Thirsty in NOLA: Tales of the Cocktail 2011

The last time I was in New Orleans, it was many years before Katrina, when my girlfriend and I stayed at her best friend’s house in the Garden District and we spent two weeks eating and drinking our way through the Big Easy. Now, after far too long a gap between visits, I’m heading back to New Orleans to join thousands of other attendees at Tales of the Cocktail 2011!

Jackie Patterson at MCC

Jackie Patterson has some good advice for first timers like yours truly.

This will be my first time at the annual festival, which gathers top bartenders, spirits brands, cocktail enthusiasts, and sturdy livers from around the world for several days of education, networking, culture, and oh-by-the-way drinking. The massive schedule of events, combined with all the things that New Orleans has to offer, is pretty overwhelming to a Tales newbie like myself. Thankfully, there’s plenty of online advice from the well-organized Tales crew, as well as helpful posts such as A First Timer’s Guide to Tales (fave tip, from Lillet and Solerno Ambassador Jackie Patterson: “Pace yourself, and remember what happens at Tales stays on Facebook forever”); Chuck Taggart’s fourth annual Tales dining guide (which goes to eleven); and Miss Charming’s amazing Guide to Eating & Drinking Well in New Orleans.

Prior commitments prevent me from arriving until late Wednesday night, so I’ll essentially be missing the first day of Tales. Fortunately, I’ve made up for that by packing my schedule for the rest of the week with more seminars and events than any one person should be able to attend.

Caña Rum Society Glasses

"Three Rums I Will Most Likely Taste Again" doesn't sound quite as exciting as Ed Hamilton's seminar.

Here’s a sampling of what I’ll be checking out this week:

My first-ever day at Tales begins with a seminar called 6 Rums You’ll Probably Never Taste Again, moderated by Ed Hamilton (Ministry of Rum). Hamilton leveraged his status as one of the world’s foremost experts on sugar cane spirits to procure beyond-rare samples from distilleries in Venezuela, Tennessee, Panama, Martinique, Guatemala and Nicaragua. How rare are these rums? According to the Tales program, “Most of these rums have never been bottled, much less sold or made available to the public. These are those special rums savored by the distillers to be shared with special guests on special occasions.” (And some lucky ticket holders!)

Hidetsugu Ueno - TOTC

Hidetsugu Ueno | Photo: TOTC

After that sublime morning seminar, there’s a special mid-day event that promises to be just as enlightening: Non-stop to Tokyo, featuring the legendary Japanese bartender Hidetsugu Ueno, master of the “hard shake” and the owner of Bar High Five in the Ginza. The intimate hour-long sessions were among the first Tales events to sell out, and with a description like this, it’s no wonder:

“Reserve a seat on Suntory Air flight #1923, non-stop from Downtown New Orleans to Ginza and hop on the Tokyo Metro bullet train to the legendary Bar High Five…Once adjusted to Japan-time, we will escort you to the bar where you will be cared for by master Hidetsugu Ueno, one of the most respected barmen in Tokyo. This an experience that very few outside of Tokyo can ever hope to have and a drink that is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable of your life.”

The global cocktail journey continues with the Diageo Happy Hour, featuring cocktails from each of the continents created by 40 of the world’s most acclaimed mixologists. The event will feature a mix of classic and contemporary gin, tequila, whisk(e)y, vodka and rum cocktails.

Then it’s time for a sold out Spirited Dinner at GW Fins , an event I’ve been excited about ever since I first heard about it. Left Coast vs. East Coast Libations is the brainchild of Ted Munat (author of Left Coast Libations) with support from Lush Life Productions. The battle of the cocktail coasts features two half-sized cocktails paired with each dinner course, with one cocktail created by a top West Coast bartender and one from the East Coast.

Following is the GW Fins Spirited Dinner menu, including the paired cocktails:

Crudo Trio

  • Jackie Patterson – Lillet Blanc, compressed heirloom melon ball wrapped in prosciutto and spicy arugula
  • Anu Apte – Lillet, Gran Classico, Angostura Orange, Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon

First Course
Wood Grilled Octopus – Grapefruit, fennel, avocado

  • Richard Boccato – Water Lily: lemon juice, creme de violette, Cointreau, Hendrick’s Gin
  • Jon Santer – Negroni: Hendrick’s Gin, Gran Classico, Dolin Rouge

Second Course
Spicy Vietnamese Glazed Pork Belly – Jicama relish, Cilantro coulis

  • Jason Littrell – Behind God’s Back: sugar cane syrup, cinnamon syrup, orgeat, Pineapple Juice, lime juice, Chairman’s Reserve Rum
  • Dave Shenaut – Put a Bird on It: Chairman’s Reserve Rum, Punt e Mes, Rancho de Philo Tripple Creme Sherry, lemon juice, Fentimans tonic, Regan’s Orange bitters

Third Course
Sumac Crusted Grouper – Melted heirloom tomato, Kalamata olives, pesto gnocchi

  • Marcos Tello – Green Dragon Tea: Bols Genever, Maraschino, Green Chartreuse, Lustau Amontillado Sherry, lemon juice, carbonated green tea
  • John Lermayer: Bols Genever

Fourth Course
Warm Roasted Pineapple
Coconut sorbet

  • Keith Waldbauer – Oaxacan Flip:Brown Butter infused Fendencio Mezcal, Benedictine, Grilled Pineapple Gomme syrup, lemon juice, Bitterman’s Mole Bitters, Whole Egg
  • Don Lee – Cocktail sprayed into the air

Rumor has it there will be PowerPoint presentations, puppets, costumes and skits. Some parting words by Munat, from the dinner invite: “One day, you will tell your grandchildren about this event. Your children will at some point intervene and take the grandchildren away while glaring their disapproval at you. You will chuckle as you revel in the simple truth that it is very, very good to be insane.”

Naomi Schimek

Naomi Schimek

After a full day of seminars, Friday night comes on strong with back-to-back competitions that feature Los Angeles in the mix. First up is the USBG Bacardi Piña Colada Competition, hosted by Dan “The Imbiber” Dunn. Eighteen competitors from USBG chapters across the country will face off with their original Bacardi Piña Colada recipes. Cocktails will be reviewed by an esteemed panel of judges who will select one “judges’ choice” champion, while attendees will vote for the “people’s choice” winner. Naomi Schimek of The Spare Room will represent the LA chapter with her Havana Au Go Go.

Then it’s time for the Bar Room Brawl, in which teams from around the country will recreate the design of their respective bars and serve original cocktails using Grand Marnier, Hennessy, Belvedere Vodka and 10 Cane Rum. Judges will crown one team as the Bar Room Brawl Champions of the World, and attendees will name the People’s Champion. Last year, The Varnish won the People’s Choice Award (see Savory Hunter’s recap). This year, the LA bar baton has been passed to the Roger Room team of Damian Windsor, Jason Bran and Eric Tecosky.

Tales of the Cocktail culminates with the 5th Annual Spirited Award Ceremony, featuring a 1920s Atlantic City theme and Boardwalk Empire attire, big band music and a plethora of libations. Among this year’s Spirited Award nominees are The Varnish (Best American Cocktail Bar) and Varnish co-owner Eric Alperin (American Bartender of the Year).

There’s a minute or so after the Spirited Awards to catch your breath (and hopefully do a quick costume change) before heading to the Plymouth Gin Bartenders Breakfast, which Simon Ford and Audrey Saunders started five years ago as an homage to the bartender way of life. Now it’s known as the “official unofficial wrap party” for Tales, featuring live music by Space Capone, DJ Gruners, “incredible cocktails from some of the finest in the business, Pink Gins poured through ice and, of course, some bacon and eggs.”

*WHEW* I’m exhausted looking at that list, and that’s only a few of the events I’ve signed up for! Not shown are more seminars, tasting rooms, meetings, tweetups and various gatherings like Steve Livigni’s birthday party. Thankfully, the LA contingent has Aidan Demarest, acting in his annual role as the unofficial den mother / cat herder, making sure everyone is accounted for and where they’re supposed to be.

You can follow my Tales of the Cocktail adventures via my Twitter feed and Facebook page. For the bigger picture of what’s happening on the ground from several Tales veterans, check out the links from Darcy O’Neil at Art of Drink.


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  1. Dave Stolte on July 19, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Kickass, Daniel! Sounds like a Life Experience. Enjoy every second!

  2. thirstyinla on July 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Thanks Dave! I’ll do my best to document it, but something tells me I’ll only be able to scratch the surface. 🙂

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  4. Sarah Jean on July 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Just got back from my first visit to Tales too, amazing how many great events were going on this past week! I got given two great tips on the first day (however i neglected to do them until day 3 and regretted it!) First tip was ‘Never finish a drink’, because they give out so many free drinks, tastings etc its apparently a ‘rookie mistake’ to finish them because you’ll get wasted and won’t be able to keep going and enjoy all there is on offer. The second tip was ‘Take naps’,Like you I had seminars, Tastings, Dinners, Nights out, etc but because there’s no ‘recovery time’ between the 9am Kahlua coffee mornings to crawling back from Absinthe house at 5am daily its good to take an hour out in middle of each day to nap before the next big event. Little late to tell you now but hope you had a great trip, I certainly did… although definitely glad to be back in LA 🙂

  5. thirstyinla on July 25, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks Sarah! I knew the “never finish a drink” tip but every now and then it slipped my mind. 😉 I tried to catch a nap here and there but I’d packed my schedule so tightly there wasn’t room to breathe. And then I would run into friends, and even if I did have a minute I got caught up in wherever they were going. Or else I was just flat-out kidnapped. 🙂 Stay tuned for recaps, hopefully my pics will be enough to fill in a few blanks.