recipes share the vermouth and Campari, the way in which gin and bourbon play with those two other ingredients is kinda like the difference between a bright spring day, full of awakening, and an autumnal afternoon, leaves falling, the cold of winter around the corner.

Too abstract? Think sharp and vibrant (the Negroni) vs. rich and rounded (the Boulevardier).  In any case, they’re both great drinks, albeit for different moods. And they’re both easy drinks to make if you’ve got those basics in your home bar. Combine, stir over ice, strain. Kaboom.

Want even easier? With an added layer of intrigue? High West has just come out with a bottled, barrel-aged Boulevardier (they introduced their first bottled, barrel-aged cocktail – a Manhattan – two years ago). For this one, High West does depart a bit on the recipe – going two parts bourbon (a six year old sourced bourbon), one part Vya sweet vermouth, one half part Gran Classico (a bitter and complex cousin of Campari that does indeed work well in Negronis or Boulevardiers). That all then sits in bourbon barrels for four to six months to age into a nice mellow drink.

High West was kind enough to send me small samples of both the aged and un-aged versions of their Boulevardier (only the aged version is for sale) – and the difference is rather remarkable. The time in the barrel results in a smoother, warmer, rounder, Boulevardier, very well integrated. And I must say, the ratios used seem just right, as the bitter components assert themselves without wrestling away the cocktail.

High West’s “The Barreled Boulevardier” started hitting shelves in the past few weeks. Give it a shot if you’re interested in barrel aged cocktails and lack… barrels.

High West “The Barreled Boulevardier”
72 proof
Approx. $50 Retail for a 750ml bottle
Tasting Dates: June 18-20, 2013
Thirsty South rating: Good Stuff – this is one barrel aged cocktail that really benefits nicely from the time in the barrel

For more on the Boulevardier, check out this nice “case study” from the New York Times.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

UPDATED: Thirsty Guide to Atlanta

Pray for ATL

The Thirsty South “Thirsty Guide to Atlanta” (<- click to go straight to it) gets a minor re-build today – with a bunch of new additions, a few knockdowns, and a brand spankin’ new map plotting your path to potent potable nirvana. (Thank you, Jeopardy, for bringing “potent potables” into the popular vocabulary).

The most significant additions were in the cocktail bar category, where Atlanta continues to blossom thanks to a great bartender community and owner/operators who understand the importance of the bar to the restaurant. New to the list cocktail/whiskey bars include: 4th & Swift, Eleanor’s, Empire State South, The Lawrence, Local Three, Miller Union, Octane Grant Park, Octopus Bar, and Proof & Provision. There are a handful of others who are on the cusp of that list, but the intent is to keep it short and sweet.

Also added… The Spence for their very fun wine list, The Wrecking Bar for its unique brewpub atmosphere, and Empire State South for their coffee (they also make the cut for cocktails and wine list).

Be sure to click over to the Thirsty Guide to see the map and the full list of favorite spots around town for beer, cocktails, wine, and coffee. And please let me know who else you think deserves a spot on the list – or who should be taken down!

From Nana’s Bar

You may recall Nana and her Battle Between Bourbon and Scotch (if not, do be sure to watch the short video in that post for a small peek into the Southern past). She was a spirited soul, to say the least. And she kept a well stocked bar, with some beautiful accessories, some silly accessories, some just plain awesome accessories.

In the beautiful category, there’s this silver julep cup (pictured above and below, be sure to scroll down through all the photos). I’ll admit I’ve never owned one myself (despite drinking my good share of mint juleps); it seems like a superbly Southern extravagance, like ice piled high when ice was a precious item itself. The silver in this julep cup beautifully reflects everything around it, pulling in the light, taking on and enhancing the character of its surroundings.

A beautiful bar can also be silly sometimes… after the julep cup, there’s something to keep the mood light – a vintage bartender’s glass jigger, labeled “Ladies” for 3/4 oz, “Gents” for 1 1/2 oz and, well, a picture of a very happy pig for 3 oz. It’s delightfully old fashioned, not to be taken seriously.

And on to the “just plain awesome” category, two sets… vintage silver jiggers by Napier (a renowned American silver company), with silver hands emerging from the cups, one finger or two (I prefer two, myself).  Then an old leather carrying case with two glass flasks, one of which is conveniently labeled in scrawled lettering on masking tape – “Bourbon.” There’s no arguing with that.

I honestly have no idea how old these items are. They could have been found at a flea market in 1992 or a fine silver shop in 1929 (well, one was likely the former, the others more likely latter). What’s most important, though, is that they are, and forever will be, from Nana’s bar. Memories come in many forms.


The Holeman and Finch Bartender Survival Kit

The fine folks of the Holeman & Finch gustatory empire created an epically brilliant survival kit for rockstar bartenders visiting last week’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. It’s so epically brilliant, in fact, that it deserves to be shared as a model of Southern hospitality done right. Note the clever illustrated instructions, especially the subtle reference to inappropriate ways to sign your name when thirsty fans are seeking autographs.


1 Towel. For wiping sweat from brow during Southern heat.

1 Fernet Branca. For instant joy and street cred to boot.

1 Bottle Opener. Duh.

1 Packet of Goody’s Powder. For the morning after.

1 Pack of Mints. To spare those around you.

1 Sharpie Pen. To appease the clamoring hordes of autograph hounds.

Holeman & Finch operation hospitality? Mission accomplished.