A Tale of Two Tales

by Francine Cohen

A Ramos Gin Fizz in a bottle

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." is not just Charles Dickens' famous opening line to "A Tale of Two Cities" but those same words were overheard coming out of the mouths of many a bartender who spent the wee hours dancing and singing along with the Alibi jukebox that we're pretty certain Jake Burger and Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge took hostage.

They are also apt words to describe the direction that this year's Tales of theCocktail took; a year where numerous return attendees were celebrating their seventh year at this cocktail festival and suddenly found themselves surrounded by a lot more unfamiliar faces than ever before (aka consumers). For once, industry folks seemed to almost be outnumbered by cocktail enthusiasts coming to pay homage to everything cocktail.

The idea of honoring the cocktail and thyself was kicked off in the most perfect way, thanks to Perfect Purée.  Embodying early on in the week what necessary balance in our lives SeanKenyon has, post-Tales, deemed "Barma", yoga sessions led by a Boston LUPEC lady, Kitty Amman of Fernet Branca led into a breakfast of healthy choices punctuated by refreshing non-alcoholic smoothies made from signature Perfect Purée flavors.

While in years past the flavor of Tales seminars were focused on industry wide self-congratulatory messaging, this year's seminars and tasting rooms and spirited experiences seemed to embrace a wider and more sober scope, touching on topics I've been calling out as important, such as the importance of hospitality, the business of the business, terroir, wood, water, trending spirits like vermouths and Port which are experiencing a comeback, pineapples, and a look at the best and worst of airport bars and big brands.

Not to be ignored, craft brands had their day in the sun with the Indie Spirits That Rock tasting room featuring everything from vodka (Bootlegger 21) to tonic (TomRs) and points in between like Cachaca (Avua) Pisco (Macchu Pisco and La Diablada), Whisky (Compass Box) and Rye (Redemption).  This room was, as Tom Richter of TomRs Tonic described it, an unparalleled opportunity for exposure and community building.  BrianFacquet of Bootlegger concurs, "Not all marketing budgets were created equally, so these are vital to the growth of our industry.  I will gladly participate in any of the Indie spirit events anywhere in the country, since they are always well attended and attendees are generally excited to try and learn about the spirit we pour our heart and soul into."

Not sure if those kids taking tuba lessons have to learn how to play "Heart and Soul" like piano students do, but Miss Charlotte Voisey sure brought her heart and soul to the big stage at the William Grant party on Wednesday night when she introduced us to her prowess with Tubby, her tuba.  Punctuating the shaking up of Monkey Shoulder cocktails with her notes was a highlight of this evening in what was certainly one of the week's best air conditioned parties.

Of course this bash came on the heels of one of the week's other most talked about events, the Absolut Welcome Party.  Taking over the multiple rooms in Arnaud's, Absolut went to town presenting the most imaginative experiences in each and every room, from a relaxing nail salon, to a lively and sparkly celebration with Toby Cecchini, featuring his classic cocktail, the Cosmopolitan which turns 25 this year, to a dance party chaperoned by Dale Degroff, Gaz Regan, and Audrey Saunders, an eerie laboratory/morgue setting guided by Dave Arnold, and an oasis of civility, The French 75 bar, where three Chris’s presided over cocktails, all looking suspiciously like Chris Hannah.  (Video here: http://vimeo.com/71330091)

If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck well then it must be a duck doesn't really apply as far as Purity Vodka was concerned.  Their blind taste test against Grey Goose, Ketel One and Ciroc led 60% of participants to choose Purity's flavor as their favorite over the other three brands combined.

Making us wonder if vodka is trending in the cocktail community.  Don't quite hold your breath on that one yet, but do note you've seen it here stated that "green is the new blue." No disrespect to Blue Curaçao producers everywhere, but when two of the week's most appealing drinks - one by NarenYoung (former captain of the award-winning bar at Saxon + Parole) who put out a savory green Bloody Mary and the other a tomatillo Bloody Mary from the Hophead Vodka cart parked at the corner of Royal and Bienville that was manned by MorganSchick & Eric Quilty of Jupiter Olympus - are green, and vodka based, it just gets you thinking.  And let's not forget Booker & Dax's basil concoction created for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in May under the umbrella of Tobin Ellis's Unchained event that featured the drinks of the future, all using Svedka.  All signs point to green. And vodka?

Not to worry, we're not going clear on you.  Whiskey sure had its day in the sun as crowds gathered at Bulleit's woody camper parked on Royal Street, a highlight of many more outdoor/streets cape experiences Tales attendees had this year.  And, for those fortunate to find themselves in New Orleans's newest "it" spot, Cane & Table (from Neal Bodenheimer and his partners at Cure) on Decatur they noticed it looked suspiciously like The Dead Rabbit.  Which it was, having been beautifully transformed to the Irish Whiskey House where the highly decorated Jack McGarry made what was arguably the most balanced drinks of the week and Gaz Regan joined Andy Pearson and Ian Cameron and I in a toast to the Spirited Awards.  Hmmm, no wonder Regan passed his award on to Cameron...

Unwilling to pass up an opportunity to continue a broad Port education the Bin27 girls were spotted all over town trailing their Radio Flyer wagon full of Port, Jacques Torres cookies, and hats for everyone to enjoy.  The coveted snack and chapeau became an iconic symbol that broke down the mystery of Port.  Kobrand Wine& Spirits Katarina Maloney PR Manager notes, "A lot of people haven’t even tried Port.  We are trying to get Bin 27 out there and get people thinking more about the Port category. It’s [Tales] a big sampling opportunity."  Another respected Port category leader, Sandeman, took the Tales opportunity to introduce their generations old deliciousness to the media at an intimate luncheon with George Sandeman at Chef John Besh's restaurant, August.  Introducing the plummy and jammy Vintage 2011 Port which is sure to be enjoyed now and even more exquisite in 30 years for those tawny drinkers as Samdrman pointed out, the cocktails paired with the meal were a huge highlight. Not only did they just rank in the top three drinks enjoyed at Tales list because they were served alongside Besh's great food, but they did so because they were balanced, creative and explored an opportunity to remove Port from its expected and often overlooked place on the after dinner drinks menu and brought to the forefront of ingredients to be tapped for exquisite flavor profiles, and also as a solution for those seeking out low ABV options.

While 99% of Tales attendees will have to wait until later this month to try another new low ABV option, this one a sweet vermouth, LUPEC ladies attending the Dame Hall of Fame luncheon that honored Julie Reiner, Bridget Albert, GinaChersevani, Meaghan Dorman, and Eryn Reece (http://www.shakestir.com/erynkreece) were treated by Eduardo Branca to a few sips of the light and appealing Carpano Bianco which is, like Lillet Rose, perfect over ice.

Perfection this year at Tales was found in stolen moments, and carved out memories that transcended the maddening crowd (the Wall Street Journal reported 20,000 people in attendance).  Balanced against the unpleasantness of party lines too monstrous to endure were bright moments like Anchor Distilling and the boys from the 86 Co delivering drinks to those waiting,  relaxing with friends who celebrate charitable giving and volunteerism at Pig&Punch, Ramos Gin fizzes in a bottle, off the record conversations over deviled eggs at Cafe Adelaide which will result in more respectful and thoughtful media coverage of our industry in the future and the continuation of the Brennan brand of hospitality, Lorena Vasquez (of Zacapa) having her spirit and charm beautifully shared by her translator at every turn, and many more people than ever before turning in or getting up early because they had seminars to lead and contests to judge and parties to batch for (yes, that's you Steve Schneider and JP De Loera) the next morning.

The best of times are those memories and new connections we each came home with.  The worst of times?  Waiting a year for it all to happen again.  Uniquely, of course.

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