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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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Barrels of fun: Campari competition shows tasty things come to those who wait

Mike Steele, Industry Alley
At Industry Alley, Mike Steele’s barrel-aged Sir Reginald, among the competition’s nine entries.

More than a month has passed since Dallas’ last two cocktail competitions, both coincidentally arranged for the same day in June. While a few ingredients may have been pre-prepared a day or three ahead, the bartenders at both the “Disaronno Mixing Star” contest (won by Smoke’s Mandy Meggs) and the subsequent Pisco Mercenaries’ “Pisco Punch Duel” (won by Rapscallion’s Andres Zevallos) pretty much shook or stirred their cocktails up in real time.

Last week, though, brought a different sort of beverage bout, one that deliciously demonstrated how patience and ingenuity can create liquid gold. The Campari Barrel-Aged Cocktail Competition, organized by local rep Chase Streitz, showed how barrel-aging smooths out liquor’s hard edges while adding beautiful depths of flavor; mixtures are conceived and left to age for weeks in a barrel, the wooden cocoon from which will hopefully emerge a beautiful butterfly of a drink.

Robbie Call, Madrina
At Madrina, Robbie Call pours his beer-enhanced Frenchie cocktail, the base of which was barrel-aged.

The rules were this: Contestants had up to six weeks to age their cocktail in a 5-liter barrel. Each was to be built on a base of Bulldog gin, a London Dry-style spirit featuring several influences not typically seen in gins – lotus leaf, poppy and the lychee-like dragon eye fruit. The final presentation could include no more than seven ingredients, one of which had to be the Italian bitter liqueur Campari or one of its products.

In all, nine bartenders fielded entries. Some concoctions had entered the barrel fully assembled and then reappeared, transformed; others, like Robbie Call’s Frenchie, went into the barrel in partial form and were enhanced with other ingredients before serving.

Call, the bar manager at Madrina, poured out his bright barrel-aged mix of gin, Aperol and herbal-sweet Dolin Genepy and shook it with lemon, simple and egg white; that was then strained into a half-glass of Duvel beer.

The result craftily utilized the egg white, which sat atop the cocktail and gave it the appearance of a frothy summer ale. “It makes a great foam,” said visiting judge Amanda Olig, of Denver’s Meadowlark Kitchen. “It looks like the head on a beer.”

Peter Novotny, Armoury D.E.
Novotny’s Sancho cocktail, at Armoury D.E.

Another notable was Peter Novotny’s Sancho, a play on the classic Martinez and a recent addition to the specials board at Deep Ellum’s Armoury. Featuring gin, orange bitters, roasted-black-pepper-infused cherry liqueur and dry vermouth infused with the cherry-vanilla influence of tonka beans, its unaged version was pleasantly sweet and worth drinking on its own. (One judge, in fact, preferred it over the aged one.)

The barrel-aged drink was boozy and winter-ready, illustrating how the process can take a drink from sunny-weather refresher to winter warmer.

All of the entries evidenced the undeniable influence of wood. These were vigorous barrels. “You’re not going to get rid of the taste of the wood,” said Dee Sweis, who tends bar at The People’s Last Stand. “That’s the whole point of barrel-aging.”

A few bartenders got a rein on those woodsy depths by pre-treating their barrels: For his Churchill Negroni, Michael Reith of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen in Knox-Henderson poured sweet Spanish sherry into his barrel and rotated it daily for a week before replacing it with his classic Negroni combination of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.

Michael Reith, Sissy's Southern Kitchen
Reith rotated his barrel for a week with sweet sherry before setting his Negroni to age.

But Reith also elaborately pre-spiced his gin with goodies including clove, coriander, star anise and dried fruits, his overall goal being to evoke sherry and tobacco, two of Winston Churchill’s favorite ingredients. “Rather than actually using tobacco, I wanted to hit those notes,” he said.

The result was luscious and beautiful, and it took second in the judging. Parliament’s Drew Garison took third with his Summer in SoHo, a mix of pear and white-peppercorn-infused gin, apricot liqueur, Aperol and lavender bitters.

On the top prize, though, we all agreed on an unlikely source: Renfield’s Corner, the high-volume party den in Uptown where Rogher Jeri’s sultry Bulldog and Zen, playing off the gin’s Eastern and Western influences, was all at once thoughtfully presented, bold and well-conceived. He combined the spirit with dry vermouth, a touch of ginger liqueur and herbal Yellow Chartreuse, and a vinegary lemon-lavender shrub. Halfway through the aging process, he added a jalapeño oleo saccharum, a classic sugar oil typically extracted from citrus.

What made Jeri’s effort so intriguing is that in unaged form, there was nothing special about the drink. It was both blond and bland, a little cloudy in appearance, an ugly duckling loosed into the world. But it returned a swan: Tart and nicely balanced, with a handsome amber hue and a just-right singe of jalapeno, which can often be overdone. It was a startling metamorphosis.

Rogher Jeri, Renfield's Corner
Jeri’s remarkable Bulldog and Zen.

“It’s like a wasabi burn,” said judge Austin Millspaugh, local rep for liquor distributor Frederick Wildman and Sons, as he sipped. “It clears your nose and then dies off.”

“It travels through your palate and, just as it starts to heat up, it sweetens,” Streitz added.

To top it off, Jeri gave a nod to the gin’s signature ingredients by garnishing the drink with a lavender stem and a lotus flower sculpted from a jalapeno. It was exquisite. Or as judge Pezhmon Sabet, secretary of the the U.S. Bartender’s Guild’s North Texas chapter, said: “That’s a badass drink.”

Was it Churchill who said good things come to those who wait?