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Moving From the Sidelines to the Front Row

In just a few days, the amazing –– and only in New Orleans –– Tales of the Cocktail festival will kick off. It starts on Wednesday, July 21 and continues at a hectic pace until Sunday afternoon, July 25.

There are so many simultaneous events that when you choose to participate, you will have to make some tough decisions or be very quick on your feet to move from one incredible experience to another. All the good news is located at www.talesofthecocktail.com.

Although there have been some who claim New Orleans invented the original mixture spirits, sweet and sour, that claim, unfortunately, is not true. And there have been others who have claimed that New Orleans invented the term “cocktail.” Alas, that is not true either.

But this city has always been a center of cocktail culture and even more so of late. Tales of the Cocktail is a natural event for our community because we embrace a good time anytime, enjoy all manner of people who can party responsibly, never turn down a good drink and love our cuisine and every chance there is to enjoy it.

Tales fills the bill on all counts. There will be professionals and rank amateurs here from all over the world, each bringing something special and unique to a six-day (and into the nights) party.

Lately, the cocktail culture has just about fully reinvented itself, educating its disciples in the value of fresh ingredients blended together in ways never before tried. I must confess that although most of what will be served at Tales is terrific and fun, there are some combinations that are just not so good.

I’m a big fan of experimentation, but when those off-the-wall trials leave the lab and enter the service area, my eyebrows go up and my palate screams for something saner, like an old standard Sazerac or Pimm’s Cup. Sometimes it’s best not to fool with Mother Nature. Lovers of Vincent Price or Roger Corman movies recognize when that moment arrives. They should not have opened that door, and now we all know it.

Anyway, the joy of today’s cultural explosion, as it regards cocktails, is the plethora (I’ve been waiting use that word for several weeks) of diverse and high-quality ingredients available, thanks to farming, distillation and science.

There are some cocktail ingredients that have been around for awhile, but they were never thought part of the mix (pardon the pun). Today, the modern cocktailian not only has access, but they also have bent the rules. The happy result, in many cases, is a beverage that is bright, refreshing and approachable.

A few of the items that have moved from the side bar to the front of the bar are:

•    Fresh lemons and limes. Here is the heart of the matter. Whereas before it was perfectly acceptable to use bottled juice, it now is practically demanded that you get busy squeezing citrus.  Literally, no bar chef worth his smock uses anything but freshly squeezed juices.

•    Self-made infusions. If you want to combine spirits and fruit, do it yourself. Many spirits distillers have brought to market combinations of fruit and/or citrus and blended it into their product. Maybe you like these, and if so, go for it. But the real way to get to where the flavor is precisely what you like is to do it yourself. Many bars today, just as it has been done for generations in Italy and Spain, have large covered bowls of spirits with fruit marinating within. They are making their own infused liquor, starting with a spirit and then adding all manner of spice, fruit and citrus to accomplish something unique.

•    Nonalcoholic concoctions. Does oregano-infused fresh honey sound good? How about basil-infused grape garnish?  Can we talk about saffron and red pepper syrup? Muddled cucumber and grapefruit peel? Vanilla bean-infused simple syrup? The point is to let your imagination wander over to the cooking side of your brain. What do you think would work well on a plate? Move it into the cocktail shaker.

•    Obscure spirits. We now have access to liqueurs and spirits made from ingredients that we never considered as source material. St. Germain is made from fresh elderberry flowers grown in the Alps and made into liqueur in an artisanal fashion. Dubonnet Rouge, originally created by a Parisian chemist to help the troops of the French Foreign Legion fight malaria in northern Africa, makes an excellent mixer, unrelated to its original purpose. Absinthe, back on the scene after a 100-year absence, provides interesting slants to certain recipes. Fernet Branca, a digestif from Italy, was more popular when Benny Goodman was sweetly playing his clarinet, but it is back as a mixer. None of these ingredients is required in any appreciable quantity in a cocktail recipe, but they all bring interesting tones to the combination of other ingredients.

•    Vegetables, spices and fruits.  We’ve touched on this, but have no fear of cucumber, watermelon, cane syrup, cardamom, chocolate, sage, honey, teas and coffees. Part of the great fun in a cocktail you are creating is in the experimentation stage. You can try some of this and a little of that and see just where it takes you. You know what you like, so start there and branch out.

•    Rimming spices. There are times when it is not all about what is in the glass but rather what is on the glass. All manner of spices to rim the glass are available, and there are still the trusty standbys of salt, sugar and Cajun spice.

•    Ice. We would be remiss if we did not mention that when you are making cocktails, you should use only the freshest ice. That stuff you have in your freezer is not the best. After all, making cocktails requires lots of ice, and if the ice has a flavor of its own, you’ve seriously wasted a good effort. Go the store. Buy some fresh ice. It’s cheap.

While the wine world continues its tempest-in-a-bottle arguments about cork versus screw cap and what are we going to do with all those corkscrews laying around the house (or at least in my house), the cocktail world demands a whole battery of preparation tools from squeezers to graters to shakers to muddlers to stirrers to jiggers to strainers to all manner of glassware.  For gadget freaks, it’s great. And it makes you feel important to use them correctly at the right time.

There you go. Tales of the Cocktail is coming up, and it’s a great opportunity to learn something new. Oh, and drink something you’ve never had before.

It should give you ideas for how you can personalize the drinks to your likes.

One idea it should not give you is to drive after attending a session or two. Rent a hotel room for a fun weekend in the middle of summer, or keep the number of your favorite taxi company very handy.

No matter how much you love the party, it’s not worth a bad end, riding in the back of a police car. 

The Wine Show with Tim McNally can be heard every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.


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