Still Telling Tales

May 30, 2012

Tales of the Cocktail Turns 10

This is how I imagine it goes down in summer 2002: a tourist pulls up to a New Orleans bar and asks what’s new.

The bartender breaks open a crazy new vanilla vodka, garnishing the martini with a single vanilla bean. The tourist is dazzled.

“That’s nothing,” the bartender says. “There was a new festival just in town, and it was all about cocktails.”

That bartender’s stories were the first Tales of the Cocktail ever told, and they helped propel the conference into today’s premier cocktail event. “Bartenders come into contact with so many people,” says Ann Tuennerman, who co-founded Tales with husband Paul. “We never had [international press] as a tipping point, but we had word of mouth.”

Ten years later, and that good word attracts cocktail enthusiasts from across the globe (nearly 22,000 in 2011). Here, what to take away from this year’s Tales, which runs July 25-29:

Where will the next mezcal come from?

For the first time, presenters from India will lead a seminar on native ingredients like exotic flowers, cashew apples and date palm; a quartet of bartenders from Russia will present a drinking history of their homeland; also look for a seminar exploring traditional Chinese medicines in cocktails. As it happens, liquor brands are looking to expand into these these “emerging markets,” Tuennerman says.

Monk-made. A real Reverend joins spirits experts to talk about the connection between spirituality and alcohol, from rituals and monk-made liqueurs to Prohibition.

The NOLA Cooking School. For the first time, it’s home base to Tales seminars. Learn how to make bitters, vermouth, soda fountain drinks (and syrups), or how to use teas in cocktails. Some of these seminars will run more than once.

Friendly debates. Is God at odds with liquor? As base spirits continue to improve, are cocktails even relevant anymore? Does a margarita really need fresh limes? Puzzle out these answers in several spirited seminars.

Say goodbye. The tooth-numbing Woo Woo, the sticky Fuzzy Navel, the Cement Mixer (a puckery mix of Bailey’s and lime juice) and the Harvey Wallbanger (a car wreck of anise and orange juice) are all contenders to be this year’s cocktail burial. My vote’s for the Dirty Martini, an undrinkable cloud of olive juice.

More excursions. Enjoy cocktails on an airboat, follow Poppy Tooker on a tour of urban farms, string Mardi Gras beads, take a striptease class or a guided bike trip, or learn how to butcher and cure a pig with James Beard-nominated Chef Alon Shaya (you’ll be drinking all the way, of course). “We listened to our [attendee] surveys,” Tuennerman says, “and we wanted to continue to showcase New Orleans.”

It’s Wayne’s world. After last year’s crowd-pleasing turn as Yankee Doodle Douchebag, resident cocktail expert Wayne Curtis co-leads two seminars in 2012: exploring bar myths, and how our taste buds change as we get older.

The Hyatt is back. The Hyatt Regency came back with a roar last fall, and was tapped to host Tales of the Toddy in December. Now the Ultimate Spirits Challengers will meet here on Saturday night during Tales week.

Foraging. Two seminars focus on plant life: welcome the Drunken Botanist (horticulture writer Amy Stewart), who will look at how we use (and what we extract from) herbs and plants to make cocktails. Want a hands-on experience? Sign up for the New Orleans’ Cooking School’s Tales seminar on making bitters, cordials, powders and shrubs— a “forager’s pharmacy”.

Relive the past. What would become today’s Tales began 10 years ago as a spirited walking tour through the Quarter. The original Cocktail Tour is back, sponsored in part by St-Germain.

Eat it up. Thursday night always poses the most luxurious question of Tales: which Spirited Dinner to attend? Try looking at the night’s stories. “The theming is more like a seminar, narrower in scope,” says Tuennerman. Standouts include Sylvain’s pairing with Jameson (artisanal Irish food, whiskey tastings); Coquette’s teaming with bar genius Cole Newton and Avenue Pub to present beer cocktails and an all-pork dinner; and Boucherie, which will highlight regional barbecues and moonshine cocktails.

Sexiest seminars: A two-part primer getting bartenders in camera-ready shape. The morning’s seminar at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse offers tips on landing a segment on a cooking show, an interview on cable news, or even a spot on a reality show. Later, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum will host a media camp that puts mixologists in front of the camera, with a media trainer and coach offering critiques.

Dream weavers. New to Tales this year, this three-part series is geared to bartenders who are ready to own and manage their own bars. The “bar owners series” show you how to develop a concept, find the right spot and then advertise it. Attend all three, and get Tales—and BarSmarts—certified.

“What we’ve never deviated from is that it’s about the craft of bartending,” says Tunnerman. “This is who the programs are for.”

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