For one week in July every year, huge crowds of thirsty people descend on the city of New Orleans for a grand celebration of the cocktail.
How is this different from any other typical week in the Big Easy? This time around, the hoards flocked to the French Quarter not for cheap Hurricanes and Hand Grenades, but for one of the most anticipated events of the year in the bar and spirits industry, the Tales of the Cocktail festival. During the five-day extravaganza, the elite of the drinking world mingle with spirits producers, bartenders, drink enthusiasts and other industry professionals at sponsored events, seminars and tastings. It's a great way to learn from the experts and discover what new spirits and cocktails everyone is buzzing about. Here are the highlights of what I discovered this year.
A medley of bitters
One of the best parts of Tales is walking around the central hub of the action (the historic Hotel Monteleone) and being handed flasks and vials of new spirits to taste. This year, one of the most common sights were tiny bottles of bitters making the rounds. For those of you who aren't familiar with the curious cocktail ingredient, bitters are elixirs composed of herbs, spices, roots, citrus and alcohol. They were originally created and consumed for medicinal purposes, but are now utilized primarily as a "seasoning" to enhance flavors and bind spirits together to create a well-balanced drink. A few short years ago, there were only three or four commercially produced brands available. I think it's safe to say the bitters drought has ended. Now, one can find five or six kinds at local liquor stores, and that only represents a portion of the expanding well of nationwide options. I saw several new brands at Tales, with outrageous flavors ranging from Zante Currant & Honeysuckle to the mysterious "Burlesque" flavor and Jamaican Sarsaparilla & Chinese Ginger. Amidst the influx at Tales, Austinite and craft cocktail creator Lara Nixon passed out samples of her Bad Dog Sarsaparilla Dry Bitters, which will be on the local market sometime this fall.
Texas in the Big Easy
In addition to Nixon's preview of Bad Dog Bitters, other Texas bartenders and enthusiasts represented the Lone Star State in droves. From Austin, Bill Norris, who was recently announced as the new beverage director for the Alamo Drafthouse crew, mixed up cocktails at several official events. He competed in the USBG Pina Colada Competition, and mixed up a substantial punch at the Diageo sponsored Happy Hour. Tito's vodka held a Spirited Dinner at Chef John Besh's American Sector, Deep Eddy vodka hosted a tasting room, and I heard through the grapevine that Waco's Balcones Distilling products were well-received at the Meet the Craft Distillers event. But the ultimate display of Texas pride occurred when a dozen or so Texans crashed the Left Coast vs. East Coast Libations dinner, wielding bottles of whiskey and asking the East and West-coasters to pay attention to "what's going on in the South." With our rapidly growing crop of local talent, I expect next year's Tales will see an increase in rowdy Texans slinging great drinks.
Sodas and saloons
Despite some popular beliefs, the festival is not all fun and games but also an educational event. I was fortunate to attend several seminars focused on the rich history of drinking in America, led by some of the nation's most highly respected drink historians and practitioners. In "Sodatender or Barjerk," authors Darcy O'Neil and David Wondrich exposed the intertwining nature of the pre-Prohibition soda fountain and saloon, two seemingly different worlds that actually shared a great deal of similarities. For example, soda, like alcohol, was originally consumed for medicinal purposes. People believed that carbonated mineral water and bitters could cure any number of pesky ailments. Also, up until the 1900s, there were no laws governing what ingredients could be incorporated into sodas, so chemists, who loved all matter of drugs, injected soda with cocaine, heroin and other opiates. Patrons who became addicted to these mixtures were dubbed "soda fiends." According to Wondrich, this doping was less common in the drinks of the saloon. However he did cite some evidence of laudanum punch and the popularity of red wine and cocaine.
Another perk of attending Tales is meeting talented bartenders from around the country, and hearing what new and exciting things they are doing in their hometown bars. I attended a Spirited Dinner hosted by Sidney Frank Importing Co. where I met a bartender from Embury Lounge in Pittsburgh who informed me that on occasion their staff would substitute Jägermeister for Italian Amaros (bitter spirits) like Averna and Cynar in cocktails. Myself not particularly keen on the flavor profile of Jäger (I, too, suffered through many Jäger-bombs in the early college days), I thought it would be interesting to experiment at home and see if employing the spirit within a classic recipe might change my perception. With the help of portfolio mixologist Todd Richman of Sidney Frank, I tested out Jäger variations of the Negroni, Hanky Panky and Elixir No. 1. On the whole, I found myself preferring the original amaro-based versions, but couldn't deny the fact that Jäger merged seamlessly in the cocktails. Each recipe was well-balanced, with the Jäger injecting its signature herbal and licorice flavors on a subtle level. The substitution could be an excellent way for a Jäger lover to find a fancy cocktail of choice, and vice-versa, for someone like me who doesn't love (but can appreciate) the flavor of Jägermeister, to find a drink that is palatable. For more on my Great Jäger Experiment, including recipes, go online to austin360.com/liquid.