The aerial contortionists perform splits in the air, as a drag mother, bedazzled in jewels, serenades the crowd over the frenetic sounds of a talented violinist. In one hand, you have a delicious Montenegro-based craft cocktail, and in the other, a sample of gin that your new best friend, Phillip, has handed to you. You’ve only known him for half an hour, but with the help of several free social lubricants, both of you have swapped enough stories that you know him better than your cubicle-mate Joe (or at least that’s what you think his name is) that you sit next to for a full 8+ hours a day, 5 days a week.
This is Tails of the Cocktail 2018.
We attended our first ever ToTC this year as credentialed media. Did it surpass our already-high expectations? Wildly.
There are enough events going on during the four days that it is almost impossible to visit them all. Events span from powerpoint-based lectures held by industry titans, brunches with complimentary food and (of course) libations, several competing raucous pool-side parties held across the city of New Orleans overflowing with champagne and tiki drinks, cafes reappropriated as brand houses of Campari and Martini-Rosso helmed by bartenders of world-famous bars serving their creations using the latest offering, and tasting halls featuring craft spirits looking to break into the cocktail world. Oh and there’s enough swag (including booze samples) to fill a suitcase on its own.
We spent our days from 10 am to 1-2 am, running from even to event. Even then, we couldn’t get around to all of them. The highlights of our agenda were the following, in no particular order:
Montenegro Pre-Prohibition Disco
There are drag queens. There are tarot card readings. There’s a bearded lady who will reach into her bosom and pull out little bottles of Montenegro. And there are bartenders stationed at the ready to serve you delicious cocktails. This is (probably) the best party at Tales of the Cocktail. Try to get on the invitation list. Sidenote: there was a vodka-sponsored party at the same time that night; someone who went recommended against going - it was reportedly more crowded than a Japanese train.
Caffe Torino (Martini & Rossi): B.O.V. Negroni and Interview with Roberta Mariani
It might have been an accident, but Martini Rosso rented the space across from the Campari-rented lounge for a day to advertise their newest Riserva Speciale Bitter, which was clearly formulated to compete with Campari. On second thought, it wasn’t an accident. Although both spots were stunning, Martini Rosso’s Caffe Torino had a few advantages over the Campari-run house: 1) it was less crowded and 2) the drinks were better. We ended up having the B.O.V. negroni, which was one of the best negronis that Michael had ever had. Moreover, we were able to snag some time with Roberta Mariani, renowned Italian mixologist who started Bar Termini in the UK (and is now the full-time brand ambassador), to do a private tasting (separate write-up coming soon).
WhistlePig House: Dave Pickerell and Daniel Kahn
Every year, WhistlePig rents out an entire house at Tales as its homebase. Usually, it’s one with a pool but the rated-R antics of drunken bartenders that wander onto the property - usually found in various states of undress around the pool in the morning - may have dissuaded WhistlePig from renting the same house. Wherever it is next year, it is highly recommended you visit. Daniel Kahn (WhistlePig’s first employee, now leading its global expansion) is engaging and welcoming - and if you get a chance to speak to Dave Pickerell, he is a force of nature (see out interview here). When we went, there was not only a whisky fountain, but a pile of Cafe du Monde’s famous beinents, croissants, cocktails containing cold brew coffee and a healthy dose of WhistlePig, and even WhistlePig’s pricy Boss Hog to sample. Go for the coffee and go for the whisky. They’ll even send you off with parting gifts: mini bottles of WhistlePig to stash in your check-in luggage.
Russell’s Reserve House at Sylvain
The Russells are much-beloved in the industry: a three-generation clan of down-to-earth bourbon leaders that make it a priority to attend and host events. Wild Turkey hosted a small gathering at the Sylvain, a well-known famous New Orleans restaurant, featuring choices of cocktails at the front, and Eddie Russell and son Bruce Russell at the back, offering tastes of their new premium releases.
Seminars and Tastings
We stopped by an invited seminar on sherry in cocktails, where we were taught the major differences in minerality and production processes for sherry and given food pairing suggestions. After learning more about the flor yeast in fino sherry and the bready taste it lends sherry (compared to non-flor sweeter and less pungent sherries, such as oloroso and el cartado), we were converted to fino sherry fans. Tastings run throughout the days at different venues, but hats off to the selection committee: many of the smaller spirits brands were excellent. A couple of my favorites: Amargo de Chili (CH Dogma) - a mole-inspired amaro, 291 Rye - a dangerously drinkable Colorado rye, Gra’it Grappa - a blended grappa designed for cocktail bases, and Uncle Nearest - a spicy but sweet finishing rye.
We survived - and we cannot wait for the next Tales! Next year, we’re planning to more interviews (our favorite part of ToTC), make more friends (and bring enough business cards), and pace ourselves. The last part is difficult: at every turn, we were offered cocktails. On the way out the hotel? There’s a “Grab and Geuax” window with libations-to-go. In the hotel lobby? There’s the world-famous Carousel bar (where the Vieux Carre was invented) and a Corner Bar with rotating cocktails, based on the sponsor-of-the-hour. But we managed, and I’m glad of that. The only question now is whether we’re going to Tales on Tour or the staple New Orleans-based Tales… or both!
Bonus Slideshow of Additional Tales of the Cocktail 2018 Highlights