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Tales of the Cocktail shakes up 2016 

The annual spirits conference returns July 19-24

The United States won the space race. But we may have enjoyed it less.

  "Alcohol has been brought into space, particularly by the Russians," says Tristan Stephenson from his home in London. A lone example of American drinking in space is an account of astronaut Buzz Aldrin sipping red wine as a sort of personal communion observance during the Apollo 11 mission.

  Stephenson co-hosts a seminar on booze in space called Cosmic Cocktails (3 p.m. Saturday) at Tales of the Cocktail. He and TIME magazine science writer Jeffrey Kluger discuss little-known history about alcohol consumption in orbit, science (such as a 2012 Ardberg Distillery experiment barrel-aging whiskey in zero-gravity), how drinking will fit into the age of space tourism and more. There also will be four space-inspired cocktails, including an old fashioned-like cocktail based on the chemical make-up of a comet.

  Contemplating space drinks is one of the more esoteric and fun seminars at Tales of the Cocktail — a hub for craft cocktail movement mixologists and fans — taking place around New Orleans July 19-24. Most of the conference focuses on practical topics for bartenders and bar owners and product presentations and tastings by liquor industry giants and small craft distillers. There also are celebrity bartender happy hours, parties, tours, dinners, tasting rooms and more.

  Besides the space seminar, Stephenson is on the spot in an event called Liquipedia (1 p.m. Thursday). He owns bars and restaurants in Britain, competes in barista competitions and has published four books about coffee and liquor. Stephenson and fellow Brit Jake Burger, a gin expert and producer, will attempt to answer more than 90 questions about alcohol in 90 minutes. The two know many of the subjects in advance, but audience members can toss out their own questions using a social media hashtag. Prepared topics range from alcohol lore (Can you assess a rum's alcohol content by lighting gunpowder doused in it?), science (Bread involves yeasts and natural sugars, so why isn't it alcoholic?), myth busting (Will milk line your stomach and keep you from getting drunk?), local trivia (What's in Pat O'Brien's Hurricane Mix?) and more. Some of the answers will feature demonstrations, such as the gunpowder inquiry.

  "A lot of these are the sort of questions Jake and I have posed to each other after a drink," Stephenson says. "A lot are of them are interesting things that couldn't be a whole seminar at Tales."

  Many of the seminars and tastings focus on specific spirits and cocktail recipes. There are many presentations on common spirits such as whiskey, gin and rum, as well as offerings on vermouth, Japanese shochu and different varieties of bitters. New to the mix this year are craft beers and seminars on using beer in cocktails.

  Bartender and author Jacob Grier is interested in craft beers and spirits such as aquavit, Scandinavian spirits flavored with caraway or other herbs or spices. At Tales, he hosts a seminar (10 a.m. Thursday) on beer cocktails. His book Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer includes new cocktails and updated versions of pre-Prohibition drinks. Grier reinvents tiki drinks with the addition of craft beers, such as his Mai Ta-IPA (IPA, rum, orgeat, orange Curacao and lime).

  "The IPA adds texture and bitterness," Grier says from his home in Portland, Oregon. "Tiki drinks tend to lack bitterness."

  Grier also reinvented the Harvey Wallbanger (vodka, orange juice and Galliano), a cocktail popular in the 1970s, as the Harvey Weissbanger, featuring wheat beer and Galliano. (He presents a mimosalike drink using Goose Island Brewing Company's Belgian-style farmhouse ale from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.)

  Grier also is reviving flips, a common colonial-era warm drink made by sticking a hot poker in a mix of ale, rum and sometimes an egg or sugar. (Many of his modern flips are served cold.) Beer drinks and punches were more common in the U.S. before technological changes and industrialization of the late 1800s brought about easy refrigeration, improved transportation and individual packaging.

  Other Tales events include the annual cocktail competition, which features new versions of the Moscow mule. There also are guided tours of local breweries and distilleries.

  Some Tales events are free and open to the public. Restaurants participating in Tales Restaurant Week offer special menus with cocktail pairings to all customers. Dynamic Duo events at local bars feature local mixologists teamed with visiting bartenders, drinks writers or brand representatives. Spirits writer and Esquire contributor David Wondrich joins bartender Paul Gustings at Broussard's Empire Bar from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and highlighted cocktails feature Sazerac Rye and other spirits. On Thursday, 30 restaurants offer Spirited Dinners featuring multicourse meals and drinks, many built around a specific spirit or theme.

  Tickets to seminars are available at the door and prices range from $60 to $130 (only credit or debit card payments accepted). Tasting rooms and some special events require a wristband ($200), which offers unlimited access; only a limited number will be available at registration. Visit the website for a complete schedule and prices.

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