Category Archives: Tales of the Cocktail

Snoop Dogg, Texas bar industry help nation’s largest spirits festival mark 15th year

Kallhoff, Eakin, Orth, Hartai
Among those representing Dallas at Tales were Justin Kallhoff of DEC on Dragon; Eddie Eakin and Matt Orth of wine and spirits distributor Southern Glazer’s; and barman Mate Hartai of Black Swan Saloon.

Could Dale DeGroff have imagined that, some 25 years after he began squeezing fresh citrus and making simple syrups in the service of better cocktails, he’d be among the elder statesmen of a 20,000-strong spirits festival? Yet there he was – King Cocktail! – with his signature wry smile, at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, flaming orange peels and cranking out drinks like a champ at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits festival that last weekend concluded its 15th run.

Tales of the Cocktail
The annual cocktail festival, based in the French Quarter, draws about 20,000 people.

A bartenders’ walking tour: That’s how all this started. Back then a lot of people still thought of bartending as a temporary gig you did on the way to something else – but the spirits industry is now a $25 billion-dollar beast, and Tales is likewise a juggernaut, with people traveling to New Orleans from 40 countries for five days of booze-related workshops, career advice, happy hours, tastings, competitions, parties, bonding and networking. What was once a manageable, almost intimate gathering of industry professionals riding a wave of love for the craft and quality ingredients has, in some eyes, become too big for its own good, an overcrowded, over-the-top party of sold-out seminars, ever-accumulating wristbands and fewer one-on-one opportunities.

Tales of the Cocktail
At the festival’s pisco tasting room, cocktail luminaries Tony Abou-Ganim and Dale DeGroff hammed it up for the camera.

“Tales has become, to me, more about learning one-on-on through networking than in seminars,” said Brittany Koole, a bar manager and consultant in Houston.

It didn’t help that the stretch of Bourbon Street normally frequented by Tales-goers was a war zone of giant potholes, wire fencing and bulldozers. “I didn’t feel the same connection with the area,” said Justin Kallhoff of Dallas event space DEC on Dragon, who spent more time off the strip and less time dealing with the big parties.

Just the same, Tales carried on, the thus-far clear leader in the spirit-festival world.  As usual, attendees this year included a good number of Texans – bartenders, bartenders-turned-spirits-reps, bar owners, bar suppliers, bar goers and those who chronicle it all.

Laura Bellucci, SoBou
At SoBou, Laura Bellucci’s dessert-like House of the Rind – featuring honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and chamomile-citrus bitters — was among the festival’s cocktail highlights.

So there were Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who staffed a table at Saturday’s mezcal tasting room at the Monteleone. And Campari America rep Chase Streitz and Megan McClinton of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, were among those who joined Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller for Wild Turkey, for dinner and whiskey at Cochon. “I was lucky enough to get to pour Jimmy a glass, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Streitz, formerly of Bulldog Gin, The Standard Pour and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.

Cazadores Tequila partnered with the Bartender Boxing Organization to sponsor a battle between Houston and Los Angeles bartenders that culminated at Tales. And in a bowling event pitting bartenders from 14 cities against each other in the lanes, Team Texas took second only to Miami.

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Dallas poured drinks at Tales’ mezcal tasting room.

Major spirits companies, small-batch distillers and beverage-related producers also come to Tales to build or bolster brand recognition. But possibly the fastest growing group of attendees might be people who just like consuming and learning about spirits and the various things made with them – people like Jean Verhaar of Houston. “We are what you call cocktail enthusiasts,” she said, at the festival with pal Pam Stevens of New Orleans.

The festival draws more “cocktail enthusiasts” every year. At top, pals Verhaar and Stevens; below, the Davises and Lawyers of Mobile.

On Thursday, Steve and Beverly Davis of Mobile, Alabama, roamed a tasting room dedicated to pisco, the clear brandy native to Peru and Chile. “A little waitress at Galatoire’s told us about (Tales) some years ago,” Beverly said. The two have been coming ever since with friends John and Sue Lawyer.

“It’s just fun,” Sue Lawyer said. “There’s no purpose to it but to learn and have a good time.” She ducked over to one drink station where DeGroff, now widely considered the godfather of the modern cocktail renaissance, was busy making Algeria cocktails for the masses.

Tales of the Cocktail
At Tales, numerous tasting rooms offered attendees the chance to sample spirits or liqueurs — straight, or in cocktails — like this set-up from Sonoma, Calif.-based Uncle Val’s Gin.

It was at New York’s Rainbow Room that DeGroff built a following by reviving classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails in the 1980s, a gig he landed a few years after being hired by restaurateur Joe Baum, the man behind the Four Seasons and other fine dining establishments; the Alegria – pisco, Cointreau and apricot brandy – was among the cocktails featured at Baum’s La Fonda del Sol in the 1960s, at a time when anything not a Manhattan or Martini was rare. Now DeGroff had revived it as the Algeria, with his own twist, for the pisco event. “Because (Baum) was my mentor,” he said.

Tales of the Cocktail
Snoop Dogg at Friday’s Dogg House Party, sponsored by liquor giant Diageo, New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center.

Brands found clever ways to promote themselves, crafting whimsical and interactive tasting rooms, throwing happy hours, offering special product unveilings or cocktail-paired dinners – or, in the case of Amaro Montenegro, the excellent Italian bitter liqueur, having its master botanist demonstrate its 132-year-old production process using herbs and spices, an alembic, a boiler and a macerating device.

Jagermeister, the ubiquitous digestif now angling for a piece of the craft-cocktail craze, recruited Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, for a happy hour at Fritzel’s, the Bourbon Street jazz pub where LSU students made Jager popular in the late 1980s. And then threw a huge party afterward.  And there was Diageo, the giant spirits company behind brands like Tanqueray and Don Julio, scoring Snoop Dogg for its own beats-heavy Friday night bash.

Amaro Montenegro
Master botanist Matteo Bonoli prepares to illustrate Amaro Montenegro’s production process using an alembic, boiler and macerating device.

Workshops this year included explorations of ingredients like grains and bitter gentian in spirits and liqueurs; the use of technology such as centrifuges behind the bar; and the rising popularity of umami flavor and low-proof drinks.

Cocktails were plentiful, served mostly in small plastic Tales cups, and it was wise to heed the oft-quoted Tales adage “you don’t have to finish that” while collecting grab-and-go bottled water along the way. That said, I did find the bottom of a few superior creations –my favorites being Laura Bellucci’s House of the Rind, a dessert-like mix of Earl-Grey-infused honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and citrus-chamomile bitters served at Sunday’s “Legs and Eggs” burlesque brunch at SoBou; and from Aaron Polsky of Los Angeles’ Harvard and Stone, the Precious Punch served at Thursday’s pisco tasting room, featuring pisco acholado, apricot liqueur and amaro.

Fritzel's, New Orleans
Drawn by rumors of its Valium-like effects, LSU students in the late 80s came to Fritzel’s to drink Jaegermeister, making this Bourbon Street jazz joint the launchpad for its eventual widespread popularity.

Camaraderie is what keeps people coming back to Tales, and festival vets saw old friends while newbies made new ones. Second-timer Ashley Williams, a Bols Genever ambassador who tends bar at Filament in Dallas, was looking forward to being in New Orleans and meeting fellow ambassadors. What had she learned from her first go-round?

“Pace yourself,” she said. “You don’t have to do everything. There’s so much going on. Take some time to just go sit in a park.”

Tales of the Cocktail
Black Swan’s Hartai brandishes the Texas flag at the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s annual midnight toast.

Being in the French Quarter, amid the stilt-walkers and human statues and little kids drumming on plastic buckets, it was also worth revisiting gems like the rotating Carousel Bar, grabbing a frozen Irish Coffee at classic haunt Erin Rose or nestling in at the French 75 Bar at historic restaurant Arnaud’s, which recently won the James Beard award for bar program of the year.

Around the festival’s midway point came the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s beloved annual Thursday midnight toast, on which Texas naturally has put its stamp over the years with waving Lone Star flags and choruses of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” This year’s spectacle was a bit more subdued, given that the whole shebang had to be relocated from construction-torn Bourbon Street to the second-floor confines of Bourbon Cowboy Too. Nevertheless, Texas endured – and somehow so did Tales, which will power on to see another year.

Tales of the Cocktail
When the party’s over: The aftermath of Villa Campari’s Aperol Spritz rooftop happy hour.

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“Let’s do this, Texas” — Lone Star bartenders came ready for battle and brotherhood at annual spirits festival in New Orleans

USBG midnight toast
Texas bar peeps putting a Lone Star stamp on Bourbon Street at Tales of the Cocktail 2015.

THEY CAME, they saw, they cocktailed – and by Sunday evening, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 had been conquered. Thousands of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, product reps and cocktail enthusiasts — a good portion of them from Texas — swarmed New Orleans’ French Quarter last week for the spirits industry’s biggest gathering, taking in five days’ worth of workshops, networking, tasting receptions, parties and spirit-paired dinners.

From brand-sponsored cocktail breakfasts to rum seminars to after-party confabs at favorites like Erin Rose (home of the Frozen Irish Coffee), there’s a lot to take in. But most of all, the festival is about camaraderie – a time for those who practice and support the cocktail craft to revel in each other’s knowledge, company and support. Bar staffs get better at their craft – by watching each other work, learning about new products and techniques, discovering the history behind what they do — and as a result, we, the consumers, get a better bar experience. It’s a win-win.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Tales’ tasting rooms promoted various brands — or entire spirits, like Thursday’s pisco party, which went all out to evoke Peru.

One big happy family. Except for one thing: While festival rivalries are never bitter, Texas members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild got word that heading into this year’s ritual midnight toast, another USBG chapter had Texas in its sights.

***

AMONG THE MANY traditions of Tales – which last year drew 18,000 people – is the USBG’s annual midnight toast, held on Thursday night of the festival outside the landmark Old Absinthe House, at Bienville and Bourbon streets.

The toast is a quick but raucous affair, a celebration of unity, but of course, Texas can’t help but go big. And having been late to the cocktail game behind places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago – a deficit Lone Star State cities have since made long strides toward closing – maybe there was a little something to prove as the 2014 toast approached.

Either way, forces aligned: With a Texas-staffed event simultaneously happening at a two-story venue across the street, “there were, like, Texas fight songs and Texas flags waving from up on the railing,” remembers Dallas’ Chase Streitz, Bulldog gin’s Texas ambassador. “It was like Texas Mardi Gras for 15 minutes.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Will Croxville of Dallas’ Proof + Pantry offers a hearty welcome during his guest stint at an Edrington Scotch whisky party at New Orleans’ Bourbon Cowboy.

“Texas is kind of the underdog of Tales,” said Alex Fletcher, bar manager at Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “So it was kind of, like…. You know. Texas style.”

It was all over quickly. But rumors soon began that a Texan had thrown a rival chapter flag to the ground, and naturally its owners were not amused. When Travis Tober, beverage director at Austin’s VOX Table, heard they were going to come out swinging this year, Texans decided it was time to rally.

***

TEXAS’ MARK ON TALES is huge, given the state’s size and proximity to New Orleans. Festival founder Ann Tuennerman says representation likely lags only behind New York and California, but this year marked the fourth in a row that a Texas-run party helped kick off the week – and as far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s still Tales’ only state-specific event.

Houston cocktail enthusiasts Michelle Mata, Teddy Bucher and Laura Villafranca were making their second, fourth and sixth Tales visits, respectively. At a dinner at famed Commander’s Palace to showcase Maker’s Mark’s new Cask Strength bourbon, the state went four-for-four, with one table seating a Houston-based rep for Beam Suntory spirits, a wine enthusiast from Austin and a pair of spirits writers from San Antonio and Dallas.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Hey, House of Angostura Orange is the New Black pool party: You’ve got balls.

One morning in the festival’s pop-up bookstore, bartenders Christian Armando (of Uptown’s Standard Pour) and Austin Gurley (of Plano’s Whiskey Cake) browsed the festival’s ever-increasing stock of spirits-related books and cocktail enhancers, from ginger-turmeric bitters to smoke-and-salt bitters to a $75 bottle of truffle bitters.

And the weather was scorching hot – which made the lavish pool parties thrown by spirits producers such as Trinidad-based House of Angostura – all the more welcome. As an attendee from Austin posted on Facebook: “Never in my life have I felt more confident in my decision to pack 8 undershirts.”

***

THE RALLY PLAN was this: To meet at Thursday night’s High West whiskey-sponsored barbecue dinner at One Eyed Jacks on nearby Toulouse Street. Chris Furtado, High West’s Texas rep, had brought a backpack brimming with Texas flags, ready to distribute. From there the group would move on to Erin Rose, and finally to the Old Absinthe House. “I’m sure I’ll be hoarse by the end of the night,” Furtado said. “I’ve heard they (the other chapter members) have a chant. We’re not that organized.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Accoutrements of drinkdom in Don Julio’s Airstream Speakeasy at the Diageo House Party.

He had big hopes, though, expecting other Texas-based liquor reps and distributors and hordes of bartenders. But by 10:30 p.m., when it was time to move on to Erin Rose, there was just him and a pair of Texas supporters from Reston, Va.

Outside Erin Rose, the passing minutes brought only a trickle, and by 11:15, Furtado seemed concerned.

At last, a handful of others showed, including Austin’s Tober, USBG Austin chapter president Jessica Sanders, North Texas chapter president Brian McCullough and Julian Pagan of The Mitchell in Dallas.

The showdown was barely a half-hour away.

***

THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY is now a $23 billion beast. The category made up 35 percent of alcohol sales last year, a slow but steady rise from 29 percent in 2000, with new products coming out all the time.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Making music at the House of Angostura’s Orange is the New Black pool party.

So you can’t blame brands for going all-out to win favor. On top of dozens of Tales tasting rooms, spirit portfolio giants William Grant & Sons, Diageo and Bacardi are known for extravagant parties with multiple drink stations churning out brand-specific cocktails amid the sensory smorgasbord.

Rutte, a Holland-based line of vodka and gins, made its official U.S. launch with a presentation led by master distiller Myriam Hendrickx and packets of the many botanicals that go into its products – juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and, interestingly, nuts, which influence its genever (gin’s European precursor). Then came another party, with more drinks handed out, and oysters done Dutch: On the half-shell, with a splash of gin.

With so much liquor flowing freely, it’s wise to heed the words of advice that preface many a festival: You don’t have to finish that. In other words, unless a cocktail is truly special, a taste is enough. Then set it aside. There will always be another one.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Herbs, nuts and botanicals: Spirit makings utilized by Holland-based Rutte, which just launched in the U.S.

That said, among the drinks I actually got the chance to try, these were my top four. I might have even have had one or two of them twice.

SWEET AND DANDY (by Kellie Thorn, Empire State South, Atlanta)

This sublimely bittersweet gem from Alameda, Calif.-based St. George Spirits – of which I am a loyal fan – featured its California Citrus vodka, Suze bitter liqueur, vanilla liqueur, lemon, green tea syrup and orange peel. I arrived late to the St. George tasting, so I only got to try it because publicist Ellie Winters was nice enough to share hers with me. And thank the heavens for that.

SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)

OK, it was crazy hot at Diageo’s annual House Party, held at the city’s Contemporary Arts Warehouse, and between that and the killer 80s-cover band onstage, it somehow seemed OK to fall for a snow-cone cocktail. Featuring Zacapa rum along with amantillado sherry, macadamia nut syrup and pineapple, its icy crunch was gloriously enhanced with a sprinkling of Marrero’s vanilla-infused salt.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Yes, one of my favorite festival cocktails was a snow cone. I’m not ashamed. Zacapa’s Solera Pina.

TIERRA D’ORO (Jim Kearns, Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, Greenwich Village, New York); and

MACHO PUNCH (Tony Abou-Ganim, The Modern Mixologist)

At Thursday’s packed Peruvian pisco tasting room, at least a half-dozen versions of the classic Pisco Punch were on display, and these two were absolutely standout: Kearns’ Tierra D’Oro spiced up Pisco Porton with lime, aji Amarillo (a Peruvian chili) syrup, passion fruit syrup, guava puree and classic pineapple, gorgeously presented with an edible flower garnish.

Meanwhile, the gregarious Abou-Ganim mixed Macchu Pisco with floral Yellow Chartreuse, pineapple gomme syrup, lime and lemon and a garnish of pineapple and pineapple-ginger foam to sweet, refreshing effect.

***

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Texas bartenders stage a huge last-minute rally — including, at rear, Dallas’ Brian McCullough and Austin’s Travis Tober.

THINGS WERE LOOKING shaky as the Texans headed into battle a couple of blocks away. But as the group neared the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville, a critical mass began to form, constellations of others joining in along the way as they closed in.

“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.

The avenue was a gumbo of Bourbon Streeters and festival-goers, but little Lone Star flags were already waving en masse as beads rained off the balconies. A bigger flag drew a lineup of Texans for selfies and, as midnight drew near, the throng broke into a loud, proud group-sing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

The big showdown – well, it never materialized. If the rumors had ever been true, the evidence was nowhere to be seen or heard. “I don’t know what happened,” Furtado said. “We owned it.”

And then it was over once again, and the festival rolled on. San Francisco’s ABV bar reigned victorious at Tales’ annual Bar Fight (which went international this year) and won Best New American Bar at Saturday’s annual Spirited Awards, Denver’s Williams & Graham was named Best American Cocktail Bar and New York’s Ivy Mix was named best bartender.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Among the shirt on display at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival.

Sunday’s annual picnic rewarded those who went the distance, but for many, Tales was a beatdown and done before they knew it – with great memories tinged with realizations of how much they had yet to learn or regrets over missed opportunities.

“New Orleans, you were a whirlwind romance this year,” Austin’s Sanders posted on Facebook. “Can’t believe I have to leave already!”

And from Whiskey Cake’s Gurley: “Well, that was an experience. Tales of the Cocktail, you win this time. Back to Dallas.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015: Texans hit the road for the spirits industry’s annual festival

It's that time again: The spirits industry's annual festival is back in The Bayou.
It’s that time again: The spirits industry’s annual festival is back in The Bayou.

NEW ORLEANS — The Season of the Drink is upon us once again: Tales of the Cocktail 2015 has come to town, marking its 13th year in the Big Easy. From around the world they’ve come – thousands of bartenders, liquor reps, spirits producers, bar owners, beverage industry scribes and cocktail enthusiasts here to witness the monster truck of all spirits festivals in the grandest of all party towns.

New Orleans is a city that knows how to drink: From its primordial jambalaya sprang more than a few now-classic cocktails – among them the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz and the insufferable Hurricane. We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here.

Ramos Gin Fizz Slushie
Here, have a Ramos Gin Fizz Slushie: Things going down at The London No. 1 gin’s tasting room.

The five-day festival can be grueling, overflowing as it is with workshops, networking, happy hours, competitions, tastings, spirit-paired dinners, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions and French Quarter camaraderie, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if one is not careful – for instance, advanced bartender trainings; tips on opening and running a bar; seminars about the flavors of Cognac, the reemergence of Canadian whiskey or the pairing of cocktails with cigars; and of course, the singularly unique city itself.

Agave spirits producers
This is either The Last Supper or a seminar panel on agave spirits.

This is my fourth year at Tales, soaking in knowledge and sunshine and chronicling the shenanigans as the members of Texas’ craft-cocktail community represent the Lone Star State. Texas, along with New York and California, is among the top-represented states at the festival, which last year drew nearly 18,000 attendees. About three-fourths of those were working bartenders or industry professionals.

“Everything we do is in support of the spirits industry,” said Paul Tuennerman, co-founder of the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, which sponsors the festival. “We want to ensure that flavorful cocktails are served for years to come.”

Houston cocktail enthusiasts Laura Villafranca, Teddy Bucher and Michelle Mata, attending Tales for the second year in a row.
Houston cocktail enthusiasts Laura Villafranca, Teddy Bucher and Michelle Mata, multiple-year attendees of the conference, are back again.

Most of the action is going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street (home to the famously revolving Carousel Bar), where Wednesday morning’s annual Texas party helped kick things off for the fourth year in a row, with Austin’s bar peeps leading this year’s charge.

The bar staff of The Pastry War, Houston’s pioneering agave spirits spot, is among a handful of crews competing in Thursday’s yearly Bar Fight (which this year has gone international, with competitors representing Paris, London and Melbourne). Texas is also known to bring its oversized presence to the U.S. Bartenders Guild’s annual midnight toast, and in general you’ll find Lone Star peeps chilling at local spots like Cane and Table, One Eyed Jacks and Erin Rose.

In Mexico City, a craft-cocktail scene takes root

Tales on Tour - Mexico City
At the Bacardi plant outside Mexico City, chocolatey treats nicely complemented the Mi Familia.

It’s a scene still in the nest, but you wouldn’t know it from the mob scene at Maison Artemisia, an old-timey-chic urban hideaway in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood. As befits the global metropolis of 8.8 million, the bar’s three-deep lines are plush with people from all over – but on this night, many are in Mexico City for the most recent episode in a series of cocktail and spirits conferences set in places around the world.

Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) – the spirits-minded juggernaut behind the eponymous annual festival every summer in New Orleans – came to Mexico last week, its latest push to highlight up-and-coming mixology markets worldwide as the U.S.-led craft-cocktail renaissance continues to chart new terrain. It’s called Tales of the Cocktail on Tour, and like a pared-down version of its mammoth mothership in NOLA, the bartender-oriented event is a mix of workshops, distillery tours, networking, distributor-sponsored brunches and parties and the chance to visit the bars leading the local charge.

“We pick markets that we see bubbling up and shine a spotlight on them,” said TOTC founder Anne Tuennerman. “When we say we’re going to a city, people think, there must be something going on there.”

Cocktail apprentice program
Some of the Tales contingent touring the city’s Plaza de la Constitucion.

The intent is to showcase each city’s potential for distributors and brand ambassadors and to enrich the local soil of knowledge with the wisdom and talents of industry veterans and experts like tiki writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Esquire columnist David Wondrich. In turn, visiting bartenders gain insight into local ingredients and methods to take back home. Sponsor companies build brand loyalty. Ultimately, the rest of us get to drink better drinks in more places. Everybody wins.

The Tales on Tour gatherings are held in successive years before moving on to a new city, leaving the young bird to fly on its own. Mexico City is the third city to fall into the TOTC spotlight; Vancouver and Buenos Aires were before that. “What’s really cool is to see these cities after Tales has been there once,” said bar consultant Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom, an online bar-implements and spirits literature seller. “They’re excited to grow.”

Having Tales come to Vancouver “was huge,” said bartender Dani Tatarin of the city’s Keefer Bar. “It gave us an extra push of publicity that people could see, and it highlighted the talents of people in the industry. Since then, we’ve kind of nurtured it along.”

The Mexico City attendees came from all over, from locals like Carlos Mendoza and Mauricio Hernandez of Podcast Borracho (“Drunken Podcast”) to a sizable posse from Guadalajara. There were bartenders from Austin, Key West, Miami, New York and Bellevue, Wash., cocktail writers from Seattle and Paris; groupies from Boston. Others came from countries like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia and Australia.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The Bacardi plant crew knocks out an assembly line of mojitos.

One afternoon, we piled into coaches for a tour of Bacardi’s Mexico plant in Cuautitlan Izcalli, an hour away from central Mexico City toward the state of Queretaro. Along the way, we rolled past graffiti’d embankments, homes with rooftop clotheslines and sprawling hillside communities before reaching the plant, where we found music, a carnivore’s lunch and, of course, mojitos and Cuba Libres. My favorite of the batch was La Familia, a well-rounded rumba of Bacardi, orange juice, Fino Sherry and sweet vermouth served in a coupe with a side of gooey, delicious chocolate-glazed popcorn or a slab of chocolate. It was a pleasingly perfect match.

In the facility’s musty, sweetly aromatic barrel storage warehouse, overhead misters moistened the air – and our hair.  “It smells so good in here,” said bartender Juan Carlos Machuca of Guadalajara, where he’s creating cocktails for a new restaurant.

The next day brought a lineup of workshops and discussions, from the merits of sugar and modern bar technique to the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and the “dark ages” of mixology (1958-1977), when convenience and quantity bested style and substance. “The Margarita suffered tremendously in the 1970s,” said writer Berry. “The blender was basically The Devil back then. It made life easier for bartenders.”

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
At Licoreria Limantour, the tart and savory Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, ginger and yellow lime.

Each night brought chances to sample Mexico City’s fairly new but mostly impressive craft-cocktail culture, sprouting primarily in the trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. (That’s also true for mezcalerias, such as La Nacional and Sobrinos, that specialize in tequila’s smokier cousin.) Spirits like Diplomatico Rum and Chivas Regal sponsored special menus during Tales’ run and bartenders from around the world came to help staff the busy bar nights. In general, drinks ran about $6-12 U.S.

“Designer cocktails are still a very small niche,” said a local food and drink blogger who goes by the handle Gastronauta. “It’s growing, but slowly.”

In addition to Maison Artemisia and pair of rogue visits to mezcalerias, I was only to get to barely a half-dozen spots on Tales’ itinerary, including Baltra and Bar Lilit. These were my three favorites:

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
Licoreria Limantour, in the city’s Roma neighborhood.

LICORERIA LIMANTOUR, the city’s first real craft-cocktail bar when it opened three years ago. Next door to mezcal-minded Sobrinos in the Roma area, its two floors of well-crafted cocktails and dark elegance overlook busy Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Visiting mixologist Sebastian Gans’ of Paris’ Candelaria made one of my favorite cocktails of the week, the apricot-shaded Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, yellow lime and ginger. Even the shot-sized sangrita Gans made to complement a bit of straight tequila was outstanding, with mango, tomato, coriander, lime and chipotle.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
Jules’ Basement, in the fancy Polanco neighborhood, was the city’s first speakeasy.

JULES’ BASEMENT, in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, is a nicely conceived speakeasy below a Mexican restaurant accessed by what at first looks to be the door of the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. (There is a large, suited doorman outside. And a small hostess.) If you’re lucky enough to be on the list, the door will open, and the sound of thumping bass will signal the dark otherworld below. Down the stairs and you’re in a low-ceilinged, dance club atmosphere where able bartenders crank out house drinks and classics like the Cucaracha, Old Cuban and Mary Pickford. Overall, not typically my scene, but the drinks were well executed and the service was top-notch.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The dazzling Almond Old Fashioned at Bar Felina.

BAR FELINA: If I lived here, this low-key but classy refuge sited in the quirky, subdued Hipodromo neighborhood near Condesa would be my hang. There, Minneapolis transplant Jane Soli-Holt could be credited for one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had in some time – a beautifully presented Almond Old Fashioned made with Angostura 1919 rum, almond-cinnamon syrup, orange-allspice bitters, Angostura bitters and a thin curl or two of mulato pepper. Its sweetness spoke of depth rather than cloyingness. The bar’s casual vibe was accented by a DJ spinning classic vinyl dorm-room-style. It was more of a den in which to enjoy fine drinks and talk about big ideas than a place to see and be seen.

Beyond that, Mexico City itself was a sensory delight, from its plentiful in-city parks to the magnificence of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the grandiosity of Plaza de la Constitucion. I enjoyed one of the best street-taco experiences ever at hole-in-the-wall Los Cocuyos, no doubt just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy and inexpensive to get around; Uber operates in Mexico City now along with worthwhile competitors, such as Yaxi. I loved how street-crossing was a constant game of Frogger, as equally well played by the elderly as the young; cars and people move in closer proximity on busy city streets than we are used to here. And one of the finest views in the city can be had from an eighth-floor café in the Sears Department store.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The Williams Grant & Sons party, conducted with typical understatedness.

But for cocktail fans, it’s good to know that you can visit the city and find a decent drink, a situation that in Tales’ wake seems only destined to improve.

“You have no idea how important this is to us,” said Philippe Zaigue, Mexico brand ambassador for Havana Club rum. “It’s allowed us to communicate to the world what we’re doing. And, it will give us the feedback we need to make things better.”

Amid the mayhem, camaraderie: Texas weathers the Tales of the Cocktail storm

Tales of the Cocktail's Absolut Welcome Party
At Tales of the Cocktail’s opening party, the great Dale DeGroff crooned Sinatra-style standards.

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.

Clockwise, from upper left: Esquire's David Wondrich at a Tales workshop; The Old Absinthe House; French Quarter llama sighting; The 86 Co.'s Jason Kosmas; Italian amaro producer Orietta Varnelli; a freakin' camel; a TOTC cocktail.
Clockwise, from upper left: Esquire’s David Wondrich at a TOTC workshop; The Old Absinthe House; French Quarter llama sighting; The 86 Co.’s Jason Kosmas; Italian amaro producer Orietta Varnelli; a freakin’ camel; a TOTC cocktail.

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).

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
DFW’s Bonnie Wilson held down one of Anchor Distilling’s tasting stations.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
In case you ever wondered what a Rum Institute looks like. Presented by Angostura.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
Bar Fight Club, clockwise from upper left: Trick Dog’s drink menu; The Williams & Graham team; Texas’ Brian McCullough and Jason Kosmas; New York’s NoMad squad; happy revelers; the guys from Herbs & Rye; Dallas’ Omar YeeFoon; The menu from Boston’s Backbar; Bar Fight Club 2014’s poster.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
You’ll have whatever he makes you. At Boston’s Backbar station at Fight Club 2014.

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.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
Words can’t even: The Absolut Welcome Party at Mardi Gras World.

 

Dallas bartenders help create a buzz at spirits industry’s annual festival in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, all smiles amid the storm that was Texas Tiki Throwdown.

NEW ORLEANS — They came, they saw, they cocktailed. Never mind that it was 10:30 in the morning: That’s how Tales of the Cocktail rolls.

Naturally, no state was better qualified to kick things off than Texas, which launched the annual spirits industry’s opening salvo for the third straight year. The Texas Tiki Throwdown and its lively contingent of bar peeps representing Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio had transformed the chandeliered conference room of New Orleans’ stately Hotel Monteleone into a little tiki paradise, with thatched-roof huts, Hawaiian shirts and a makeshift parrot perched on the shoulder of Dallas ice master Mate Hartai.

It was the kind of atmosphere in which a woman with blue-green hair could tell you her name was Christa Monster and get away with it. The bartender from Houston’s Bar Boheme had won a Bacardi-sponsored competition to earn the trip to Tales, and her clever, crowd-pleasing Lady of Lake Laguna did not disappoint – a frozen blend of aged rum, coconut, orange soda, blue curacao and a spiced-peach-and-Sriracha puree that alternately offered ice and heat. “It’s like, not taking tiki too seriously,” she said.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
From upper left: The Texas crew; the TOTC logo in host Hotel Monteleone; Christa Monster’s Lady of Lake Laguna cocktails; Houston’s Ricardo Guzman; your guess is as good as mine.

Dallas was well represented, with seven bartenders stationed behind three tables knocking out drinks in all manner of tropical style. Along with Hartai, there was Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Bonnie Wilson of Fork It Over restaurants, Knife’s Charlie Moore and the soon-to-be crew of Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry: Julian Pagan, Trina Nishimura and the two Joshes, Hendrix and MacEachern.

“There’s too much to try this early in the morning,” said conference attendee Teddy Bucher, though that didn’t dissuade the Houston engineer, friends Laura Villafranca and Michelle Mata and the dozens of others mobbing the room from making a valiant effort.

Over in the Austin corner, David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, mined his own cocktail book for the Flor De Pina, a tequila concoction pairing tequila with St. Germain, while Houston’s Ricardo Guzman of the bar Trinity planted “KISS” cocktails on anyone lucky enough to try the mix of Veev, cinnamon syrup, lemon and pineapple.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
They’re from St. Louis.

Houston Eaves of the always reliable Esquire Tavern was among those representing San Antonio, churning out an intriguing Tiki Tejano with tequila, carrot juice and crème de cacao, plus the pleasantly sweet Coyote’s Den, made with aquavit, acai-based Veev, orgeat, grapefruit, lemon, simple and Peychaud’s bitters.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Western, Brian McCullough’s contribution to the event.

McCullough’s standout cocktail, which he called simply The Western, gave Treaty Oak rum a little giddy-up with orgeat, yuzu juice, mint and Angostura bitters. One attendee, having made the rounds, walked up and proclaimed McCullough’s drink the best. That prompted some friendly joshing of the Joshes, Hendrix and Maceachern, who were serving up their drinks from a punchbowl at the next table.

“You’re gonna trust that palate?” countered Hendrix, whose Flashy Slang – a cherry-infused blend of Sailor Jerry spiced rum and citrus, would get support from another attendee, Dallas underground-dinner chef David Anthony Temple.

But it was all in fun anyway, a means to kick off the first of the festival’s five days of workshops, tasting rooms, trainings, dinners, parties and general mayhem.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Dallas crew, clockwise from upper right: Mate Hartai, Brian McCullough and Charlie Moore; Bonnie Wilson, Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan; Josh MacEachern and Josh Hendrix.

“I’ve been coming to this (festival) for years,” said Houston’s Villafranca, a high school counselor who got into craft cocktails when the pioneering bar Anvil opened near her home. “I went in there, and it was like – oh my god. I trust them completely.”

Between the three friends, they’d been able to sample most of the four Texas cities’ creations.

“Houston was great,” Mata said. Then she whispered: “But I’m leaning toward Dallas.”

 

And so it begins: Tales of the Cocktail 2014 kicks off in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Dallas’ Mate Hartai, second from left, and Brian McCullough, second from right, doin’ Texas proud at the Texas Tailgate Party that kicked off Tales of the Cocktail 2013.

NEW ORLEANS — It’s that time again – time to let the good times roll, time to learn about agricole, time to sip some Aperol. You know what I mean: It’s time for Tales of the Cocktail 2014.

The nation’s most ginormous industry event for bartenders, bar owners, spirits makers, liquor reps, enthusiasts and the wretched chroniclers of said shenanigans is upon us for its 12th year in that most perfect of cities, New Orleans.

Oh, New Orleans: You complete me. You are the primordial jambalaya from whose loins sprang the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre’, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz, the insufferable Hurricane.

We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here. That’s not to say there aren’t some great new cocktail bars in NOLA: Cure, Bellocq and Cane and Table have earned much national acclaim.

I’ll hope to visit them if I can find the time. That’s because this five-day festival can be grueling, chock full as it is with workshops, happy hours, competitions, spirit-paired dinners, tastings, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if you aren’t careful – including “whiskey dialogues,” seminars about how to launch a spirits line or about the Chinese spirit baijiu, tips for bartenders charged with making drinks in front of TV cameras and advanced bartender trainings.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The William Grant & Sons party at last year’s Tales conference, complete with the Hendrick’s Gin cannon at right.

This is my third year at Tales and I’ll be bringing you dispatches from the front lines where members of Texas’ bartending community are representing the Lone Star State, many for the first time – including Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Barter’s Stephen Halpin, The Standard Pour’s Christian Armando, Absolut Vodka rep Ashley Williams (formerly behind the bar at Boulevardier) and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, whose victory in a recent Jefferson Bourbon competition earned him the trip here (I was among the contest’s judges). Most of the action will be going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, home to the revolving Carousel Bar.

The festival kicks off with Wednesday morning’s Texas Tiki Throwdown, because obviously nobody knows how to throw a party like Texas, and the ensuing days will feature other Texas bar peeps along the way: Former Dallas luminary Jason Kosmas will wax proud about his popular new line of spirits; Bonnie Wilson – here with her flock of Fork It Over Restaurants staffers – will churn out cocktails for an Anchor Distilling Co. shindig; Austin’s Chris Bostick will compete at Wednesday’s Battle of the Sexes bartender competition. Also, because this is New Orleans, there will be beignets.

I asked a few TOTC veterans to offer tips for festival first-timers and for their can’t-miss destinations while in New Orleans.

BRIAN McCULLOUGH, The Standard Pour – 6th time at Tales

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour in Uptown.

SURVIVAL TIPS: One, eat when you see food. Two, drink when you see water. Three, sleep when you can. And four, you don’t have to finish that.

MUST-DO’S: You’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t go to Frenchman Street.  Café Le Monde, for sure. Port of Call for a cheeseburger. And the alligator cheesecake at Jackamo’s – the tables are all uneven, but the food is absolutely astounding.

BONNIE WILSON, Fork It Over Restaurants (Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar, et al.) — 4th time at Tales

Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)
Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Everything in moderation. You can go down and have things be crazy, or you can go down and have it be a fun educational event. Be moderate about it. Do everything you want to do, but just control yourself.

MUST-DO’S: I always go to Mother’s for the Ferdy’s special. That’s 100 percent a must. They do this stuff called debris. It’s a ham and roast beef sandwich with basically the juices, the pan drippings, all the goodness, spices and fat and everything.

MATE HARTAI, The Cold Standard – 3rd time at Tales

Libertine Bar
Dallas’ Mate Hartai. (Photo by Jason Raney)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Lots of (dehydration preventative) Pedialyte. And cardio.

MUST-DO’S: Get out of the French Quarter. Check out the architecture. I’m from Hungary, and this place reminds me of Europe. I’ve been to New York and San Francisco, all the supposed European cities, and this city makes me more homesick to be in than anywhere else.

BRAD BOWDEN, Barter – 3rd time at Tales

Barter
Brad Bowden, lately of Uptown’s Barter.

SURVIVAL TIP: Nothing good happens after 5 AM.

MUST-DO’S: Mad Hatter. I always try to stop in and get myself a hat. And the Erin Rose – I always go there and get one of those Bailey’s drinks they have there. (Erin Rose is renowned for their frozen Irish Coffee.)

Victor Tango's
High West’s Chris Furtado and Remy Cointreau’s Emily Perkins showing off their skin art at Dallas’ Victor Tango’s.

EMILY PERKINS, Remy Cointreau brand rep, Dallas – 2nd time at Tales

SURVIVAL TIPS: Just let it wash over you. But be responsible. And be careful; it’s easy to forget that New Orleans can be a dangerous place.

MUST-DO’S: Domelise’s, for the po-boy sandwich.

CHRIS FURTADO, Texas rep for Utah’s High West Distillery

SURVIVAL TIPS:

* Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

• Take time to eat. Often.  When dashing from seminar to event to party, sometimes meals fall to the side.  You are doing yourself a disservice both physically and culturally.

• Don’t book yourself solid; leave some time free.  A lot of cool stuff will come up that you didn’t know about.

• Be ready for rain. It’s New Orleans, it’s the summer.  It’s not a question of if but when.

MUST-DO’S:

* The U.S. Bartenders Guild toast at The Old Absinthe House – Thursday at midnight.  There’s something cool about seeing the street packed with bartenders raising their glasses in the air and yelling cheers.

* Have a Lucky Dog. Get a slice of pizza also.  Skip the Hand Grenade (drink) though.

* The Alibi is a great late-night spot.  It’s where local service industry peeps go to unwind.

 

Fasten your seat belts: Airport craft-cocktail bars are taking off

Airport bars
Lounge 5280: Offering traveling craft-cocktail drinkers a first-class upgrade.

I’ve got time to spare, so as I’ve been known to do on lazy afternoons, I’m sitting at a bar having a classic Negroni, and not a bad one at that: This mix of Old Raj gin, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Campari is just the tonic to get me through the rest of my day.

The drink menu is admirable, with two dozen decent cocktails to enjoy on its granite-countertopped bar – including a Sazerac, Pisco Sour, Caipirinha, Pimm’s Cup, Moscow Mule, a Daiquiri laced with Strega and 10 drinks featuring Colorado-based spirits like Leopold’s gin or Stranahan’s whiskey. But here’s where it gets weird: The ceiling is a hundred feet overhead, and in the distance, monitors flash the details of arriving and departing flights. No, it’s not your typical cocktail joint, and it’s in one of the last places you’d look for such a thing – on the upper level of Denver International Airport’s Concourse B.

Lounge 5280 is a traveling cocktail fan’s dream come true, one of the country’s few authentic craft-cocktail bars actually based in an airport. Naturally, the menu features the classic Aviation, while behind the bar spirits like Averna and Nolet’s gin offer promise. There’s even a rotating barrel-aged cocktail. Did I mention this is at an airport? “Nobody makes drinks like we do at the airport,” bartender Jony Castaneda told me during my visit last October. “We’re the only one who muddles and does things like that.”

And yet: Does this not make so much sense? Think about it: You’re finally through security. The car is parked, the shuttle taken, the last-minute worries dealt with: Where did you put your ID? What’s your flight number again? You’ve endured the humorless cattle-herd gauntlet of shoes-off, laptops-out, liquids-gone, everything-out-of-your-pockets mayhem, and if there’s one thing you could use right now, dammit, it’s a decent drink.

But unless you’ve got access to an exclusive club like American Express’ Centurion Lounge, good luck finding one at an airport. “It’s almost the last frontier,” said Jacob Briars, Bacardi Rum’s education director, at a workshop dedicated to the topic at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) conference in New Orleans. (The panelists also listed their top 10 airport bars worldwide: See their list at the end of this post.)

Airport bars
Wherever your final destination might be, Denver’s 5280 is a good place to start. At upper right, a classic Negroni.

Things weren’t always that bad. Back in the days of Pan Am and such, airports and airplanes were posh places to be. The idea of air travel was exciting and glamorous, the relaxing and service-oriented prelude to the destinations that waited. Not everybody could do it: Air travel was linked with affluence and passengers pampered by fashion-model stewardesses. “No wonder people dressed up to fly,” said Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for liquor giant William Grant & Sons USA, at the same workshop. “They were used to that kind of thing on the ground.”

But as airlines and airports tussled for business and as realities of global instability prompted restrictive security measures, that culture gradually devolved.  Getting from one’s car to the boarding gate is now an obstacle course of stress, and concourse options — including liquor — typically hover near lowest common denominator. “Part of the problem is that expectations are so low,” says Dallas’ Chris Furtado, Texas manager for Utah-based High West distillery, recalling his own air-travel experiences. “You just find the least obnoxious thing you can (on the shelf), and that’s what you’re going to order…. It’s a shame, because if there’s ever a time you need a good drink, it’s at the airport.”

Until recently the best you could say about an airport cocktail was, “It was pretty good – for an airport bar.” Last year, when Esquire published a guide on “How To Navigate the Airport Bar,” the magazine offered this instruction: “You’re ordering a beer; maybe a Scotch, neat. Airport bartenders are not mixologists. They’re barely bartenders.” (The magazine also said: “There will be no ordering of poppers, jalapeno or otherwise.” Wise words, indeed.)

Airport bars
What airport bars should strive to be.

But as the taste for craft cocktails grows, spots like Denver’s Lounge 5280 are flying in the face of such perceptions. Not so much yet in Texas, where Bloody Marys, mimosas, sweet-and-sour-mix Margarita variations and fruity vodka concoctions are still the rule. (And demand for those pales next to mixed drinks like rum-and-cokes or plain old brew. “Beer is still the mother lode,” says spokeswoman Cynthia Vega of Dallas-Fort Worth International.)

This fall, however, will bring the opening of Wild Bleu Martini Bar at DFW’s revamped Terminal A, while last year, both DFW and Love Field welcomed Stephan Pyles’ Sky Canyon, a restaurant whose cocktail list is at least a baby step in the right direction. “People are sophisticated about their drinking now,” Sky Canyon bartender Jeff Landesberg told me as he built a drink with bourbon, Dr. Pepper and Benedictine, a honey-flavored liqueur. “You have to carry a lot more (stock) than you did before – like Benedictine.”

In choosing Wild Bleu, DFW’s Vega says, airport officials specifically eyed a cocktail bar, and while it remains to be seen whether the site will lean classic or cheesy, it does seem to signal that concessions directors have evolving tastes on their radars. “This is just the beginning of our efforts to offer a whole new category of drinks for our passengers,” said Zenola Campbell, the airport’s vice president for concessions.

Bassam Odeh, Wild Bleu’s co-owner, says the restaurant/bar will feature Mediterranean food to soak up its mixologist-designed martini selection. His business partner is former NFL player Ray Mickens; the two run other airport fast-food mainstays like Qdoba. When they told a few NFL wives about the martini lounge idea, Odeh said, “they were so excited. They said, `It’s about time someone opened an elegant bar in the airport.’ ”

Lounge 5280, Denver
5280’s Blackberry Mojito, featuring Leopold’s Blackberry liqueur.

So while American airport bars have a long way to go to rival places like Sweden’s Casa Bacardi, London-Heathrow’s Grey Goose Loft or the iconic Jet’s Bar in Belize, things are starting to take off.  It might be too early to envision fresh-squeezed juices at DFW airports, but there’s light at the end of the runway.

“There’s just this recognition,” says DFW’s Vega, “that people value their time in the airport.”

 

*

TOP 10 AIRPORT BARS IN THE WORLD

Not every airport bar can be St. Maarten’s Island’s Sunset Bar & Grill., where topless women drink for free. And to be fair, the bar isn’t actually at Princess Juliana International Airport but on a white-sand beach at the end of the runway with landing jets passing just overhead.

But there’s no question that the quality of airport-based bars is on the rise. At last year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, dressed-for-the-part panelists Jacob Briars, education director for Bacardi Rum, Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for William Grant & Sons USA, and Doug Draper, director of adult beverage and bar development for HMS Host, concluded their seminar on airport bars with a list of their Top 10 airport craft-cocktail bars worldwide.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Properly uniformed liquor ambassadors Jacob Briars and Charlotte Voisey at last year’s national cocktail conference session on airport bars.

10. Buena Vista Cafe, SFO – at San Francisco International’s Terminal 3, “where you can get the one drink San Francisco is justifiably famous for,” Briars said, referring to the Irish Coffee.

9. Café Rembrandt, AMS – another reason to fly to Amsterdam.

8. Tortas Frontera, ORD – Rick Bayless’ Chicago restaurant has three outlets at O’Hare International Airport, featuring what the panelists called “an extraordinary selection of mescal.”

7. Little Ludlow, MEL – At Melbourne’s International Terminal, with a view of airplanes on the tarmac. “It’s quite comforting,” Briars said. “There’s a sense of motion. There’s (also) a weird mix of espresso martinis and classic cocktails.”

6. Blanco, PHX – at Terminal 4 of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. A local chain whose great Mexican food is supplemented with a terrific tequila selection.

5. 5280 Lounge, DEN – The panelists praised 5280 for ambience and its natural skylight.

Airport bars
Denver’s Lounge 5280.

4. Center Bar, ZRH – Another bar with a tarmac view, this beautifully designed bar in Zurich, Switzerland, features a standout whiskey selection.

3. Eyecon, CPH – In addition to cocktails featuring Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway-flavored spirit, Copenhagen’s cocktail gem also offers Scandinavian small bites.

2. Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, LHR – it’s a little unfair to include this on the list since it’s only open to Virgin business-class passengers or other premium card holders, “but to me, it’s the best airport bar in world,” Briars said. “They have an amazing staff, and fresh ingredients.”

1. One Flew South, ATL – the top spot is an oasis among Atlanta’s sprawling dump of an airport, the panelists said: With a modest and well-executed cocktail menu leaning toward brown spirits, “it’s actually a reason to go to Atlanta,” they said.

 

At TOTC’s national bar battle, Dallas’ Bar Smyth showed it could pack a good punch (and a few good cocktails besides)

At Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The Bar Smyth crew — sharing space with Chicago’s Barrel House Flat — was one of eight bars facing off against a deluge of humanity.

You can’t say Dallas’ Bar Smyth didn’t try. Did any of the other half-dozen establishments facing off at Tales of the Cocktail’s Bare-Knuckle Bar Fight sport a derby-hatted fire eater?  Could any of them claim to wield as original a punch as mobile cocktail service poured out of a backpack keg?

That was Bar Smyth, going big and gloves-off in its debut at the nation’s largest cocktail conference in New Orleans. Friday night’s annual showdown-slash-party pitted bar crew against bar crew for yearlong bragging rights, measuring bars on the quality of their beverages, sense of atmosphere and ability to churn out cocktails for the great, buzzing tides of humanity thirsting for drink. It was a madhouse. It was supposed to be.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Smyth’s record-album covers evoked the Dallas speakeasy’s 70’s-esque decor, part of the judging criteria.

The chaotic hordes began forming outside the Jackson Brewery’s microscopic entryway well ahead of the event’s 10 p.m. start time and before long resembled a ravenous weasel trying to poke its nose into some tiny field mouse’s hiding hole. Once inside, the senses were dazzled by a raging tumult, tables piled with pasta trays, a spunky rockabilly band and monitors spilling footage of Muhammad Ali.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The event was sponsored by The 86 Co., a new spirit line that includes Tequila Cabeza.
Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The drink lineup from New York City’s The Daily included a chamomile Negroni and a watermelon-shiso Collins.

But people were here for the drinks, and of those there was plenty: Eight bars in all, plucked from around the country by The 86 Co., the just-launched spirit line that sponsored this year’s event. The company’s aim was to showcase notable up-and-coming bars rather than the established stalwarts of years past: There was Miami’s Broken Shaker, with its Santeria vibe and a killer banana-mint daiquiri; Queens’ Sweet Leaf with its Jose Camel, a tequila-mezcal pachanga laced with coffee liqueur and Punt e Mes; the two were my favorite sips of the night.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The atmosphere at Miami’s Broken Shaker recalled a botanica store.

Los Angeles’ Old Lightning threw down with a mezcal Negroni. New York City’s The Daily had a popcorn machine and an air of uniformed aplomb amid the fray. Chicago’s Barrel House Flat poured shots from a bottle labeled “Encyclopedia Brown” – a tantalizing formula of Rittenhouse Rye, Punt e Mes, Amaro Montenegro, Cynar, Angostura bitters and salt.

I failed to find San Diego’s Polite Provisions in the maelstrom, but Boston’s Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar was remarkably hospitable considering its three-deep crowd and the fact that it was bartender Sabrina Kershaw’s birthday; the bar’s red-velvety Negroni variation, called The New Black, was as delicious as it was alluring.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Sweet Leaf, of Queens, served up one of my favorite drinks of the night, with tequila, mezcal and coffee liqueur.

Dallas’ Bar Smyth made the most of its prime real estate on the brewery’s second floor. Smyth barmen Mike Martensen, Omar Yeefoon, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and, inexplicably, Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough slung drinks as fast as they could muster. The crew donned Lone Star aprons, and bar host Ryan Sumner stirred up the crowd, occasionally from atop the bar counter – whooping and hollering, ringing a bell, kick-starting choruses of “Deep In The Heart of Texas.”

And despite a superior Cuba Libre anchoring its drink lineup, it was what Smyth had conjured beyond the bar that set it apart: Bar-back Charlie Ferrin blazed a trail through the darkness, wowing anyone within eyeshot with his fire-eating prowess. (“You only see the bartender side of me,” the longtime circus performer explained.) And bartender Mate Hartai waded through the crowd with a handmade backpack keg and a Texas-stamped helmet, pouring shots of Smyth’s Mexican Monk, a habanero-watermelon spin on a Tom Collins.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Smyth’s Mate Hartai poured drinks from his handmade backpack keg.
Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Hartai’s boozy contraption.

Texas represented well: There was Austin star barman Bill Norris; The 86 Co.’s Jason Kosmas, the bartender extraordinaire recently relocated to Austin from Dallas; Emily Perkins of Dallas’ Victor Tango; Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas; Kevin Gray of CocktailEnthusiast.com and Hypeworthy’s Nico Martini.

When it was all over, Boston’s Public House had taken People’s Choice honors, no doubt aided by its giveaway signature cozies and fans (brilliant in light of the unspeakable humidity) and a machine dispensing frozen Julep Slushies. Then it was time for the judges’ decision: “We got to try drinks tonight from some of the best bars in the world,” one of them announced. “Those of you who tend bar know what it takes. Not just cocktail creativity, but teamwork, speed and execution. We know what it takes to make people happy not just this one night, but every night of the year.” And with that it was declared that The Daily of New York City had taken top prize.

Ah, Dallas. There’s always next year.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Lone Star pride: Smyth’s Ryan Sumner works up the crowd.
Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The fired-up champion bartenders of New York’s The Daily.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013: It’s not just gin cannons. But whoa: Gin cannons!

At the William Grant and Sons party, Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Yup, that’s a gin cannon.

As the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail conference winds to a close, we’ve learned about airport bars and the Prohibition-Era invasion of Cuba by American bartenders, slogged our way through cocktail competitions and witnessed elaborate fetes featuring fancy hats, gin cannons and a band suspended in midair.

Dallas bartenders have done us proud, too: Bar Smyth’s Omar Yeefoon took the title of “Stoli’s Most Original Bartender” at the UrbanDaddy-sponsored cocktail contest of the same name, throwing down an unlikely combo of Stoli Salted Karamel vodka, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and Prosecco. “I was thinking, this would never make a good cocktail,” Yeefoon said. But apparently it did, giving him the edge over four other bartenders from around the country.

William Grant and Sons party, TOTC 2013
The Wednesday night scene inside New Orleans’ newly revamped Civic Theater.

Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas represented DFW at Anchor Distilling’s 21-Cocktail Salute competition, where drink-makers each had to fire up an original shot, punch and cocktail. Her tangy Fire and Brimstone shot featured Hirsch small-batch bourbon, lime, honey syrup and Cholula hot sauce; the winner of that contest won’t be known until well after the conference wraps up this weekend.

But hey. The Hendrick’s Gin cannon.  The sight was part of the annual packed-to-the-gills William Grant and Sons party, held this year at New Orleans’ beautifully revamped Civic Theatre. It had to be seen to be believed, and let’s just you had to get your kisser up close to avoid having your entire upper torso drenched in alcohol, unless you were looking to cool off, in which case you would have been faulted by no one.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas dishes up drinks at the 21-Cocktail Salute competition.