I did not want to rush headlong, all willy-nilly, into the gushy praise and comments that were heaped immediately from all corners after the recent spirits festival Tales of the Cocktail. I preferred to take a more measured approach in my gushy praise.
Let us be very clear: this event ranks as one of the top three spirits events in the world. (Don’t ask me to name the others.)
Ann and Paul Tuennerman have put together a festival that rolls out on Tuesday and never loses momentum until the last glass is rimmed late Sunday afternoon. Any one of the evening blockbuster events, and there are at least four every night, would make a convention coming to town proud of the effort, and it would stand as the singular event for the attendees.
For Tales, there were more than 25 of those fully fleshed-out, completely and outrageously decorated, more-bars-than-you-can-count, music-and-food-until-you-burst, party-like-it’s-2011 such happenings. They occurred at The Cabildo, the Monteleone, the Royal Sonesta, The Foundry, the National World War II Museum, Generations Hall, Latrobe, Le Phare, Calcasieu, the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, Laura Plantation, all over the Quarter, all over the CBD and even in Lakelawn Metairie Cemetery (Waking the Spirits. Get it?)
Parenthetically, let me just put a bit of a gloat on here: I told you in this space over the past couple of weeks to get your tickets. Many of you did. Some of you will have to wait until next year to learn first-hand, finally, about this event, which will be in its 10th staging. Psst: You’re late.
In the Tasting Rooms, we were forced shamelessly to endure six days of endless pours of gin, vodka, American whisky, Irish whisky, scotch, cognac, pisco, absinthe, rum, port, tequila, cachaça and a supporting cast of products that make cocktails sing. I guess they do. I know I did.
But here’s one of the real benefits for New Orleans: Spirits professionals and cocktail groupies, more than 20,000, were in our beautiful home, and they hailed from every continent on the globe. They were strolling, drinking in our culture, enjoying our hospitality, slurping down our cuisine, and in general reveling in all things New Orleans. You can’t buy that kind of exposure. And, neighbors, we did shine. They are all going home with Crescent City stories because they were a part of this event, set against the backdrop of a magical city.
A few observations:
* Was it just me, or did anyone else notice a slight trend towards simplicity? Sure, there were still the drinks that used eye of newt as the secret ingredient, but I was served quite a few more drinks this year that had less than 5 components, could be made quickly, and tasted delicious. All important considerations when there is a bar full of people waiting to be served.
* Each year at Tales there seems to be a “hot” spirit. It’s as if suddenly everyone has discovered tequila. This year Pisco was everwhere. At the breakfast table mixed with juice, mid-morning pick-me-up with muddled cilantro, all afternoon and evening in Sours and Punches. It’s a great spirit, quite versatile, and we are now seeing not just one brand or two, but a whole line-up of quality levels and expressions of terroir. The brandy from Peru or Chile is making significant inroads to the back of the bar, readily available, just like whisky or gin.
* Speaking of those two, whisky seems to be making a bit of noise and bar chefs are enjoying working with the versatile liquid. Even a perceived staid brand like Wild Turkey was creating zingy new cocktails, encouraging sips of high-end product, and acting “hip.” (By way of contrast, I am automatically labeled “not hip” just for mentioning it.
* Being both trendy and historic is an easy bridge for Distillery No. 209, creators of a new, quite elegant gin. They make it in San Francisco in a craft style at an old distillery that dates back to 1882. The product name derives from its original federal license number. It’s quite smooth, and works well with cocktails dating back to the 1800’s (Corpse Reviver II) as well as being involved successfully with such esoteric ingredients like St. George Raspberry Liqueur and Small Hand Food Raspberry Gum Syrup (Clover Club).
* Speaking of gin, Victoria Gin of British Columbia, Canada had a wonderful product. It’s not available in our area, but I hope someone gets wise and brings it in. It’s a gin aged three months in oak. The color of the gin is a bit brown, as you would expect, but the flavors are long, smooth and delicious. Quite a creative distillation direction and opens up new possibilities for an old spirit.
* Leblon Cachaça, that Brazilian spirit that puts the “caip” in the caipirinha, once again brought the lime-green truck, the Caipi-Mobile, to town, this time dispensing sorbets and frozen treats. The cachaça-laced summer goodies were ideal for 90-degree French Quarter heat. Where the hell was this ice cream truck when I was growing up? It even had Brazilian beach music to complete the theme.
We have often noted about the new breed of mixologists act more like something out of Dr. Morgus’ lab than alcohol servers. But now, I think, we are turning our palates upstream, to the distillers, and they seem to have taken the challenge of providing new, interesting, even radical approaches to the tried and sometimes tired issue of spirits.
Managing the distillation process is crucial to the end product, but some folks now involved in the manufacture of gin, bourbon, scotch, rum, etc. are reaching for new heights in the craft. What your father would easily recognize today is no longer the standard. Smooth is in, alongside elegance, depth, and style. Looks like all parties to the party are thinking hard about what’s going on. A better product is leaving the distillery, and the end user is focused on what is in the mouth.
It’s an exciting time for spirits, and the world’s new showcase is Tales of the Cocktail right here in the old city. Can’t wait until next year.