“Are you going to Tales this year?” If you’re connected with the spirits and cocktail industry, it’s a question you’ll hear more than once in the months preceding Tales of the Cocktail, held mid-July every year in New Orleans. For veterans of Tales, there’s an unspoken understanding that this isn’t just a few days having fun in New Orleans, popping into a few bars with friends and enjoying the occasional free cocktail, courtesy of the hundreds of brand sponsors. No, going to Tales is a commitment. You will push your body to its limit. You will race from event to event in the sweltering New Orleans heat, knowing that for every tasting room, pool party, or French Quarter bar reception you arrive at, there will three other concurrent events that you’ll miss. The FOMO (Fear or Missing Out) can loom large at Tales.
Keeping a clear head with a steady stream of readily available cocktails and spirits is often the least of the challenges. With copious water consumption and judicious sips (Tip 1: DON’T FINISH EVERY COCKTAIL), you can sample everything and not be hammered by noon every day. For we in the media, the bigger challenge is going from 8 AM to midnight (or later) every day, trying to make it to all the can’t-miss sessions, interleaved with events and gatherings you’re invited to, while not forgetting to eat. (Because in New Orleans, forgetting to eat is a crime.) A steady stream of chance meetings and new invites arriving in your inbox keeps you on your toes. It’s live action, spur-of-the-moment decision making. At night, the big brands throw lavish, gigantic parties that compete for your attention after an already exhausting day. You may have an idea of what a day holds for you when you wake up each morning, but when you finally collapse into bed sixteen-plus hours later, you might not have predicted half of what happened that day.
With this as backdrop, what follows are my semi-organized highlights of Tales of the Cocktail 2016 in words and pictures. Lots of pictures!
Mrs. Wonk and I arrived in New Orleans a few days before Tales to get our fill of bars and restaurants we knew would be challenging to get into once the multitude (read: 17,000-plus —yes, that’s correct) of spirits industry veterans descended into town. Being a Tiki and rum guy, an early visit to Latitude 29 was in order – over the course of the week I made it back only three more times, which feels like a small personal failure. Regardless, our first visit was fruitful, yielding an up-close-and-personal look and tasting of the unannounced (at the time) Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof. For the in-depth story of O.F.T.D., including this early encounter with it, be sure to read this earlier post.
While Mrs. Wonk and I gawked out over the unexpected O.F.T.D. sighting, Plantation Rum ambassador Rocky Yeh arrived with a good chunk of the Seattle Tales contingent in tow. When Rocky’s around, interesting things happen–n this case, an order for Latitude 29’s Plantocracy Punch (minimum order 8 people). From the bar, I watched it being assembled, looking like a large fish bowl in wooden crate. The bright glow emanating from the bowl is from a ton of LED spheres tossed into the mix, although it’s more fun to imagine it’s Pele’s fire. I recall seeing an entire bottle of Appleton 12 going in, as well as a bottle of Pierre Ferrand cognac. In short order we were summoned over to assist in its consumption of it via absurdly long straws. In case you’re wondering, yes, it was damn tasty!
That first experience foreshadowed more Plantation goodness a few days later: While having lunch and drinks with fellow rum writer Paul Senft, Plantation CEO Master Distiller Alexandre Gabriel and his VP, Guillaume Lamy, arrived. Being at Latitude 29, hallowed ground for the modern Tiki movement, I could didn’t pass up the opportunity for a group selfie. The very next day we reconvened at the Plantation O.F.T.D Overproof launch party, along with a who’s who of rum world luminaries including Martin Cate, Jeff Berry, and Ian Burrell.
Although lots of people come to Tales primarily to connect with their friends and/or to work, the seminars are a big draw for me. I learn new things, make new connections, and to be honest, it’s a good excuse to sit in one place for 90 minutes and block out the crazy. As a media attendee, we’re privileged to get into these sessions without purchasing a ticket. The downside is that we wait in the standby line, and get in only after all the ticketholders are admitted. I managed to make it into every session I targeted, but more on that in a moment.
My sessions kicked off on Tuesday with A Journey though Sherry Cocktails by Gonzalez Byass. Although I know a fair amount about sherry already, I picked up a bunch of new information about production methods for the various styles. The session’s visual highpoint was a demonstration of “throwing” a cocktail to mix it, wherein the chilled contents are poured from one tin to another over a height of several feet, thus aerating the mixture more than stirring it would.
Wednesday, the first full-on day of Tales, was all about the rum sessions, starting with the highly anticipated When Is a Rum Not a Rum, moderated by Ian Burrell. Alexandre Gabriel (Plantation), Ben Jones (House of Agricole), Roberto Serralles (Don Q), and Richard Seale (Foursquare) comprised the all-star panel. Later that day was The New American Rum Revolution, moderated by Robert Burr and his son, Rob V. Burr. For more information and photos from those sessions, check out my post on this year’s rummy happenings.
Spirits that are bottled-in-bond are bottled at 100 proof, making Thursday morning’s session It’s Bond: Bottled-in-Bond, with seven healthy pours of bonded spirits, a challenging start to the day. Moderated by whiskey author extraordinaire Fred Minnick, it was an entertaining historical overview of exactly what bottled-in-bond means and why it came to be (Hint: Taxation and foreign whiskey competition). Heaven Hill global whiskey ambassador Bernie Lubbers provided large chunks of the content, as he’s spent more than a decade promoting bottled-in-bond, which for many years had been left for (nearly) dead, the victim of the desire for cheaper 80 proof spirits. Although bourbon dominates the bottled-in-bond space, it was nice to see other spirits included, in particular the new Christian Brothers Sacred Bond brandy.
Although the title Members Only: Club Cocktails in History might seem a bit tame based on the title, anything co-moderated by renowned cocktail historians Jeff Berry and David Wondrich is worth looking into. Starting from the infamous 18th-century Hellfire Club near London, Jeff and David narrated through different types of drinking clubs, up to today. Here are a few of the categories, to get a sense of things:
- The Club as Playpen: Where upright public figures gather to do low-down dirty things
- The Club as Fortress: Where expats leave the barbarians at the gate, hold their noses, and think of England
- Death by Doorman: Private clubs pretending to be public places
Hosted by fellow wonky author Camper English and Avery Glasser of Bitterman’s, The Roof is On Fire: Dangerous Drinks was jam-packed with practical information about how to avoid unintentionally creating dangerous or even lethal ingredients. It turns out to be incredibly easy to do. Some examples that stuck out:
- Too much quinine in house-made tonic syrup, leading to cinchonism (flushed and sweaty skin, ringing of the ears (tinnitus), blurred vision, etc.)
- Tobacco bitters or infusions and lead to nicotine overdose
- Bergamot oil can cause skin cancer
The session also delved into interesting, not-at-all obvious legalities such as:
- Copper “Moscow Mule” mugs that are 100 percent copper aren’t legal for use as drinking vessels. Legal mugs must have a non-copper plating on the interior.
- Some states and cities don’t allow barrel-aged cocktails
- Boomerangs, the practice of a bar sending a cocktail to another bar, are generally illegal, as it constitutes taking a cocktail outside of a bar. Unless of course you’re in a city like New Orleans that allows it.
All these great sessions were just teasers for the big-gun sessions on Saturday, starting with An Exclusive Tasting of Rare Pierre Ferrand Cognacs. These special sessions are limited to twenty attendees and cost in excess of $100, which is a bargain considering the amazing spirits to be had, most of which are incredibly rare and unavailable in the U.S. Similar in concept to last year’s session with rare Plantation rums, Pierre Ferrand master distiller Alexander Gabriel dug deep into his Cognac archives in France to find exceedingly rare expressions to bring to the U.S. for this Tales of the Cocktail session.
In most Cognac tastings, a 41-year aged expression from 1975 would be the star of the show. Here, it was just a warmup round. Working back in time through Ferrand’s cellars, we tasted three more expressions from 1974, 1972, and 1969. With time running out, one more glass remained on the tasting mat. Surely the “1914” beneath the tasting glass was a misprint, right? Or perhaps a fanciful name like Barton 1792 or Pierre Ferrand 1840? No, Alexandre tells us, this Cognac was distilled over a hundred years ago in 1914, and spent seventy-two years aging in Ferrand’s cellars until it was transferred to a glass demijohn in 1987. This Ferrand Cognac presentation was the only session I purchased a ticket for this year. Considering what we experienced, I’d still be kicking myself if I hadn’t. Stay tuned for a future post here focusing on this session in more detail.
As the final sessions of Tales drew to a close on Saturday afternoon, I had my eye on one more prize: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar. Like the Ferrand Cognac session, it was also limited to twenty people. Having visited Lagavulin this past January, my desire to attend was nearly crippling—but I hadn’t purchased an advance ticket. Given Lagavulin’s immense popularity with the whisky wonks, it was a foregone conclusion that all twenty tickets had been sold, and that the standby line was probably a lost cause.
Knowing the odds were against me, I was the first person in the standby line, arriving an hour early. With ten minutes to go, the doorperson began admitting ticketholders. Peering through the door I saw the available seats slowly dwindling down to nothing. However the door person hadn’t declared the session full. Agonizing minutes passed as I internally screamed “PLEASE DON’T LET ANYBODY ELSE SHOW UP!” Then, a small miracle. The doorman said one seat remained. That’s me! First in the standby line. Bounding into the room I saw to my astonishment that the remaining seat was at the very front. Almost within arm’s reach were seven glorious bottles, any which might bring tears to the eyes of a Lagavulin aficionado.
Behind the bottles were legendary whisky author Dave Boom, Ewan Morgan (national director for Diageo Masters of Whisky), and Dr. Nicholas Warren (head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo). Over the next 90 minutes they traded off tales from Lagavulin’s 200 year history while leading us through insanely exotic whiskies, starting with a 1948 White Horse and ending with Lagavulin 37 – a $3,200 bottle. Keep an eye out for a future post covering this session in more detail.
There’s no shortage of parties at Tales, big and small. On any given day you could find a party at any hour between 2 PM to 2 AM, staring with rooftop pool parties at 2 PM and ending with the gigantic mega-parties thrown by major spirits conglomerates like Bacardi and Pernod Ricard after dark.
Wednesday’s Absolut Welcome Reception at the Ace Hotel was anything but a sedate affair. Rather, it was a full on Midsummer’s Nights themed party, replete with thumping dance music and darkly lit rooms made up as a surreal woodland forest.
Wednesday’s big event was the William Grant Portfolio Party on your Palate, which based on last year’s event, was certain to be over the top. This year they took over the enormous multi-level Orpheum Theater, filled every nook and cranny with booths dispensing cocktails based on their portfolio products and served by elaborately costumed bartenders. Among the brands making an appearance: Flor de Caña, Monkey Shoulder, Sailor Jerry, Hudson Whiskey, Tullamore Dew, Rekya, Ancho Reyes, and of course their flagship whiskys: Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Midway through the party, a gospel choir suddenly appeared above the crowd on a balcony and put on a short but enthusiastically received presentation.
Much smaller in scope, but excellently executed was the Suntory Hot(e)l, which took over Arnaud’s restaurant for small bites, cocktails, and tastings of limited edition whisk(e)ys hosted by their brand ambassadors. The following day held Non-Stop to Suntory Whisky Toki, another smallish affair at the Ace Hotel that focused on their newly released Toki Japanese whisky, served Japanese highball style.
A pleasant party we lucked into was the Oriole Bar popup at Café Henri, in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. Oriole is an insanely innovative and unusual bar in London that won the Best New International Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards this year. Mrs. Wonk and I had an experience of a lifetime at Oriole during our U.K. trip this past January, so when I saw they were doing a popup at Tales, I made some inquiries and scored us an invite. All the popup’s drinks are on Oriole’s menu in London, but were made in batches so you couldn’t order anything specific—but rather eagerly took whatever was passed. Whatever they’re making, that’s what you’re drinking. If you’ve been to Oriole, you know that live old-timey piano music is an integral part of the experience, so naturally the popup also had a guy playing NOLA-style honkytonk piano in the corner.
Reluctantly leaving the Oriole popup, we made our way to one of the nightly Monkey Shoulder whiskey takeovers at Tiki Tolteca. The highlight was seeing the Monkey Shoulder Konga shaker in use. It’s an unusual shaker that resembles a large thermos with rotating handles on the side that let you roll the contents easily, rather than shake back and forth violently. They definitely attract attention, and it’ll be interesting to see if they become a staple at bars around the world.
No Tales experience would be complete without Sunday’s Pig and Punch party, a fundraiser by the Bon Vivants and Imbibe magazine. A donation (say $40 for a t-shirt or similar) gets you good vibes and free reign to wander through the booths serving up pork-centric food from local restaurants and punches sponsored by spirit brands. It’s an eat-all-you-want, drink-all-you-want affair where it’s no big deal to sweat profusely while hanging out in a public park chatting with your liquor industry friends who are also sweating profusely. Hugs are sticky business. Such is summer in New Orleans.
Other Random Tales Experiences
Maggie Campbell, the award winning Head Distiller at Privateer, invited me to meet up at Latitude 29. Midway through our drinks, Jeff Berry popped by our table to greet her. Since she had just been telling me about her Navy Yard rum, Jeff disappeared briefly and reappeared with a bottle in hand, pouring us a generous tasting. I’m not just sucking up when I report that it’s really, really tasty.
Tasting rooms! Everywhere! You’d be hard pressed to find a time where there wasn’t a tasting room going on. Among my highlights, Spanish brandy, shochu, and spirits of the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia).
Lustau and Santa Theresa held a combined session at Tales. While I unfortunately missed it, I was able to attend their private media lunch at Herbsaint, along with Nestor Ortega, Master Distiller at Santa Teresa Rum, and Fernando Pérez, Master Distiller at Lustau. Despite already knowing quite a bit about sherry and solera rums like Santa Theresa, I found it highly educational. Our generous parting gift were bottles of Santa Theresa rum and Lustau Solera Gran Reserva brandy, each signed by their respective master distiller and housed in an elaborate engraved wooden box.
The folks from the newly merged Lost Spirits, Rational Spirits, and Rattleback Rye entity rented a grand house in the French Quarter and hosted a steady stream of friends in the parlor, serving a seemingly never-ending stream of Rattleback Rye and the new Lost Spirits Cuban Inspired rum. The Rattleback founders had a film-crew in tow (a story for another post), but the upshot is that the filmmakers decided that I’d be a perfect talking head for their documentary. They constructed a makeshift studio in a carriage house behind the main building, and for an hour I talked about spirits and cocktails while doing my best not to pass out from the heat. So some day you might just see me pop up, Ken Burns talking head style, in a documentary.
Sunday night, we landed home safely from the humidity and heat into cool and dry Seattle, and back to the reality of daily lives not sponsored by major spirits brands, with free drinks at every turn. Tales is always a marathon, not a sprint—and we’re already in training for next year. Will we see you there?