This was my fifth trip to NOLA and my third Tales. I had a great time and was on the go pretty much all day, every day experiencing the events and the French Quarter. I started Thursday morning by checking in with the staff at Tales of the Cocktail registration.
1. Registration & Tales 365 – There’s a real feeling of coming home, when I walk from my hotel on Dauphine St. in the French Quarter up to Royal St. and the Hotel Monteleone. The familiar face of the doorman welcomes me while he opens the door for me and I step into the ornate lobby. Scanning the room for familiar faces, glancing into the Carousel Bar and then making my way to the Registration room; it somehow feels like it’s only been a few weeks since I was last here at Tales instead of two years.
Registration was not at all busy and the staff found my name on their list in a few seconds, handed me my tickets and told me to help myself to any Tales buttons in a large bowl on the table. I did notice that this year there was no canvas bag to hold my inevitable swag and/or purchases. I was glad I had brought my own. One of the other tables in the room was devoted to a new program called Tales 365. Basically a club for cocktail enthusiasts, members who join for a fee are given online access to recorded videos from popular seminars, the ability to attend special events including distillery tours around the world, and discounts on Tales merchandise. I decided to join and see what benefits I might receive down the road. To start with, I got a tiny membership button and a Tales 365 canvas bag. There was also info about the first distillery tour which will take place later this fall in Jalisco, Mexico.
2. Tales Tasting Rooms and Snack Stands – One of the best features of Tales are the many rooms and stations in the Monteleone and the Royal Sonesta where you can sample new products, cocktails and even get a light bite to tide you over until your next meal. Over the four days I was there, I grabbed a morning bracer at the Drambuie Railroad Spike Coffee Cart, a sample of Solbeso cocoa liquor alongside a llama on
Bourbon St., cocktails made with Wild Hibiscus’ b’Lure color changing cocktail extract, samples of local Gubba Rum, drinks and snacks at the Cointreau Cocktail Kiosk, and several drinks and hor d’oeuvres at the Pavan Grape Bash.
3. Brand Sponsored Events – Along with several parties, tastings and product launches, this year I took part in a foraging excursion at the New Orleans Botanical Garden sponsored by Caorunn Gin. Master Distiller Simon Buley was along for the trip as well as an herbal expert who pointed out several species of plants that are used in the making of gin. The trip served two purposes; it was nice to get away from the madness of Tales for an hour in the beauty of a local park, plus it gave me time to meet some of the others on the trip without someone having to rush off to another event. Although there weren’t any cocktails served on the tour, everyone received a bottle of Caorunn as a souvenir.
4. Seminars – Seminars are the main draw for most bartenders and writers in the spirits industry. This year I attended three Anglo-centric programs. Bottled in Bond – Ian Fleming & 007, hosted by Simon Ford and Philip Greene; Garden, Field & Forest to Bottle & Glass by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown; and The Savoy 125 Years of Service History by the Savoy’s American Bar manager Declan McGurk and three compatriots. Each seminar was accompanied by relevant cocktails served by the awesome Tales Cocktail Apprentices (CAPS). I enjoyed the seminars because they gave me a chance to sit and relax while learning some educational and historical info. My takeaways were that Ian Fleming was an amateur mixologist who crafted several fairly tasty original cocktails along with a rum punch; herbal, savory and fruity cocktail ingredients one can grow in your backyard are endless and require constant maintenance; and that The Savoy Hotel’s success over the past century and a quarter is due in part to their incomparable cocktail program along with the classic Savoy Cocktail Book which has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1930.
5. Shindigs – Due my unfortunate travel experience trying to get to New Orleans (read here), I was unable to attend either of the opening night brand parties by Absolut or William Grant & Sons. However, there were still several events that I did get to experience. The Las Vegas Mixology Tribute at Harrah’s Casino was a lot of fun. The dj was killing it, the dancers were having a blast, and the flair-tenders and LV bartenders were all at the top of their game. Most of the drinks tended to be overly sweet, as I expected; but I did try all of them. Luckily, there was a Stella Artois station for anyone who wanted a change of pace.
The Industry Toast to Jimmy Russell at Maison Bourbon also gave me a chance to talk with fellow authors Paul Clarke, Camper English, Wayne Curtis, Natalie Bovis and even shake the hand of Mr. Russell himself.
I also attended the jam-packed Imbibe Magazine happy hour at Arnaud’s French 75 bar with a friend I happened to run into earlier in the day. Head bartender Chris Hannah was on duty mixing up some sparkling cocktails and gave me a smile and nod of recognition even though the bar was three deep.
6. Spirited Dinners – The spirited dinners are always held on Thursday night. This year, I opted for the Jagermeister Summer of Music Spirited Dinner at the House of Blues’ Foundation Room. The room itself was difficult to find, as I took several wrong turns along the way. The route involved walking down an unmarked alleyway, checking in with the bouncer, going up a Victorian styled elevator and entering the bar through a beaded curtain. The bar was dark, velvety and filled with cushions, couches and settees. I was reminded of what it must have been like to visit a brothel at the turn of the century. The dining room was similarly decorated, but had several tables and booths set up for the meal to come. I chose a seat at a half full table and ended up chatting with Karen Locke from Drink Portland, and two young bartenders from Ohio. The courses of food were fantastic and really paired well with the cocktails crafted by Willy Shine, Ivy Mix, Sean Hoard and Sean Kenyon (who won the Bartender of the Year two days later at the Spirited Awards). After a leisurely meal, entertainment was provided by Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz as guest dj.
7. Vieux Carre Room Luncheons – Several luncheons were held on the top floor of the Hotel Monteleone in the Vieux Carre room. Every day, I was greeted by my good friend Thayer Abaigael with a smile and a hug. What a friendly lot these New Orleanians are! I attended the Rare and Defining Spirits luncheon featuring products from Sipsmith and Coppersea distilleries on Thursday, the Angostura luncheon on Friday where they unveiled their new Amaro di Angostura, and the Bulleit Bourbon/Ruth’s Chris “Mad Men” themed luncheon hosted by Tom & Hollis Bulleit. Each one featured great drinks and food, and gave me more chances to talk with other attendees.
8. Dynamic Duos – This is a new feature at Tales this year. Basically, “star” bartenders and celebrities pair up at a local watering hole to make drinks. Sounds like a great idea, and it is to some degree. But, even with several of these events taking place over the course of Tales, every time I went to check out some of my favorite bartenders in action, the places were so jammed, that even getting up to the bar to order a drink meant a good 10-15 minute wait. So, I ended up just hitting a few places. David Wondrich and Paul Gustings were behind the stick at Broussard’s, and Chris McMillian and Dale DeGroff (sporting a beard!) were tending at Kingfish.
9. Lagniappe (Swag) – As always, there are plenty of free promotional products and spirits that you will accumulate over the course of Tales. My haul this year included t-shirts, hats, sunglasses, rocks glasses, flasks, cocktail cherries, cocktail picks, bitters, and spirits. I ended up sending most of them home via the UPS station located inside the Hotel Monteleone. Once I got back home, it was like opening a box of presents that I’d sent forward in time.
10. Friends – I’ve saved the best for last. To me, Tales is much more than the events, seminars, food and cocktails. It’s the people who make it happen and come together to celebrate the love of fine beverages and drinking culture. I ran into so many friends, met and made new ones, and talked with so many locals over the course of my stay in NOLA that I felt like I was at a family reunion. And, in a very real sense, Tales is just that. It’s a place where everyone is an equal, everyone belongs, and everyone is living in the moment. One of my favorite memories is running into some folks I know from a tiki enthusiasts group known as F.O.M. (Friends of Moai). I ended up hanging out with three of them for most of Saturday night. Even though we all belonged to the same club, we hadn’t really gotten to know one another until that night, since I live in New York, one lives in Texas and the other two live in Florida. By the end of the night, we were all good friends. And that I think is the ultimate mission of Tales. To bring people together to celebrate life over a few drinks.
Here’s to Tales of the Cocktail!