You feel Tales of the Cocktail from the beginning, whether it’s the heat and humidity clinging to your arms upon every exit from a comfortably conditioned space or the mishmashing of sweaty bodies crowded around the corner at Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House pre-dawn. The energy is palpable in the gilded lobby of the Hotel Monteleone each time you step in, heading to a session about drinking preferences in cities around the world or the history of your favorite spirit. A hug awaits in every direction, greeting those you haven’t seen since last year’s gathering in the Big Easy. The Carousel Bar spins you slowly around the center, allowing you to watch the scores of friendly faces meet and welcome, cheer and sip. A pat on the shoulder comes your way from greats like Tony Abou-Ganim, Steve Olson, Dale DeGroff, Ron Cooper as they drift through the sea of people.
And what about the food and drink? That first session of the morning, the plastic Tales cup hitting your lips during a distilling panel, its 90 proof straight shot coursing across your tongue before it burns down your throat. The tickle of the garnish against your nose as you pause at the bloody mary bar on the mezzanine or the ballrooms full of new products and people. On your brief outings for proper meals, you find the soft dusting of powdered sugar between your fingers, beignets settling comfortably in your stomach, or the hot-from-the-fryer fried chicken from the dive bar down the street.
It’s all there in a whirl and blur of goodness, scattered with laughter and a little business.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the annual gathering of cocktail and spirits notables brought thousands of worldwide well-knowns to New Orleans this year, over 20,000 bartenders and enthusiasts according to one article. An army of Cocktail Apprentices helped founders Ann and Paul Tuennerman pull off a spectacular calendar of informative panels, a multitude of tasting rooms and spirits popups, and the best parties Nola has ever seen. And it all left an impression…
Favorite feels from the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail:
1. Catching water against skin. Whether it be pool water or one of the many rainstorms that hit during the week, water was your friend. I never actually made it into a pool, but the Jagermeister party on Hotel Monteleone’s rooftop certainly helped to make the summer sun bearable. Alcoholic slushies, bites of muffuletta, water flying everywhere, and people lined along the water’s edge. Some afternoons, storms made their way into town, opening the clouds and rinsing the whole place off, the palpable Louisiana air cooling for the remainder of the day.
2. Being among the best of the best. Bartenders from amateurs to old-timers, national spirits writers, craft distillers and producers mingled and mixed around town. Bars and restaurants like Alibi and Cochon were packed with Tales attendees. At Saturday’s Spirited Awards, hosted by professional drinker Zane Lamprey and Pernod Ricard man Simon Ford, superstars like Gaz Regan, Jim Meehan, and Tony Conigliaro took to the stage, either as a presenter or winner. London stole the show, winning five awards including World’s Best New Cocktail Bar for the Zetter Townhouse and World’s Best Hotel Bar for Artesian at The Langham. You knew you were in a room of leaders and innovators. Yet, all of Tales was that way. Events like Bar Brawl and Juniperlooza offered opportunities to have cocktails with – or made by – top mixers from around the world, representing San Francisco, New York, Austin, Amsterdam, London, Melbourne, etc., all in one place. Color me impressed.
3. Meeting eyes across the room. There’s a warmth between the business associates, strangers, dear friends who attend the week, the constant connection, eyes always searching the room for more people you know. Wednesday night’s William Grant Big Birthday Party felt like the official opening celebration, an extraordinary array of featured bars and spirits spread about the grounds of the New Orleans Museum of Art. A few were positioned in the middle of an oversaturated lawn, thanks to recent rainstorms, but it didn’t stop partygoers from braving it across the shoe-ruining, squishy, muddy mess to the bright red, triple-barred Hendrick’s Gin bus or the alluring mezcal tent complete with long, dark tables and lit candles. The late evening illuminated by brightly colored lights, everyone swirled about in a happy blur, drinks in hand, the feeling of ebullience everywhere.
4. Making way through the city’s terrain. It’s an experience to wander the often-photographed blocks of the French Quarter. The outside atmosphere is comfortable despite the constant activity, with people passing at all hours of the day and night. I ventured down Decatur for beignets, Royal for brunch, Tchoupitoulas for dinner, Convention Center for events. Waiting too long for a cab, I made it comfortably across town to August in a dress and heels on Wednesday night, not interested in being late for a reservation. On Thursday, after a walkthrough of the National World War II Museum and a late lunch of housemade pickles and shrimp creole at American Sector (ala “Tour de John Besh”), it was easy to snag a pedicab to the Monteleone, happily being jolted from side-to-side along the uneven city streets, weaving around bumper-to-bumper traffic, never feeling the need to rush in the Big Easy.
5. Looking forward to the next TOTC adventure. I had heard the stories – of both New Orleans and Tales of the Cocktail – and now I understand the awesomeness that is. The reason everyone wants to come back year after year. Why everyone asks if they’ll see you at Tales. Old friends and new friends around every corner, comfortable Southern fare pared with the best cocktails in the industry, and an opportunity to learn about the history and path of those creating and mixing your favorite drinks.
Consider this my RSVP for 2013.
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Do you know about the greatness that is Pig & Punch? Jenny Adams does, and you should, too. The Bon Vivants were even recognized with a Spirited Award this year for their work with this annual community service event.
Finally, since it was my first visit to TOTC, I had to make it to the Spirited Awards. Lamprey and Ford were entertaining, and the video interludes were well done, like this one for Best American Bartender. But it’s this extended clip for the Best American Brand Ambassador – or “Sh*t Brand Ambassadors Say” – that wins it for me.
*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender; Video: Tales of the Cocktail
**Many thanks to all the sponsors who invited me to events. My schedule was crazy, but I made it to a few. Thanks to Grey Goose for a seat at their luncheon at Commander’s Palace, Pernod Ricard for a spot at the Spirited Awards, and the Spirit of Italy for a taste of Italy, though I didn’t get to visit long enough.