As the craft cocktail movement has revitalized the skilled craft of bartending, new terms have been minted for drink makers. They're now called mixologists and "bar chefs." In a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail, a conference and celebration of booze that brings together spirits companies and service industry professionals, Time magazine editor Jeffery Kluger is looking at the men and women behind the bar through a more anthropological lens.
"A bartender is equal parts medicine man and rule giver," Kluger says. "We surrender our autonomy when we enter a place. You go on a train and the conductor is king. You go into a Starbucks and the manager is king, even if he or she is 22 years old and working her way through graduate school. ... The bartender is the supreme law giver in the bar, and this is powerful because of their particular skill in mixology. ... What the bartender passes over the bar will affect your state of mind."
Kluger was first invited to Tales of the Cocktail a few years ago because of his 2007 book Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex. Kluger has published nine books, mostly on scientific topics, and his personal interests include food and drink.
"A drink that can have so few components and be so simple and clean and spare can be infinitely more complex," Kluger says.
At this year's panel, "Anthropology of the Modern Bar" (3 p.m.- 4:30 p.m. Wednesday; Hotel Monteleone) Kluger and bar owner and author of The Curious Bartender, Tristan Stephenson, will discuss the barroom as a social space.
"The idea of a bar as a condensed and compressed place where the behavior of the whole species is writ small in a very contained way seemed fascinating to me," Kluger says.
Now in its 13th year, Tales of the Cocktail features seminars, spirit tastings, a marketplace with cocktail books and paraphernalia, dinners with special drinks at local restaurants, parties, special events, U.S. Bartenders Guild accreditation classes and more. Many events, including seminars and tasting rooms, require tickets or pay-one-price wristbands, but there also are free events and many participating restaurants and bars that create dishes and drinks for Tales also offer them to customers throughout the week. A full schedule is available on the Tales website. (For more on tasting events, see page 38.)
Seminars at Tales focus on much more specific topics regarding spirits and distillation (sustainability in agave production, single-cask rums, aging whiskies), customer service (hands-on classes on bar tools and tossing liquor bottles; smoking ingredients for flavor), the business of running a bar and marketing (pricing a cocktail, spirit label fraud), history (Chartreuse, historic New York bars, former presidents' favorite drinks) and science ("The Neurology of Mixology").
Founder Ann Tuennerman created Tales around New Orleans' drinking lore, including subjects such as absinthe, Sazeracs and famous local bars, and it has grown into one of the service industry's premier events for bartenders, reflecting the rise of the craft cocktail movement. It now holds other annual events in locations around the globe.