Founder and director Ann Tuennerman organized the first Tales of the Cocktail event to mark the first anniversary of a cocktail tour she had launched in the French Quarter. It was similar to cemetery and French Quarter history tours aimed at tourists, but participants visited popular and famous bars like the Napoleon House and a few tour stops included signature drinks.
In 10 years the focus has evolved, and Tales of the Cocktail has blossomed into the premiere craft cocktail event in the nation, if not the world. One of the founders of the craft cocktail movement, Dale DeGroff, who created the first retro cocktail list for New York's Rainbow Room in the 1980s, was one of the first invited speakers.
"It's amazing what can happen," DeGroff says. "This was just a little Southern Comfort event where all of us were hanging out at the Monteleone. There weren't more than 12 presenters and we just sat around and had drinks together. For the past four or five years, it's been the biggest cocktail event on the calendar."
In its early years, Tales featured the cocktail and food pairing Spirited Dinners, a happy hour event featuring cocktail recipe book authors and sample drinks, as well as a handful of free seminars. After Hurricane Katrina, Southern Comfort departed as a sponsor, and Tuennerman looked at other ways to grow. She incorporated the New Orleans Culinary and Cocktail Preservation Society, a nonprofit whose major fundraiser is Tales of the Cocktail. The event started charging for seminars and sponsored tasting rooms were added, which drew the attention of liquor companies' brand ambassadors who seized on the event to reach bartenders. This year, some of the world's largest liquor companies (Pernod-Ricard, Diageo, William Grant & Sons) are bringing an arsenal of major brands as well as lesser-known and exotic spirits to present at Tales.
For a professional development and networking conference, there are plenty of fun events, including themed tasting room parties, competitions for the best new hand-tossed daiquiri recipe and presentation, and a jazz funeral for a drink attendees voted to kill (the Cement Mixer will be buried this year). There have been cocktail and food pairing Spirited Dinners at local restaurants at Tales every year.
Most of the attendees come for professional reasons, but there also are home distillers and cocktail enthusiasts. The five-day event includes seminars on new trends and ideas in cocktails, technical and business topics, regional histories and lore, and much more. Some of the subjects can get esoteric.
"We've had seminars on how to use smoke in cocktails. We could have had 10 different seminars on ice programs," says Charles Joly, the beverage director at Chicago's avant garde drink boutique The Aviary (which has table seating only, no bar, and is owned by chef Grant Achatz of Alinea). He's on Tales' presentation committee, which culls through the proposals to find appropriate topics for the event.
The range of seminar subjects this year includes using high-proof spirits, making your own vermouth or bitters, tiki drink history, coffee-based cocktails, using premixed cocktails poured from taps, and lesser-used spirits like pisco and Curacao. Some cutting-edge topics include using herbs and florals in bar tinctures (see Flower Power, p. 16). Ice is not one of the sexier topics, but it unites the historic craft of bartending with the modern craft movement.
"There's stuff on how to have a sophisticated ice program," DeGroff says. "Block ice, shaved ice, cracked ice, you-name-it ice. It makes a difference. They're going back to the 19th century when ice was delivered to your bar as a block. They used ice for punch bowls. They carved ice. Drinks had snow ice. It's a craft-driven place that we have been already — prior to Prohibition."
The craft cocktail movement is a revival of the profession of bartending, which was sent underground and overseas by Prohibition. Before Prohibition, bartenders were often referred to as chemists because they made their own syrups and mixers to use in their drinks. The craft cocktail movement also places a premium on fresh ingredients. It's leading the bar industry in much the same way American chefs and locally sourced foods have spurred growth and interest in American fine dining in recent decades.
DeGroff estimates that fewer than 10 percent of American bars are focused on a craft cocktail approach. But that's changing because people in the craft cocktail movement are pushing freshness programs in the hospitality industry.
"Marriott ... (has) a bar arts program that I helped develop that has gone to fresh juices, approved recipes, real, fresh ingredients, new tools added, new spirits added," DeGroff says. "They're implementing it throughout their franchises. And that's a big step. The Hyatt is starting to pay attention. You're going to see it spreading across the market pretty aggressively in the next few years."
Bar consultant Tony Abu-Ganim, a frequent moderator and presenter at Tales, was hired by the Bellagio Resort, a massive Las Vegas casino property, to introduce a freshness program, and it serves 25,000 drinks per day, DeGroff says. Upscale restaurant chains including Ruth's Chris Steak House also are sending bartenders to Tales.
The craft cocktail movement is driving bar trends in general, says Jacob Briars, a New Zealand native who relocated to San Francisco as a brand ambassador for Bacardi. (He's also a member of Tales' presentation committee). While the movement may have started and been popularized in New York, it's possible to find craft cocktails in bars and restaurants in Kansas City and Nashville, Briars says.
"Eventually, these ideas go mainstream," he says.
The rest of the drinks equation and focus at Tales is on quality spirits. There were more than 280 spirits at Tales of the Cocktail in 2011. This year will include more than 350 brands, including 37 new products that will debut at the festival, Tuennerman says. Seminar and event attendees have access to tasting rooms, which feature everything from new products from the largest liquor producers to craft distillers who use pot stills to produce fewer than 50,000 gallons annually. These products' inclusion at Tales is curated as well.
The combination of new spirits, bar industry professionals and networking have made Tales a top event for bartenders. There are other types of conferences, like the Nightclub and Bar Convention and Trade Show, and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association of America convention, but Tales of the Cocktail is exclusively focused on bartending and drinks.
"We have to weigh credibility with our audience," Tuennerman says. "You won't see Gummy Bear Vodka at Tales."