The just-completed Tales of the Cocktail festival was a lot like its namesake beverage – a nice dose of sweet, few bitters and a more-than-an ample supply of base spirit.
This tenth anniversary was indicative of just how far the entire affair has come, and it's been a long way, baby. I well remember the first few Tales when registration and a tasting of a cocktail all took place in the side room of the Napoleon House, with plenty of room left over for a bit of jambalaya, a muff and some classical music from the turntable.
Nothing like that now. More than 25,000 cocktail-loving crazies from all over the world are focused on this premier event on their calendar – and on New Orleans. And that brings us to our first "sweet" point: They all love our city … a lot.
You cannot even begin a discussion with anyone from Athens to Sarajevo without them telling you how great New Orleans is. These are young, creative, energetic, aware people, and they "get" us. In fact, they can't get enough of us. From 8:30 every morning until well after 3 or 4 a.m., they are out and about and loving every distilled-spirit-sweaty-shirt moment. If it were not for the fact that you may be shaking your head in almost complete disbelief, you would have to be terribly impressed.
Another "sweet" point is that every company or person who owns a still of any type is here. They are ready at the drop of a thermal unit to tell you about what they do and how they do it … mostly. There are still some secrets not for revealing. But even in not sharing all the family jewels, they are happy to encourage you to taste their product. Okay, if you insist.
Then there's the sweet opportunity to taste it all, in one place, side by side. If you have ever wondered why some of your friends are so hung-up on a particular brand of vodka, or why they won't touch anything but a defined grade of tequila, or if it is all Kentucky bourbon, how different can one label be from another, you can approach Tales as one massive research laboratory and you be the Mad Scientist. Yes, both mad and slightly loopy.
Here's the benefit, you don't get these opportunities in the real world. You can't go into a bar, find all of these products in the first place, then request a taste of 15 different labels of the same spirit. Well, if you can do that, you have better bar friends than I.
Even your friends who only drink (fill in the name of their favorite brand) have never done a side-by-side comparison tasting the way you can at Tales. They probably arrived at their decision to only drink (again fill in that name) because somewhere along the way someone gave them a keychain or a T-shirt with that logo. But you can arrive at a favored-label decision with some knowledge gained at Tales. And maybe later enjoy a proper headache.
Did we mention that one of the key components of a balanced cocktail is bitters? Oh yes we did. And so it was in a few spots with Tales.
As the number of ingredients and the number of processes (squeezing, stirring, shaking, straining, juicing,rimming, etc.) increase, then the time required to prepare each drink increases. A lot.
Bake into that equation that these are professionals showing off to other professionals, it soon becomes
evident that if you are not at the front of the line, your good Catholic patience will be tested. You also need to factor into your ability to wait the situation out the fact that bartenders on both sides of the bar know each other and, now, after all this time, they both have a chance to catch up. Charming unless you are number four in an 8-person queue.
And speaking of queues, the rope-line at just about all the evening events was amazing. Tales has to find a better system for people who have lost their tickets than checking names on a paper list. Too many pages to examine. Meanwhile everyone is scheming and acting out ways to beat the system.
Tales will address this issue, I am certain.
Lastly, in a fine cocktail is the base spirit. On this count, Tales never faltered. Every spirit known to modern man and woman was represented at Tales. And then some. It was a gathering of giants, and great characters of now and to come.
Each spirit or corporate conglomerate was committed to convincing you that it was the product deserving of your patronage. This sales effort was accomplished by having you personally try the liquid within the most ideal conditions, or by staging a grand spectacle that overwhelmed every one of your senses, not just the logical two. Any one of these events would be amazing on their own, but there are three or four of them a night for five nights running. Suddenly sleep is not an option. It's not even desired.
Tales is special. That is true. Tales in New Orleans is especially special. And it is ours, homegrown, home-supported. If you were there, then you know. If you did not make it, don't let that unfortunate judgement call happen again next year.