NEW ORLEANS — Here in the city that sets the standard for revelry, you never know what you might see: A Santa Claus in shorts, random people on stilts, or perhaps a llama. Add to that the loosely organized mayhem that is Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest national gathering, and you‘ve got “Rum Institute” class sessions, tasting stations disguised as giant Cointreau bottles and sponsored parties teeming with booze and spectacle.
Exhibit A: Absolut Vodka’s Wednesday-night welcome bash at Mardi Gras World, a circus-themed soiree featuring drink-slinging midway characters, Andy Warhol lookalikes in various sizes and craft-cocktail founding father Dale DeGroff crooning jazzy standards in the garden of gigantic floats. Or: the acrobat-dotted William Grant & Sons-sponsored party at Lakefront Airport, a restored art-deco edifice where I’m 85 percent sure I saw a camel.
This was the 12th annual TOTC gathering; nearly 23,000 people attended last year. The whole experience can be a bit much, a day-to-day beatdown so grueling that it’s tempting to keep score. “Goodnight NOLA, you’re a worthy adversary,” went Dallas’ Trina Nishimura’s fifth-night post on Facebook. “This round however, goes to me.” (Her final score: NOLA 2, Trina 2, draw 1.) But the frenzy couldn’t obscure the little things that make the annual festival special: The random run-ins with friends not seen since last year, the face-to-face encounters with people known only through social media, the new friends made over spirited dinners and Thursday’s massive midnight toast outside the Old Absinthe House by members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. The days were sprinkled with seminars on topics like bitters, a history of women working behind the bar or the Chinese spirit baijiu, but it was also worth taking a breather to browse the event’s bitters-and-book store or the Cocktail Kingdom-run shop with its gold-plated jiggers and beautifully reproduced vintage tomes like “Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual – Or: How To Mix Drinks of the Present Style” (1900 edition).
The Lone Star State was well represented. It was Texas, of course, that kicked off the jauntiness with Wednesday morning’s Tiki Throwdown at host Hotel Monteleone. The next day, Bonnie Wilson, beverage program manager forFrontburner’s Fork It Over Restaurants – think Plano’s Whiskey Cake or The Ranch at Las Colinas – crafted mini cocktails for the sampling hordes at one of numerous drink stations in Anchor Distilling’s tasting room. Later that afternoon, Austin’s Chris Bostick represented not just Texas but an entire gender at a Battle of the Sexes event sponsored by Mandarine Napoleon. And that night, Dallas’ Brad Bowden (Barter) and Christian Armando (The Standard Pour) were among the many visiting bartenders getting behind the stick at festival-related parties popping up at French Quarter-area locations.
Austin-via-Dallas resident Jason Kosmas, the easygoing co-founder of legendary New York bar Employees Only and one of the driving forces behind Dallas’ now thriving craft-cocktail scene, took some time to talk up The 86 Co., the fledgling spirits line he started with fellow EO barman Dushan Zaric and liquor ambassador Simon Ford. He held afternoon court at New Orleans’ Gravier Street Social, describing his products like a proud daddy recounting his 3-year-old’s budding sports prowess. “If it wasn’t for Tales, I don’t think we would have had the resources and relationships to take it to the next level,” he said.
Friday night would bring yet another party, this one sponsored by The 86 Co. – the annual bar battle pitting half a dozen bars from around the country against each other in a raucous atmosphere to see who could best handle the pressure, evoke their home environment and make the best set of cocktails. In short: To see who was mas macho. As with last year’s event — at which Dallas’ late Bar Smyth made an admirable showing — the throwdown was promoted boxing-style, this time with fancy posters and clever profile cards proclaiming each bar’s staff, fighting styles and words of warning to the competition. In addition to the Tiki Throwdown team, the night’s powerful Texas showing included at least a half-dozen Dallas-based state beverage reps; bartenders Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, Barter’s Stephen Halpin and Brad Bowden, Libertine’s Will Croxville and Driftwood’s Ryan Sumner; even cocktail gadabout Sean Reardon.
Upstairs, Houston bartending luminary Bobby Heugel poured mezcal. Vegas-based “Modern Mixologist” and author Tony Abou-Ganim singlehandedly lit up an entire corner of the dark room with his big-time smile. There was New York’s Julie Reiner, co-founder of the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club – but wait, who was that once again behind the bar at The 86 Co.’s station? None other than Dallas’ own Omar YeeFoon, the former Bar Smyth/Cedars Social cocktail magician who joined The 86 Co. as Texas state brand ambassador earlier this year.
My favorite sips of the evening, aside from the chicory-syrup-enhanced Milk Punch Hurricane poured at Boston’s Backbar, leaned toward the trending mezcal, including Vegas-based Herbs and Rye’s brilliant Smoking Mirrors – a spicy, sweet and smoky mix mining Fernet and pineapple syrup – and Denver stalwart Williams & Graham’s voluptuous Gold Digger, which matched the smoky agave spirit with Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and two kinds of sherry.
San Francisco’s Trick Dog would take the judges’ top prize, boosted by its carnival theme and cocktail-filled watermelons suspended in mini hammocks for midair imbibing through tiny spouts. Williams & Graham’s team – whose lead man, Sean Kenyon, would earn Tales’ nod as American Bartender of the Year, worked hard to recreate the bar’s library-esque atmosphere. A guy from New York’s NoMad climbed atop the bar and rained shots of premium mezcal into willing mouths, while Backbar was fronted in part by a fierce and impressively bearded madman with habanero eyes. Los Angeles’ Harvard & Stone was back there in a corner somewhere, out-crazied by the adjacent team from Herbs and Rye with its gaudy chandeliers and a leopard-bikini’ed woman the size of a Galliano bottle primping atop the bar, which in turn inspired Seattle bar man Rocky Yeh to peel off his shirt, leap aboard and let out his best beastly roar.
Could that have been what ultimately earned Herbs and Rye the People’s Choice award? Who knows, but it was that kind of night. It was that kind of week. And for a community whose living revolves around giving guests a great experience, a time to soak in camaraderie and a great experience for themselves.
“I’m Dallas bound,” wrote TOTC first-timer Lauren Spore, a cocktail waitress at Southlake’s Brio Tuscan Grille, in a Facebook post when it was all over. “But thank you to everyone I met, the new friends I made and the old friends who helped make this even more amazing. This has been one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life and to all the people who made it happen, thank you.”