“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.
It’s Wednesday, July 20th, the first full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2016. The line outside of the Orleans room at the Hotel Monteleone had started queuing at least thirty minutes earlier, for a highly anticipated event that was scheduled to start soon: The official public unveiling of Plantation’s new O.F.T.D. Overproof rum.
Arriving early, I secure a spot not far from the head of the line. Shortly, Guillaume Lamy, Vice President of Cognac Ferrand and Plantation Rum, pops out of the room where preparations are still underway. We chat briefly and he mentions that just five days earlier, the half-pallet of O.F.T.D. now on-site in New Orleans was sitting in a warehouse on the East Coast, awaiting the U.S. government’s approval for importing–always an uncertain process. Talk about cutting it close!
The powers that be (whoever they are—curiously, no one ever seems to know) have decreed that July 19th of each year is National Daiquiri Day. Of course, in my book, every day is Daiquiri Day. I’d live life in a perpetual state of #DTO if I could get away with it.
Their name practically synonymous with daiquiris, Bacardi flew in top bartenders from around the country to make distinctive daiquiris at five bars around New Orleans for National Daiquiri Day, which conveniently enough landed during Tales of the Cocktail 2016. I personally am partial to a dry, expertly crafted Hemingway daiquiri (also a Mrs. Wonk go-to, over pebble ice if you’ve got it), but I also enjoy seeing what creative bartenders can do, starting from the classic daiquiri’s basic trio of rum, lime, and sugar.
Mrs. Wonk, ever-perceptive as she is, spotted it first. We’d just taken our seats at the bar at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, and I was already engrossed in the cocktail list. Pointing to the backbar, she exclaims, “Isn’t that the new Plantation rum you’ve been talking about?” Indeed it was! The new Plantation O.F.T.D., which outside of a small handful of very select people had never been seen before. In the months leading up to the Tales of the Cocktail 2016, Plantation had been teasing a new, high-profile rum release to be unveiled at a special event. Yet here it was, on the Latitude 29 backbar, nestled inconspicuously amongst the other rums.
I asked the bartender if I could hold the bottle. While I’d known vague details about a replacement for Plantation’s Original Dark Overproof for several months, it was only a few weeks earlier that I’d spotted the TTB label approval, full of details about the forthcoming release. Knowing a big launch was planned, I opted to not include it in my most recent rum label approval roundup, but did give a few big hints and nudges, if you were paying attention.
In its highest form, bartending is an intimate, one-to-one experience. A bartender reads your preferences and desires, and with deft dexterity pulls from a full range of ingredients behind the bar to craft something that speaks to your tastes. It’s a casual, two-way conversation. Gone for the most part are the days of uniformed bartenders speaking in hushed tones, moving into the background once the drink is made. These days, we expect the best bartenders to be accessible – our friend who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of spirits and cocktails, while retaining a certain edginess and maybe a few tattoos hinting at interesting stories.
In this light, it’s a bit surreal to be sitting among several dozen of the most innovative bartenders from around the world–not across the bar at their home bases in London, Amsterdam, New York, or Bangkok, but rather, in a former U.S. Federal Reserve building in San Francisco. All are impeccably dressed in suits. One by one, eight of them climb onto stage, a backdrop of mirrors and dozens of Bacardi rum bottles arranged in rows for maximum visual wow factor. After carefully arranging the proper ingredients necessary to make exactly two cocktails, they spend a precise seven minutes presenting their story while crafting two identical cocktails. In front of them, seated in giant overstuffed leather chairs, are four of the most famous people in the spirits and bartending world, judging their every move and utterance. It’s a far cry from sitting with these talented competitors at their own bars. Nonetheless, their presentation, storytelling, and cocktail may well turn one of them and their carefully honed recipe into a household name in the global cocktail community. Their winning cocktail–featuring Bacardi rum, of course–will become a cornerstone of their legacy, hence the competition’s name: the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition.
The stemmed crystal glass in front of me holds translucent blue liquid. Surrounding it are several dozen similar glasses, all containing clear liquid, which makes the blue liquid really stand out in the lineup. A few feet away sit fourteen other people, including a high-ranking U.S. Federal Reserve executive, a retired NASCAR engineer, and the most well-known living Tiki bartender in the world. We each have identical sets of glasses before us, and we’re told that all the glasses contain white rum. The task is to evaluate the color and clarity of each rum on a scale from one to ten. Even the blue rum, which is rather fetching, in a Windex sort of way. The clarity isn’t an issue – it’s free of any particular matter, but what about the color? It obviously intentional, and not unpleasant to look at, but how to score it amongst a field of non-blue rums?
Every year in April, hundreds of rum experts descend on Miami for Miami Rum Renaissance, which is held over three days. Rum companies and related vendors have booths where attendees talk to brand representatives and sample dozens of rums. One of the festival’s highlights is the Rum XP awards. A panel of judges evaluate the rums exhibited in the show, and pick the best examples in eighteen different classes. Within each class, there’s an overall winner (“Best in Class”), and up to five Gold medal winners.