As a first-timer at Tales of the Cocktail, the five-day cocktail and culinary event in New Orleans, one can easily be overwhelmed by the cacophony of all things cocktail—the shaking and sipping; the chink of ice in the glasses, the smacking of lips, the endless laughter and applause; the range of flavors—some explosive, some subtle; and, of course, the personalities! I quickly found that the key is to dive right in and go with the flow (and to pace yourself). I came away with stacks of business cards, pages of notes and plenty of “Ah-ha!” moments. What a buzz!
Slight of stature she may be, but TOC founder and organizer Ann Rogers has created quite an event, one that drew cocktail fans and beverage professionals from around the nation to the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. Thanks to freak rainstorms in New York, It took me a mere 28 hours to finally arrive, but it was worth bearing the journey and then dealing with the Crescent City heat, humidity and daily thunderstorms to partake in studying, sipping, sampling and learning about spirits, cocktails and the foods that love them.
Consumer-oriented sessions ranged from the absurd and obscure to the exciting and highly informative. For beverage professionals, the Raising the Bar Series—four sessions designed specifically for those who own, manage and tend bars—delivered some good nuggets of information, although some wandered a bit from the point.
Ryan Magarian (pronounced Ma-Gary-an, not margarine) of Liquid Relations/Aviation Gin sparkled as moderator of a session about chains using fresh ingredients; he exudes passion for the cocktail craft and the well-run bar. Panelist Eben Klemm of New York City’s venerable BR Guest group shared his thoughts on instituting a “culture of ingredients” by making ONLY fresh ingredients available to bartenders and getting the kitchen involved. Jamie Terrell, a world-class bartender formerly of the Atlantic and Lab bars in London who is now brand ambassador for Sagatiba Cacacha, added his thoughts on things like creating a central juicing station. Good points, all, but the presence of a true chain operator might have added the perspective sought by some attendees.
The future of mixology is filled with gin, pisco, rum and cachaca, not to mention drier taste profiles in cocktails - European-style tonics, tea tinctures and more cucumber - and even savory flavors, according to the panelists at the “Future of Mixology” session moderated by Antoinette Bruno of www.starchefs.com. Panelists Jim Meehan of Food & Wine, Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve and The PX, John Kinder of MK in Chicago and Brett Thorn of Nation’s Restaurant News played off one another well, and ultimately concluded that in the future drinks will taste better because better ingredients are going to be used.
The knock-out session for those seeking real insights into cocktail success came in the late afternoon on Saturday, day four of the event—not an easy time slot. But the tag team of Charlotte Voisey, mixologist and brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin, and Julie Reiner, owner of the famed New York cocktail spot Flatiron Lounge, delivered big time. Voisey outlined basic steps to creating a killer program: hire right, use the cocktail menu as a sales and marketing tool and add value in the form of a smile, great service, cool garnishes and personality in the program.
While attendees sipped Flatiron’s signature Beijing Peach—10,000 sold at $13 a pop since 2003—Reiner offered a “what I’ve learned” take on operating a great cocktail lounge. Among her pearls of wisdom: train bartenders and servers on every drink; know when a bartender is burnt out and needs to move on; use jiggers; concentrate on prep and put adequate staff against it; balance the cocktail menu—spirits categories, classics vs. contemporary and signature drinks. Reiner’s passion for and understanding of the cocktail business was in evidence—it’s no wonder Flatiron and Pegu Club, in which she is also a partner, set the standard in Manhattan for great drinks and business success.
Other hot sessions, both of which were SRO, included a pisco seminar on Thursday given by the exuberant Diego Loret de Mola, president of BevMax International, importer of Barsol Pisco. He took attendees through the history of pisco, holding their interest from the origins of the Peruvian unaged brandy to it’s heyday in San Francisco to its decline to its current resurgence. Then he called on everyone to stand, take mixing glass and shaker in hand and make their own Pisco Sour. Informative, interesting and delicious!
Plymouth Gin brand ambassador and author Simon Ford and Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada’s Francesco Lafranconi paired up to present a session on gin to a packed house on Saturday afternoon. There’s nothing like hearing the history of gin from someone with a wonderful British accent, and Ford did it justice. Ever dapper in his white jacket and tie, Lafranconi added his Italian-accented commentary as he mixed up cocktails throughout the session—including the traditional Clover Club and the newer Lost in Translation, which combines gin and Tyku sake liqueur. Ford led the group through a tasting of four distinctly different styles; the session ended with a shaker of Ramos Gin Fizz going down each row, with each attendee giving it a good shake (and smiling, as per Lafranconi’s instruction), then passing it back for each to strain a bit into their glass and enjoy.
Other sessions brought forth equal exuberance, great questions and the opportunity to taste spirits and cocktails and learn, learn, learn. The Spirited Dinners all sold out, and the cocktail parties, cocktail contests and other social events were all standing room only. It’s not hype: cocktails are truly hot. I’ll book now for 2008!