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Last week right about this time, I was sitting in New Orleans drinking. And working. I was at Tales of the Cocktail, the five-day cocktail-athon that New Orleans has hosted for the last five years. Every single luminary from the world of spirits was there, from cocktail authority Dave Wondrich to Tony Conigliaro (he designed the drinks list for England's The Fat Duck; the buzz at Tales was that he's the best mixologist in the world) . There were just too many events to go through here, but I will say that the tiki seminar was packed (I expect every single city in America to have a tiki bar by next year). When seminars weren't on, the spirits crowd made the Hotel Monteleone pool look like an MTV spring break scene (hey, it's hot in New Orleans).
My personal highlight (workwise) was the Bar Chef Competition, sponsored by Food & Wine and Absolut (who introduced at Tales their very cool, first limited-edition vodka, mango-and-black-pepper–flavored Absolut New Orleans; 100 percent of the profits go to benefit Gulf Coast charities). I got to be one of the judges and watched six elite bartenders conceive and then mix two drinks each (pre- and after-dinner) using a prescribed ingredient (the almond-flavored syrup orgeat) in a clock-is-ticking situation. I loved the dessert drink from Todd Thrasher, who calls himself the liquid savant at the Washington, DC area's Restaurant Eve and PX—a sweet, rich amaretto and aged rum drink topped with Grape Nehi "air" (he used soy lechthin to make that happen). Tad Carducci of New Jersey's Pluckeman Inn also used an unorthodox ingredient—namely Pop Rocks—in his cucumber-spiked after-dinner cocktail, which had the genius name Admiral Big Nose Fais Do-Do (trust me, it was great). And the winner was.... Bridget Albert, who works with Southern Wines and Spirits in Chicago. She made two delicious cocktails, including an elegant pre-dinner ginger-mango Champagne drink that she called 99° in the Shade.
For more highlights about Tales, I couldn't possibly do a better job than Judy Walker did in her Times-Picayune blog.