Telling Tales of the Cocktail

A Trip to New Orleans’ Famed Libation Celebration

Scenes from this year’s Tales of the Cocktail.
Courtesy Photo

Cocktails are always about tales — whether tall or twice-told, honest or half-forgotten, centuries old or made up on the spot—so there couldn’t be a better name for the libation celebration known as Tales of the Cocktail, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Even better, it goes down annually in New Orleans, home to the oldest of drinking tales, and replete with bartenders both knowledgeable — such as the chap who poured me a drink named after Betty Flanagan, the 19th-century James Fenimore Cooper character who supposedly first stirred a drink with a cock’s tail — and quick-witted, like the nattily dressed mixologist who, while finishing a table of drinks with mist from what looked like a perfume atomizer, told an onlooker that the drink contained “Chanel No. 5.” (It was really absinthe.)

Tales of the Cocktail.
Courtesy Photo

Consuming the last Tuesday-to-Sunday stretch in July, Tales brought upward of 30,000 people—from media, bartenders, and “brand ambassadors” to “cocktail enthusiasts” — into the historic Hotel Monteleone, but we all spilled out into the rest of New Orleans, as well. Even the crusty dive bar Parasol out in the Garden District, with its smokers, very varied clientele, and bartender deep into Doctor Who, knew exactly what Tales was: a crazy party celebrating our history, our biology, our culture, our need to mess ourselves up in glorious ways, featuring seminars, tasting rooms, snack stands, and even a midnight ice cream parlor with very zesty flavors like dark chocolate mezcal and Ramos gin fizz.

Tales of the Cocktail.
Courtesy Photo

So who, exactly, is a cocktail enthusiast in 2012? More likely a male, as men outnumbered the women, which might explain the popularity of poolside events where models helped sell a distributor’s wares by wearing little. Males also look better with waxed mustaches and muttonchops — at times, the heavily tatted crowd looked like the extra call for Portlandia’s “Dream of the 1890s” video.

But this wasn’t a convention of Bourbon Street boozers, either; people seemed eager to learn, to taste, to grab a glass and not finish it, as there’d be another mighty soon — we only had three Bloody Marys before breakfast once, for instance. Many knew each other from other industry events and weren’t particularly wowed by bartender stars like Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders making them drinks. They could pull out info such as the batch number of brilliant single-malt Aberlour’s A’bunadh currently in release. They could ride the charming Carousel Bar at the Monteleone—which slowly revolves — and not fall off.

Tales of the Cocktail.
Courtesy Photo

The seminars are tasty, too. Science writer Amy Stewart led one on her upcoming book The Drunken Botanist, kicking it off by saying, “What you’re doing is taking plants and putting them into bottles,” and then got people excited about mojito mint (it’s the real Cuban stuff, and you can now buy it in the U.S.), gentian, and sorghum syrup. Attendees took notes, watched slides, and, yes, sipped a cocktail: a Pineapple Surprise, featuring fragrant pineapple sage and kummel, a liquor made for lovers of cumin, caraway, and fennel.

Food was never far off, and not just as ballast, though New Orleans’s classic beignet seemed doughily designed to suck up as much of a stomach’s impurities as possible. Tasting rooms served up food as well as potent potables, from Angostura Bitters’ tasty channa on bara (chickpeas on fried dough) at a Taste of Trinidad to the tuna tacos with the crispy fried shells at Bacardi’s 150th Anniversary Hand-Shaken Daiquiri Competition. That said, whoever thought only bowls of chips, popcorn, and mixed nuts would be enough at the Taste the World’s Best Spirits event was indeed nuts — we needed more to munch than that after sipping the line of Del Maguey Mezcal from darling little ceramic saucers, and that was merely one of 30 tables in the room. Luckily, there were spreads like the Taste of Italy media luncheon, too: a buffet of oysters on the half shell, red fish en croûte, and pasta with freshly grated Parmigiano, plus six cocktails, of course, from a Viva Verdi to a Varnelli Spritz.

Certainly, New Orleans in the dead of summer can be quite a sweaty affair, but that’s another bit of wisdom we imbibed: Cocktails cut through the humidity well.


Master of Mixology Mix-Up

We might not be New Orleans, but Santa Barbara is home to serious bartending talent, so The Santa Barbara Independent is hosting our first ever professional cocktail contest. All mixologists with behind-the-bar experience are encouraged to enter and be judged by a panel of expert drinkers during Epicure S.B. 2012 to claim the inaugural Silver Shaker Award!

To Enter: Send name, bartending résumé, and a description of cocktail entry to

Deadline: Friday, September 7.

Semifinals: Thursday, September 27, at the Wildcat Lounge.

Finals: Thursday, October 4, at Harry’s Plaza Café.


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