Cocktail throwers, flash mobs, historians, innovators and tastemakers have come together for this year's Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans' annual salute to spirits and those who make them. The convention runs through Sunday. What's trending so far:
The most memorable drink of this year's Tales will be the Ideal cocktail, served during tiki expert Jeff "Beachbum" Berry and drinks historian David Wondrich's seminar on "La Floridita", the Havana bar where this sublime sipper was created. The Ideal is equal parts dry gin, Italian vermouth and French vermouth, plus grapefruit juice and a trace amount of maraschino liqueur. Elegant, with nutty undertones, it more than lives up to its name.
In terms of frenzy, Lillet is this year's St. Germain, selling out of their citrus-spiced Lillet Rose cobbler (a Bellocq creation, I believe) in a half-hour. Drinkers also gladly waited 15 minutes or more for the Raspberry Beret, a fun pour of Lillet Rouge, raspberry syrup, club soda, and topped with Lillet Blanc-infused whipped cream.
VEEV turned its tasting room into a dance club, where top bartenders (including Cure's Ricky Gomez) served drinks showcasing the wheat distillate, which is infused with acai berries and treated like vodka. Between the boogie, guests sucked down boozy lemonade (VEEV, ginger, lemon, agave, coconut water) and VEEV's variation of the Ramos Gin Fizz, adding orange marmalade and maple syrup to the equation.
The colonial-era Pineapple Syllabub returned to Tales, thanks to a seminar tracing alcohol's influence on the "New World" presented by drinks writers Wayne Curtis, Derek Brown and J.P. Fetherston. This lively drink is made with pineapple-infused white rum, honey syrup, lemon zest and juice, and cream.
At Tales, Caribbean rum maker Angostura announced the launch of a molasses-spun amaro in September. On its own, the digestif is rich and cardamom-spiced; the brand also created a cocktail pairing with its signature aromatic bitters, plus lemon juice and simple syrup - tart, earthy, and worth the wait.
"Pure and classic", one happy Spirited Diner said of Tiki Tolteca's Mai Tai (the standard recipe includes rum, lime, orange Curacao, simple syrup, orgeat).
It's not a cocktail, but St. George's spiced pear liqueur is gorgeous, making fans eager for the release of their aged apple brandy later this year.
Ice cream/sorbet-based cocktails
Sandeman port used spiced apple ice cream to add flavor and heft to its Port of Julius, which also featured rum, vanilla and orange juice.
Scotch, pear cider and lemon sorbet were built in beakers in Girvan's tasting room.
El Dorado rum went slushy, two ways, blending its white rum with lemon sorbet, topped by a drizzle of Monin's blood orange syrup, while swirling its dark rum with mango sorbet and raspberry syrup
Amar Montenegro's room featured cocktails pairing the amaro with everything from banana liqueur and tequila (very good) to gin and absinthe (not as much). For pure simplicity, nothing beat pouring this juicy, mild-mannered amaro over vanilla ice cream.
New tiki concepts
"Tiki's a mindset," a Texas bartender said, in a room where fellow Texans re-interpreted tiki in cocktails straying from the Caribbean model of rum, sugar and lime juice. Even the names conjured up the dusty Southwest rather than a Polynesian paradise, like the Coyote's Den (VEEV, aquavit, grapefruit, lemon, orgeat, Peychauds) and Boots on the Beach (rye and oat whiskeys, pineapple, lemon, coconut water, spiced simple syrup). Unnamed but just as bold: Bacardi Gold rum shaken with a peach-sriracha puree and Jarritos orange soda.
Back at the Ama Montenegro room, bartender Theo Lieberman riffed on tiki's classic Jungle Bird by swapping out blackstrap rum with Gosling's rum and dark cacao liqueur, and adding the amaro and lime juice.
Tales kicked off with a Harvey Wallbanger flash mob on Royal Street, calling to mind the 1970s-era highball, essentially a screwdriver with a Galliano float. The Carousel Bar will carry its own version of the Harvey Wallbanger (fresh orange juice, premium vodka) until the end of Tales.
The Absolut welcome party resurrected the Lemon Drop (this time around, ditching the sour mix for fresh lemon juice and triple sec) and Midori, this shot by syringe into a vodka-lime cordial and topped with a sparkling float.
Enterprising bar owner Kristian Niemi (of Bourbon Columbia) has a craft response to customers asking for a shot of Fireball: Rittenhouse rye, infused for a week with Chinese tung hing cinnamon sticks. "Even at $4, I make a profit, and my guests get a craft shot and an educated palate," says Niemi.