It's not every night that you can walk into a museum and feel fake snow brushing your face. Or, a few seconds later, watch cocktail demigod Dale DeGroff flame an orange peel in front of you, drop it into a glass of sherry and Absolut, and push it forward. Or, a few steps away, realize that the guy presiding over a table of Cosmos is Toby Cecchini, the bartender who created the drink at New York's Odeon in the late 1980s.
Such is the surreal quality of Tales of the Cocktail, a fête that has drawn thousands of mixologists, brand ambassadors, journalists and thirsty drinkers to New Orleans every steamy July for the past 10 years to sample new spirits, exchange ideas, schmooze and party. It's a heady, wild ride, from the moment you arrive in NOLA until that last, wistful cab ride to the airport — and you can't anticipate its scale, pace and ability to squash you like the lightweight you are. Especially if you're a "Virgin." (More on that in a moment).
I traveled south to Tales with the vague idea that somewhere, somehow, I would track down some Vermont connections and write about them. It didn't happen; not once did I cross paths with a single distiller, bartender or even writer from home. Where was Barr Hill, or Sumptuous Syrups? ("Why the hell would you leave Vermont for NOLA in July?" they might retort.) I found out too late that some Tales attendees had tried a new aged rye from Vermont's WhistlePig, though I still don't know where that happened.
Yes, I was what's called a Tales Virgin, but I didn't realize it until I saw a small "Virgin" pin affixed to the T-shirt of a similarly dazed woman. We talked for a moment, but each of us seemed drained and anxious not to miss whatever we probably were missing.
The parties and dinners are plentiful at this event, but so, too, are the seminars and tastings, each of which brings the frisson of encountering something new. In contrast to the Absoluts of the world, there were dozens (hundreds?) of small, independent producers of vodka, genever, pisco, mescal, any spirit you can think of — plus syrups, shrubs and bitters. One afternoon you might drift from a lab on homemade bitters to a seminar called "Reconsidering the Gin & Tonic"; from a slide show on botanical history to "A Journey Through Cold Distillation."
In the rooftop Reincarnation Room — the lair of primarily journalists — a rotating roster of countries (Mexico, Ireland, Italy, China) stylishly put up their aged tequilas, whiskey, exquisite aperitifs, and MOUTAI, respectively, for sampling, or shaken into beguiling cocktails.
Tales is headquartered in the Hotel Monteleone, and every public space seemed to be taken up with liquor. On one floor you could grab sweet green Midori cocktails from gamines in green wigs and face paint. On another, you could tumble into a cacophonous launch party for a new tequila (Olmeca Altos), or a hushed, spare sampling of the new Lillet Rosé. Outside on the street, a succession of vintage vehicles pulled up to hand out French wine, St. Germain cocktails, or rum.
The crowd had an unquenchable thirst for it all. They didn't spit their samples, and they must have had livers of steel, because not once did I see anyone drunk. (Though I'm not sure I stayed up late enough.)
When the fedora and tattoo quotient hit its limit, it was calming to get away and just have a beer. Or a beignet. Or goat tacos at Maurepas Foods. Before long, though, I was pulled back into the Tales orbit, drawn toward new spirits, new bits of knowledge (such as blending Bulleit rye with maple syrup, egg whites, mesquite salt, beef jerky and lambic), and new friends.
It's a shame no one else from Vermont was in the house, if only because we could have brought honey-derived gin. And, you know, a bigger presence for that rye that some drinkers are swooning over. Next year. And yes, there will be a next year.
Photos by Corin Hirsch. More info at talesofthecocktail.com.