So there’s a wonder-material fabric bracelet attached to my wrist that I’m not supposed to take off for six days, despite my wrist being attached to my body in the humidor that’s New Orleans in July — no doubt a clever inventor’s inspiration for the steam room. I’ll have to use the chip in the bracelet to sign electronically into and out of rooms, so it’s either a harbinger of a creepy future or a sign someone’s really worried about losing me.
That concern might not be far-fetched, for I’m at the 14th Annual Tales of the Cocktail, a conference billed as “more than 200 brand new seminars, tastings, competitions, networking opportunities and other spirited events.” I’ve been electronically tracked for less than three minutes and have already tasted free Woody Creek Bourbon (yum — it’s a week of sip and yum), and have also received their gift bag that recalls the survivor’s kit Slim Pickens opens in Dr. Strangelove, complete with hand lotion, breath mints, and a condom with the tagline: “It’s the wood that makes it good.”
Of course, the event, which is put on by the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, is headquartered in the Hotel Monteleone, famed for its Carousel Bar that actually slowly rotates and has been graced by notables like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. That’s New Orleans, and TOTC (as it’s abbreviated), in a jigger: a respect for history, an eye to art, a weakness for decadence, a hope commerce can help us carry it off.
Sampling a mere handful of the myriad panels, I still got to check out “BIG GIN, Small Gin,” where even the small producers made nice to the guy from Tanqueray and a woman dressed like the namesake of New York Distilling Company’s delightful Dorothy Parker Gin popped in to recite her infamous quatrain: “I like to have a martini, / Two at the very most. / After three I’m under the table, / After four I’m under my host.” Even better news, there’s something called a Ginstitute in London where you take a seminar and make your own recipe they keep on file for you, and you can keep ordering.
And then there were panels less brand-oriented (it does too happen at Tales!), like the one about Frank Meier, the decades-long head bartender of the Paris Ritz, that featured David Woodrich of Esquire pulling a historian moment an actual academic might envy by starting a sentence, “He was the first, well, not really the first. …” Still, we all got to enjoy a Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon juice, honey) and contemplate a world where Hemingway could liberate a bar.
Or a panel that wouldn’t have been out of place at an Edible Institute entitled “The Cocktail Crystal Ball: Drinking in 2116.” The panel worried through issues like “How do you make a cocktail without water/ice?”; “What will we be able to grow and then distill in a globally warmed world?”; and, as Dave Arnold, who founded the Museum of Food and Drink, acidly put it, “If 100 years from now we’re all sitting in a room with bags over our heads inhaling vapors, I freakin’ lived too long.” Conclusions were uncertain, but possibilities were fascinating. And, perhaps most telling, of the three cocktails served, the one supposedly embodying “now” kicked the past and future drinks’ butts.
Sure, it’s not all lectures and lamenting. Mostly it’s a crazy good party in a town that sets soirée standards ridiculously high. And I don’t mean Bourbon Street boob-flashing and projectile puking. I mean the place bitters were invented, where they know how to make grits but hide them under barbecued shrimp anyway, and where there’s a fine-dining spot (the esteemed Upperline, where you can sit under photographs by now-Santa Barbaran Nell Campbell) that offers a Brandy Alexander as a dessert choice on its prix fixe.
Tales is kind of a Disneyland for adults, now especially, as the big-liquor companies go immersive as their means to market. Take Smirnoff Vodka, owned by giant Diageo. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Moscow Mule, they held dinner-theater-meets-native-advertising events that told the tale of the drink’s creation at L.A.’s Cock ’n Bull; hokey, obvious, winking, tasty, plus the simple and perhaps too trendy drink is damned delicious, especially when the humidity gives a 110 percent.
Absolut, owned by giant Pernod Ricard, always knocks an opening event out of the park, this year turning the Ace Hotel into a Scandinavian wooded wonderland full of mythical creatures and two cocktails per transporting room. And smaller El Silencio Mezcal perhaps took the creative cake with a suite that was sort of Pirates of the Caribbean go kinky. Tastefully lingeried young gals paraded about, and when it was your turn — and you knew your turn based on the number on the slug the in-drag madam gave you — led you away in handcuffs and a blindfold. The destination after some dark hallway turns? A chair massage. Sure, there were bracing drinks with their product known to make mezcal safer for the masses (a bit less edge and smoke, still quite pleasing), but it could be hard to remember, what with the blindfolds and all.
That might just make Tales more like cocktails: the more you love them, the more you might indulge, and then the more forgetfulness waits at the empty glass’s bottom.