The Conference You Wish You Went To

Paul Blow

Last week was the annual Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans. It’s a trade-oriented convention dedicated to the history of, and new trends in, spirits and mixology. The conference is also open to the public. (Almost all the members of the public I met could be described as hard-core cocktail geeks.) With a packed schedule of tastings, seminars, and dinners, it was a great opportunity to learn about my field, schmooze, and, yes, drink. Here’s what went down during my four days.

Wednesday

6:20 p.m.—Waiting for my luggage at baggage claim, I encounter two Bay Area bartenders I know, Reza Esmaili of Conduit and Tim Stookey of the Presidio Social Club. This would be a theme of the whole trip. Seemingly everywhere I went, I encountered a Bay Area bartender. It must have been a bad week to order a cocktail in San Francisco.

7 p.m.—In the lobby I meet Scott Beattie, cocktail mastermind behind the restaurant Cyrus in Sonoma County, and author of the forthcoming book Artisanal Cocktails. Scott’s sharing my hotel room. As meticulous and painstaking as he is with such cocktails as the Hot Indian Date—which calls for things like hot tamarind syrup, pickled hearts of palm, and a Fresno chile cut into rings—he is an amazingly sloppy roommate, scattering almost all his possessions around the room within about five minutes. Oh well.

7:30 p.m.—Scott and I go for something to eat at Cochon, which turns out to be the hot restaurant of the convention. Every time I ask someone where he or she is heading for dinner, the answer is the same. We sit at the bar and order Cajun delicacies like fried alligator, hen, andouille gumbo, and rabbit casserole with dumplings. In honor of being in New Orleans, I order a Sazerac made with Thomas H. Handy rye whiskey. The drink is well-made: Complex and smooth, it goes surprisingly wonderfully with the dark, deeply toasty gumbo. Gotta remember that pairing.

9:30 p.m.—We stroll through the oppressive heat to the Save the Daiquiri Party sponsored by Rhum Clément, which by the time we get there is oppressively crowded. Behind the bar Tad Carducci, Jonathan Pogash, and others are mixing up absinthe daiquiris. The intent is to save the classic cocktail, but not a single classic daiquiri can be found. After about a 10-minute wait at the bar to get my first one, I down it and go looking for other things to do.

10 p.m.—I find myself allied with a coterie of bartenders from San Francisco, who have glommed together as if by some sort of natural magnetism. En masse, we go in search of a good bar to get a drink. Trouble is, we can’t find one. I am instantly reminded of all my previous frustrations about drinking in New Orleans: When you’re confined to the French Quarter, as I always have been, you’re in a prison world of slurpy, disgusting rum drinks like the Hurricane, and the revelers who drunkenly pour them down their throats. A more discerning crowd, we wandered from one place to the next but were simply unable to make ourselves enter any of them. Finally we gave in and settled on a dive called the Alibi. I had a cold Miller High Life and a shot of Don Julio blanco. We stayed there for an hour before moving over to the Old Absinthe House to do more of the same. I got back to my room at 3 a.m.

Thursday

10:30 a.m.—I get myself out of bed and to the Hotel Monteleone, where most people are staying and where most of the convention is taking place. The lobby is buzzing with bartenders, as it will be all weekend. I arrive in time for the Macallan Scotch presentation on “How to Taste Like a Professional” led by F. Paul Pacult, author of the book Kindred Spirits. We taste about eight whiskies in an hour. Pacult is a thorough teacher, telling us to taste every whisky twice in rapid succession: once to clear the palate, the second time to inspect the spirit. By the end of it, I’ve got a little buzz, even though I was spitting. I need coffee like a gin and tonic needs lime.

1 p.m.—My search for coffee leads me instead to the Acme Oyster House for lunch. I follow up coffee with an oyster po’ boy and an ice-cold Abita, the closest thing to a local beer in New Orleans. The sandwich is good, not great, and the Abita is served in a plastic cup. Nearly everything in the French Quarter is served in a plastic cup, so you can carry it with you.

4:30 p.m.—I return to the hotel for a seminar led by the beautiful and sharp-witted Charlotte Voisey, brand ambassador of Hendrick’s Gin. In a personable but almost academic fashion, she has conceived of a clever fusion of British teatime and American cocktail hour. Her speech begins with a fairly technical discourse on tea and moves on to the history of the cocktail hour. We drink a few of her tea cocktails until it’s time for … cocktail hour.

6 p.m.—The official cocktail hour is a grand affair. In a big room, about 60 tables have been set up for a walk-around tasting, each with a different drink and bartender. Why, here’s the King of Cocktails himself, Dale DeGroff, mixing his version of a margarita. Here’s Esquire magazine correspondent David Wondrich, stirring a batch of “Improved Whiskey Cocktails.” Here’s Eben Freeman of New York’s Tailor with his hops-infused gin cocktail. Here’s me, staggering out the door on my way to dinner …

8 p.m.—It’s time for the “Spirited Dinner” at Restaurant August, the famous establishment of James Beard Award–winning chef John Besh. We are presented with a five-course cocktail-pairing menu, with drinks designed by Charlotte Voisey and talented DC bartender Gina Chersevani of Rasika. The cocktails (tomato water, milagro tequila ,and bacon dust, for instance) are as good as the food, though the two don’t always go together so perfectly. This confirms my conviction that wine and beer are the best match for food. Except, perhaps, gumbo and a Sazerac.

10:30 p.m.—I find myself back at the Old Absinthe House with, well, everybody at the convention, drinking beers and watching the masses trundle by. I chat with legendary London bartenders Salvatore Calabrese and Peter Dorelli, the latter of whom, while bartender of the Savoy, was once given a plot of land in Kentucky by Frank Sinatra as a tip. Bedtime: 4 a.m.

Friday

10:30 a.m.—I blearily weave my way through the Monteleone lobby to get to the seminar led by Wondrich called “Jerry’s Kids,” about many of the other, less famous, early-20th-century bartenders who were not named Jerry Thomas. The hour and a half passes quickly, as the guys sit around telling great stories from the pre-Prohibition era.

12:30 p.m.—I’m very excited about the seminar on the history of liqueurs and cordials. It’s run by Robert Cooper, owner of St-Germain. The discussion isn’t that exciting, but all the attendees get tastes of a couple of out-of-production liqueurs like 1950s bottles of Crème Yvette (violet flavored) and Forbidden Fruit (grapefruit and amber). That alone is worth it.

2 to 6 p.m.—I sit in the carousel bar at the Monteleone and drink Pimm’s Cups with whoever wanders by, from Portland, Oregon, mixologist Daniel Shoemaker (Teardrop Lounge) to Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson. The seating area is actually made of an old merry-go-round and rotates infinitely around the central bar. It seems strange at first to sit there and spin around the bar. But after about six Pimm’s Cups, the bar catches up to me, and I know it’s time to go get some food.

11 p.m.—After dinner at a Cajun place called Jacques-Imo’s, I’m done; so tired I couldn’t even eat my fried chicken. I get a ride home and go to bed early. I don’t feel as bad when I find Scott already asleep at 11:15.

Saturday

10 a.m.—All I can do is thank the Lord it’s the last day. After a morning discussion of regional trends in the American cocktail, I head with Duggan McDonnell of San Francisco’s Cantina and Post columnist Wilson to a gentile brunch at Brennan’s, a Big Easy institution. We have three more Pimm’s Cups and eggs Benedict. The food is good, but the bill is a staggering $122 before tip.

8 p.m.—The grand awards feature a band and a glittering stage. Everyone’s dressed up.

Best New Bar: Le Lion Bar de Paris, Hamburg, Germany
World’s Best Cocktail Bar: Milk & Honey, New York
Best Drink Selection: The Doheny, Los Angeles
Mixologist of the Year: Charles Vexenat, The Lonsdale, London
Best Cocktail Writing: Gary Regan, San Francisco Chronicle

To give an idea of how important corporate funding from the spirits industry is for the whole event, there’s even an award for Best Brand Ambassador. It’s a bit full of self-love, but I guess that’s what these awards ceremonies are all about. And, in fact, these brand ambassadors are incredibly hard-working, creative people. Without them and their brands funding all this, the camaraderie particular to the bar world would not exist. Of course, all that camaraderie also serves the bottom line.

My table is enjoying itself immensely, everybody acting snarky à la Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. Must be the tequila we’re sipping under the table.

11:30 p.m.—The crowning event: A New Orleans–style funeral, brass band and all, is held for the sour apple martini. A eulogy is read, and the crowd from the awards ceremony accompanies the pallbearers to a nearby restaurant for a “bartender’s breakfast.” Great cocktails and eggs and bacon, served until 3 a.m.

3 to 5 a.m.—Old Absinthe House. Cold Budweiser. Chatter, chatter. My flight leaves at 2 p.m. on Sunday. I barely make it before they close the gate.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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