When I was a child, I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and thought, gee, I wish that fantastic candy dream world was real. Last week, I discovered that while that sugary, chocolate-covered acid trip might not exist, a boozy equivalent does—at least for a few days every year in New Orleans. It’s called Tales of the Cocktail.
Every hot, sweaty, ultra-muggy Louisiana July, bartenders, sommeliers, distributors, distillers, writers and spirit-lovers gather together to taste, learn and drink. There are seminars galore, which range from topics like the vodka martini to the science behind frozen cocktails to DIY vermouth. There are tastings both huge (like one packed with indie spirits) and small (like one focusing entirely on a single mezcal). And then there’s the weird stuff—lots of costumes, professional swing dancers, some livestock. My trip was educational, to say the least.
For those who couldn’t be there and are considering making their inaugural trip next year, here are a few bits of wisdom I picked up from 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail.
The best morning spirit is rum. An acceptable 9 a.m. drink for me is, typically, a Bloody Mary or a glass of sparkling wine or, if I’m at a lake house, a pale ale. But, when faced with a room of straight spirits, I learned that rum is the friendliest way to start the day—specifically aged rum. Round, a tad sweet, with bright tropical fruits, it was my favorite palate primer.
Tales attracts its fair share of celebs. Sure, I gawked at star spirit experts like Dave Arnold and David Wondrich, but they weren’t the only notable faces I saw. I met with Steven Soderbergh, director of Ocean’s 11-13 and Magic Mike, to chat about his new spirit, Singani 63 (more on that at a later date). And I took a shot with comedian/actress/podcaster Aisha Tyler. Proof that alcohol is the great equalizer.
Alcohol isn’t the only vice on the menu. I took a class on how to pair cigars with cocktails, which kicked off with a crash course in choosing, lighting and smoking a cigar. Now I have a new vice to geek out about. Thanks, Tales! Prediction: The way marijuana laws are going, we’ll definitely see a weed cocktail class on the docket in a few years.
Micro horses exist. One morning, before I had even tasted one drop of liquor, I spotted a teeny-tiny horse walking down Royal Street, led by a leggy showgirl. Where was the ultra-mini horse heading? Sadly, I was on my way to a tasting and didn’t have time to stalk the adorable creature. It’s my biggest regret of the event.
Anything can happen. At an event at Absolute’s Elyx House I was accosted by a bartender in a gorilla suit, told to eat a copper-covered pear and served shots of vodka off an electric train set. That was all before dinner.