A Wonk’s First Trip to Tales of the Cocktail

It’s 11 PM, and after a long day, Mrs. Wonk and I are bone-tired. Yet we’re standing in a large courtyard in New Orleans where despite the late time, it’s still approximately 1000 degrees. On a raised platform some twenty feet above us, a Star Wars storm trooper DJs away. Behind him is an actual, honest-to-goodness World War II-era bomber, suspended in mid-air. Nearby a dystopian Thunderdome scene plays out as sporadic giant belches of flames erupt into the (already way too hot) night. Yet a few hours earlier, I was sipping a magnificent selection of Guyanese rums, pulled straight from the cask, not available anywhere else.  At Tales of the Cocktail, this is just another day as usual.

Tales of the Cocktail, the largest cocktails and spirits conference in the world, is held annually each summer in New Orleans’ French Quarter, primarily at the Hotel Monteleone, famous for its Carousel Bar (which actually rotates) and its halls haunted by a different kind of spirit. Bartenders, bloggers, spirit producers, distributors, and PR people converge on the city for five days of seminars, tastings, lunches, bar-hopping, book signings, and parties. I’d seen pictures and heard stories of prior Tales, but it was still a mind-boggling experience to immerse myself in it.
The official start of my own Tales experience was acquiring wristbands at registration, which grant access to tasting rooms and parties. The wristbands are designed to be difficult to remove so that they (in theory) remain on the original recipient’s wrist for the entire conference. The wristbands have long, floppy ends and make it easy to spot other Tales attendees while traveling around the city. While I had three wristbands (tasting room, media, and Friday’s Bacardi party), some folks such as my friend Peter Holland of The Floating Rum Shack sported five or more, adding to the perception that these otherwise upstanding people secretly harbored a late-night rave fixation.

Tales of the Cocktail promotes an educational angle; we can’t party 100% of the time, so let’s start with that. There are 75 sessions throughout the five days, taught or moderated by a who’s who of liquor industry luminaries. Tickets for the standard 90-minute sessions are about $50, but given the all-star presenters, not a bad deal. The “Multiple Malt Ambassadors Face Off” session I attended on Thursday featured not only legendary Whisky writer Dave Broom as the moderator, but also six brand ambassadors from William Grant & Sons, Diageo, and Beam Suntory leading attendees through a tasting of six Scotch Whiskies. Impressive, but not nearly so as the lineup for “Tapping Rum’s Past for Rum’s Future.” I confess to serious fanboy overload as my two favorite writers (David Wondrich and Paul Clarke) shared the dais with Tiki gods Martin Cate of Smugglers Cove and Jeff Berry of Latitude 29, as well as Plantation Rum head-honcho Alexandre Gabriel. If that wasn’t enough rummy firepower, Richard Seale of Foursquare distillery and Steven Remsberg, owner of the world’s largest private rum collection, were in the front row along with yours truly.

Mrs. Wonk hit several sessions as well, and we even attended one together, “The International Barfly’s Bucket List,” a quick yet entertaining spin through 80 bars in 90 minutes. Rather than just enumerating the moderator’s 80 best bars, they broke bars into categories, such as “Best That Set the Standard”. Cheering erupted around the room as attendees applauded for bars from their home cities – I was guilty of making a bit of noise for both Seattle’s Canon and Zig Zag.
It appears to be a Tales of the Cocktail rule that no session happens with fewer than three drinks. A typical spirits-focused offering like the rum, pisco, and whisky sessions I attended had eight or more samples, and typically ran long as people love to talk and ask questions when you’ve got tons of booze-filled, Tales-logoed plastic tasting cups in front of them. If not a spirits focused session, the CAPs (cocktail apprentices, the unsung heroes of Tales who kept us all lubricated) bring out three or four small cocktails during the event. Sessions are typically sponsored by a liquor company, so the cocktails feature that company’s product portfolio, with recipes often developed or provided by folks on the stage. Surprise!!!
Beyond the regular sessions are technique sessions and exclusive tastings. The “In A Snap: Cocktail Photography 101” session was presented by Daniel Krieger, who photographs for The New York Times, as well as bartending legend Jim Meehan, best known for New York’s PDT. It was good to see Daniel spend a large amount of time covering social media and iPhone photography, a topic that most in the room expressed heavy interest in.  (There were more than a few iPhone cameras out at every bar we bellied up to that week.) The exclusive tastings at first glance may seem expensive at $120, but groups are limited to twenty attendees, and the presenters brought their A+ game with super-rare expressions. I did three: “Rare & Heritage Rums of Demerara,” “A Taste of 10 Rare Single Casks” (from Plantation Rums), and “Clairin  – Authentic Rhums of Rural Haiti.” The rum community showed up in full force, and the sessions were so spectacular that I’m writing individual posts for them. Stay tuned for those.
During gaps when I had no sessions, there were plenty of tasting rooms to peruse – free with the purchase of at least $100 of session passes, a dollar figure Mrs. Wonk and I both exceeded. Some sessions were limited to a single brand like Don Pancho Origenes rum, which in addition to 18-year Panamanian rum samples, included the hand-rolling of cigars as a parting gift. Other tasting rooms featured multiple spirits, such as “Taste the Revolution” by the American Craft Spirits association, featuring brands like Corsair, House Spirits and Balcones. And if you’re not at a session or tasting, there’s always the lobby of the Monteleone, where you’ll spy a cornucopia of sponsored oddities – costumed parades, giveaways, boozy Popsicles, and a miniature pony on a leash.
As the sessions wind down for the day, the socializing begins, with Ground Zero at the Monteleone’s rooftop pool deck. Despite its relatively small size, hundreds of partygoers cram into every available inch of space to enjoy cocktails provided by the evening’s sponsoring brand while shouting over music provided by live bands. All normal elevator decorum goes out the window as the Monteleone’s elevators struggle to keep up with wet hordes forming three-minute friendships during the packed rides.  Our main elevator takeaway:  “You’ve got to go down to go up.”  (In short, elevator real estate is key; do all you can to get on when there’s room and you’ll eventually get where you’re going, past the disappointed hordes outside the doors.  Stay tuned for the phantom stop on the 14thFloor, where the ghost of a little boy is said to haunt the halls, looking for his parents who died while staying there.  Spoooooky.
Beyond the pool parties, Tales also has the Dynamic Duo series, where two or more well-known bartenders do a pop-up bar at a nearby venue. My favorite by far was “Tremendous Trinity Tackles Tiki Titans” –Martin Cate (San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove), Paul McGee (Chicago’s Lost Lake) and Nick Detrich (New Orleans’ own Cane & Table) taking over the back courtyard of Cane & Table, whipping up signature drinks. Martin’s offering was the Jet Pilot, my obvious choice as it’s the signature drink at Casa CocktailWonk. Did I mention it was hot in New Orleans?

Later in the evenings, the big spirits houses (Diageo, William Grant & Sons, Bacardi, Pernod Ricard) lay out tankerfuls of money and spirts for elaborate theme parties attended by hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Bacardi’s theme was “Street Party” – imagine what a New Orleans street party might look like, were it to have fire trucks serving up barbecued oysters, Madame St. Germain pedaling around an ice chest on wheels serving bottled St. Germain cocktails, crazy breakdancing straight out of Yo! MTV Raps, marching bands, and classic cars.  William Grant & Sons’ theme was “2084: Welcome to Yonderyear,” a glimpse into what a future (booze-soaked) world in 2084 might look like. At these parties, each major portfolio (Dewars, Grey Goose, Bombay Saphire, Sailor Jerry’s, Hendrick, Zacapa, etc…) had a dedicated theme bar serving cocktails utilizing that brand. At the Street Party, Bombay Sapphire’s was an apothecary, Bacardi rum had an old Havana bar, while at the 2084 party, Hendricks Gin was Alice in Wonderland mutants utilizing a fantastic Negroni machine, while Sailor Jerry had a dystopian Mad Max as a pirate thing going on. After a few parties and a few more free drinks, all the craziness seemed to run together—was that a tree on stilts?  Where did I see that half-clothed bartender in a cage serving shots?

The drinks are free (of course) and flow throughout the event. It’s a spectacle not to be missed, even if your liver is bone-tired and really just need some quality time with your hotel room air conditioner.
Although not a party per se, the USBG (US Bartender Guild) toast at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street is an annual Tales tradition. Hundreds of bartenders from around the country gather in the street at midnight, making the shitshow that is Bourbon Street even more impassable than usual. As midnight approaches, shotglasses are raised, a toast is made, and more imbibing ensues. Across the street, a collection of USBG chapter officers gathered on a bar balcony, waving and throwing beads and shirts to the group below – thanks to Mrs. Wonk throwing a couple of elbows in the crowd, I scored a sweet Cutty Sark t-shirt, yo!
Besides educational sessions and countless parties big and small, Tales is known for the Spirited Awards. In the months leading up to this week, a panel of hundreds of judges nominate and vote for people, products, and bars in a number of categories such as Best American Brand Ambassador, Best International Hotel Bar, Best New Spirits Book, and World’s Best Cocktail Menu. It’s like the Academy Awards, but for liquor! Although tickets were spendy, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see it at least once. This year’s theme was Destination: Cuba. The Sheraton New Orleans ballroom was elaborately decked out, and a band played live Cuban music throughout the evening. Various brands sponsor bar stations with free and unlimited cocktails featuring that brand’s product all night. Imagine my look of glee when I saw Plantation Rums offering a Stiggins’ Fancy Mai Tai (complete with quirky blue-cheese stuffed olive garnish), of which I consumed my fair share and then a few more as the evening wore on.
Simon Ford of The 86 Company (purveyor of rum, vodka, gin and tequila; the Four Horsemen of the Long Island Iced Tea) served as emcee, introducing a parade of liquor industry presenters interspersed with short, funny videos. Among my personal highlights was Amaro di Angostura (which I reviewedpreviously) winning for Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient, and Seattle’s Canon, a regular Wonk and Mrs. Wonk haunt, winning for World’s Best Spirits Selection. With 27 awards presented, the evening went on a bit long (even with unlimited drinks), but I was never bored as the presenters and the crowd’s enthusiasm kept it lively.  The night’s big winner for World’s Best Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu was New York’s Dead Rabbit, who happened to be seated at the table next to ours—so we got a front row seat to a lot of high-fives and dude hugs.
After the big Spirited Awards extravaganza on Saturday night, our final day in New Orleans was decidedly more relaxed and informal The Bon Vivants’ annual Pig and Punch barbeque. Sponsored by Imbibe and Esquiremagazines, with drinks and food provided by local restaurants and spirits companies, Pig and Punch raises money for New Orleans KIPP Charter Schools, with a total of more than $170K raised to date prior to this year. A number of brand-sponsored punches are served out of fifty-gallon lined trash cans, cooled with giant ice blocks. Plastic cups are your punch glass, which you fill via a ladle tied to the can. There’s no shortage of pig offerings (two full pigs roasted and pulled, along with pork sausage, a pork chop sandwich, and Mrs. Wonk’s favorite smoked muffellata sandwich from Cochon Butcher) or frozen goodies like Giffard slushies. Everything is “free” although there’s an expectation that you’ll purchase a $40 t-shirt – a bargain, and it’s a fund-raiser, after all. Despite the mind-melting heat and humidity, having one last chance to enjoy fantastic food and hang with friends and new acquaintances made it well worthwhile.
At the end of each day, I wrote notes about the day’s highlights. Looking at them days later, I find it hard to believe I was still standing by the end of it. I’ve only scratched the surface here–later posts will dive more deeply into rummy happenings, tasting sessions, and bars of New Orleans, including the much talked about Latitude 29. Stay tuned!

 

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