TALES from TALES – Highlights at Tales of the Cocktail 2010

Elms Mansion Opening Party

In 100% humidity at 100 degrees (with no relief at night), spending a week drinking and eating doesn’t sound like the best idea, but for eight years running, it happens every July in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail. For cocktail lovers and industry, this is THE drink event of the year (yes, I was at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic – no comparison in my book).

My first, or virgin, year at Tales, was as sleepless and packed as everyone said it would be, but moderation is the name of my game (at least outside of sleep). I managed to indulge without so much as one hangover from anything other than sleep deprivation.

At the scotch bar inside Elms Mansion

Of course, it meant merely tasting most drinks, eating a lot (NO problem in New Orleans!) and promptly turning around upon surveying 3am crowds at Old Absinthe House, instead heading to quieter bars or the Monteleone lobby for civilized conversation.

I already feel completely alive in my skin when I’m in New Orleans. Any reason to be in that queen of cities is a good reason for me. Tales itself grew progressively better as the week went on, despite awful heat and waning sleep… mainly because I continued to meet great people which led to further excursions, tastings, dinners, parties, and as the cumulative effect added up to a host of memories and experiences.  Let me try to summarize a mere few highlights for you:

7/25 The Mysteries & Secrets of Distilling in Cognac

Dale DeGroff pouring the remarkable 1865 cognac

Cognac masters, Olivier Paultes and Alain Royer, moderator Dale DeGroff, and spirited bartender extraordinaire, Salvatore Calabrese, were keepers of the surprise that awaited at the end of a fascinating, seemingly routine seminar on the methods of distilling cognac, along with a token five cognac, side-by-side tasting.

1865 Cognac label

The seminar suddenly escalated to once-in-a-lifetime experience when Calabrese informed our small group that he brought not only a bottle of 1865 Rouyer Guillet & Co. cognac to share together, but also an 1805 Maison De L’Emprereur cognac he was going to make a Sazerac with!

Salvatore Calabrese mixing the ultimate Sazerac

The room erupted in applause as we stood on chairs to take photos and watch him mix what he called a “$10,000 cocktail”. We passed the Sazerac around, each savoring a profound sip.

We all had a pour of the silky 1865. I exhaled and placed my head down on the table after first taste. It was remarkably full, refined with raisin and floral notes initially, a finely balanced burn, evolving into chocolate and nutty notes. I could only begin to fathom the history wrapped up in each sip. As Calabrese exclaimed, “This was made when Abraham Lincoln was alive!”

Worth far more than the $40 price of admission, the lucky few who happened to be in this seminar got an education beyond what we could have ever expected. We lived a moment that, for drink lovers, will remain a marker of earth-shattering tastes for the rest of our lives.

GREEN GORILLAS DESCENDING on the PELICAN CLUB – 7/22 at The Pelican Club Spirited Dinner

Green gorillas walk up to a bar…

Thursday night there were Spirited Dinners across town. I chose the one at Pelican Club mainly because of the all-star line-up of bartenders from across the country pairing cocktails with a six-course dinner: Marcos Tello – The Varnish, LA; Jim Meehan – PDT, NY; Misty Kalkofen – Drink, Boston; Peter Vestinos – Wirtz Beverage Group, Chicago; and our own rockstar, Neyah White, formerly of Nopa.

The food was not as fine as I’d hoped, but the atmosphere was convivial, festive, a warmly welcoming party. The cocktails all featured the night’s spirit: Bols Genever.

Under magnificent oaks at Elms Mansion

Neyah clearly had fun creating the dessert cocktail, Drum Shag: Bols, sarsaparilla, PX sherry, infused with smoke.

But the highlight of the night? A foursome of green gorillas descended on the bar during aperitif hour before we were seated at our tables. I’d seen them at the pool of the Monteleone before, or roaming the streets, surely hot and sweaty in their cheap, neon green garb. The site of these guys at the elegant Pelican bar while some of our country’s best bartenders poured them shots was a memorable image, one that somehow typifies the wacky exuberance that is Tales.

DEL MAGUEY’s RON COOPER – 7/25 La Verdad (The Truth) About Mezcal Seminar

Mezcal spread at mezcal seminar

Everyone who knows anything about mezcal knows Ron Cooper of Del Maguey is the master, having done more to further the mezcal gospel than anyone, even being called the “mezcal missionary“. As my friend whispered to me during the seminar, describing the panel of mezcal distillers: “They’ve all drunk the kool-aid, haven’t they?” Despite the fact that I’ve already been a mezcal fan for a few years, so did I… so did we all… by the end of the session.

Ron Cooper chats w/ an attendee

I’m must be honest: much as I appreciated every distiller there (Illegal Mezcal, Los Amantes, and Sombra), as has been my common experience in previously tasting these and other mezcals, none are in the same league as Ron’s entire product line. This was highlighted in a side-by-side tasting of all the above next to five Del Maguey mezcals. But all these guys were heartfelt and inspiring, while Ron himself is a small, peace-filled  powerhouse of a man… the Yoda of the mezcal world.

Every single Del Maguey mezcal is a revelation, whether the creamy, smoky sweet of Crema de Mezcal, or the chocolate earthiness of other-worldly Chichicapa. More to come soon here and in my Guardian column about his mezcals. Thanks to Neyah White, who created this menu, try Del Maguey by the shot at Nopalito, in cocktails throughout SF, or order some bottles. Once you dig further into mezcal, particularly through the Del Maguey lens, you, too, will “drink the kool-aid”.

SOUTHERN ROMANCE of DIXIELAND JAZZ under SWEEPING OAKS -7/22 William Grant & Sons Opening Party at Elms Mansion in the Garden District

Magic at Elms Mansion w/ jazz under rotunda

Yes, by 1am it felt like it was actually getting hotter as I wilted in the oppressive humidity, but what could have been more romantic than the stately, white Elms Mansion with stunning wood carved fireplaces and ceilings, drawing room scotch bar, white lights and absinthe in the garden, and live Dixieland band playing under a white-pillared rotunda? Not much. As massive oak trees loomed over us, even larger than the mansion, I felt fully alive and grateful… I was in the South.

A SUDDEN DOWNPOUR entering the BARTENDER’S BREAKFAST- 7/24 Bartender’s Breakfast & Spirited Awards After Party

Balcony at Bartender’s Breakfast

A second line jazz funeral was held for Sex on the Beach, a cocktail that surely needed to die, on the walk from the Spirited Awards Ceremony to the Bartender’s Breakfast, where the likes of Audrey Saunders and Jim Meehan were making us drinks. Before entering the building, a sultry Summer storm rushed through, dampening our dresses, suits and hair. A warm rain, it wasn’t exactly a respite from the unrelenting heat, but it somehow refreshed, invigorated, injecting us with energy to celebrate late into the night.