Jul 29, 201012:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Tales of the Cocktail is in the record books. And what a record it was! This midsummer festival is absolutely amazing in its scope and in the numbers of people who attend. It’s only been staged eight times, and it has become the can’t-miss annual event for the international liquid spirits crowd. The other kind of spirits crowds can be seen every evening on the banquettes of the French Quarter gazing at buildings and making ghost sounds.
Anyway, back to Tales. The Monteleone was full, and a good chunk of rooms at other hotels were populated with professionals who spent at least half of their 24-hour days talking about vodka, gin, bourbon, tequila, absinthe and cognac –– and ingesting same. It’s the job we all wanted, but these folks beat us to human resources offices located in every corner of the globe.
Let me offer you my random thoughts on the events of the week, and if you were there, I’d love to hear yours.
• I sat down right off the bat with a couple of brand ambassadors from Milagro tequila. A brand ambassador is on the payroll of the spirit company not to sell the product but to make you want to buy the product. Milagro is an excellent tequila, made in the proper fashion in the correct geographic area. Each of the levels of Milagro tequila, silver, reposado and añejo, offers two grades: one is distilled again, according to the very specific laws of the spirit as defined by the Mexican government, and the other is aged in oak barrels, which are sometimes French but often have been previously used by American whiskey companies. That wood aging makes a difference –– in sipping enjoyment and in price. If you like cognac or Armagnac, then maybe in place of those beverages, a sip or two of tequila aged in French oak barrels, like fine wine, could offer you a bit of variety.
• Then came a run of events, each one hosted by spirits companies, and each one trying to outdo the others in over-the-top site decoration and numbers of serving bars. The Grey Goose event at Latrobe’s on Royal Street was an all-out affair, with video screens showing scenes from other rooms of mixologists mixing what may be your next drink. Prior to that was a performance by burlesque artist Dita von Teese (get it?). It was interesting to experience a packed House of Blues with many local folks in attendance, all staring at an act that was a Bourbon Street staple for many, many years. There was even a mouthy emcee from New York, or someplace like that, spouting cornball jokes and audience insults between strip numbers. All of this was sponsored by Cointreau. I am still reaching for the reason they were involved. Continuing the travelogue of cocktails, the Contemporary Arts Center was the venue for a Beefeater Gin blowout, and then buses moved the crowd to the Elms Mansion on St. Charles Avenue, where a number of spirits companies, under the William Grant banner, spread out, taking over every square inch of the grand setting. Same crowd, different places. Honestly, it’s a fine showcase for New Orleans, and that’s enough for me.
• While the drinking of all manner of spirits goes on to the wee hours of the next day, and sometimes beyond, lunches prove an interesting break from the seminars and the ongoing bottoms-up fest. Maybe “break” is not the correct term. Let’s go with “seamless interlude.” The Cognac and Blues lunch at Arnaud’s is an interesting case in point. The producers of cognac, many of which were present, have formed an alliance with talented mixologists from Las Vegas, New York, Chicago and other such cocktail capitals. Blends, always with cognac as the base spirit, were brought to the fore with the cuisine. I may be the biggest idiot in the crowd (always a safe bet), hollering that the emperor is wearing no clothes, but moving cocktails from the lounge to the dinner table is a difficult transition for me. It’s one of those things I really want to work. I love the cocktails. And I certainly enjoy New Orleans cuisine. It’s just that when bringing the two together at mealtime, I have some difficulties. It could just be me.
• Later in the day, I was slaving away over a hot keyboard (that doesn’t even sound right, does it?) and rumbling down Royal Street, right in front of our apartment, come three big trucks hauling trailers laden with dirt. Dirt trucks rolling on Royal Street? What could that be about? It’s about Tales, of course. That evening, the 300 block of Royal became a pétanque championship court arrangement. Pétanque is a game where each player has a boule, a round ball a little larger than a baseball, and then there’s a smaller ball, the jack. The game is laid out on a dirt court, like the game of horseshoes. One of the players tosses the jack, and then all the players toss their boules, trying to put their boule closest to the jack. If a player on the opposing team is closer to the jack, then your job is to move them out by tossing your boule and moving theirs out of the scoring area. I only go through this explanation because to see eight pétanque courts set up on Royal Street is quite a treat and wholly unexpected. But it is the Quarter, and that’s exactly where the unexpected should be expected.
And on and on Tales goes, with avid aficionados discussing the advantages of a particular style of gin or bitters or cardamom over another; whether different brands of bourbon from Kentucky bring different sweetness levels to drinks made with sugar cubes and mint; or whether vodka from Russia really outperforms vodka from Poland.
These are questions grappled with by professionals and amateurs and by brand ambassadors and associates and their respective entourages. Serious business this spirit industry is.
As for me, I’m impressed with the passion. These are young people blazing new trails through a liquid world. They want to deliver to you the very best product they can create from a diverse array of available products. They want you to take a sip, make a yummy sound and then take another sip –– and another.
And it all unfolded against the backdrop of a 300-year-old city that knows how to host and to throw a party, with the extra boost of craziness provided by a full moon overhead.
Travel the world, but Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans is as good as it gets. That is a beautiful thing.
The Wine Show with Tim McNally can be heard every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.