5 Things We Learned at Tales of the Cocktail

By Dan Dunn |

The Artesian's take on Sex on the Beach. They won world's best bar for the second year in a row. Courtesy of Artesian

Tales of the Cocktail is an annual event held in New Orleans; practically everyone who is anyone in the bar business gathers there to celebrate cocktail culture, conduct seminars, pat themselves on the back and, of course, throw lots of insane parties. For 12 years running, it’s been the place where the big business of big booze gets done, over many, many drinks.

This year’s installment happened July 16–20, attracting tens of thousands of folks from all over the world, tied together by a common interest in adult beverages. Your tippled correspondent was on the scene, and here are five things I took away from the experience:

1. Everyone’s sweet on bitters

A few years back it seemed like there was a new flavored vodka on the market every week, each one more outlandish than the next. Many of them sold very well, too, a testament to the callowness of the average vodka drinker. Well, there’s another spirits deluge happening now, in—of all categories—bitters. But since it’s virtually impossible to make bitters taste like whipped cream or fresh-cut grass, one has to wonder how long this trend will last. By definition, all bitters have essentially the same flavor profile and, really, how many slight variations does the world need? As the esteemed booze scribe Darcy O’Neil opined, “Macerating herbs and spices is easy, but making good bitters is hard.”

2. Vodka is soooo over

At a panel discussion about trends in cocktail and spirit service, one industry heavyweight determined that flavored vodkas are on the outs. Another decreed that just because vodka is distilled 20 times and filtered through diamond dust does not necessarily mean it’s good vodka. Yet another claimed he no longer uses vodka in the recipes he develops. And I was thinking, Vodka is the drink they can’t smell on your breath at work, right?

3. America could use some more diversity in its cocktail scene

Of the major prizes handed out, most went to the cities you’d expect: one each for San Francisco (Best American Bar Team—Trick Dog), Portland, Oregon (Best American Hotel Bar—Clyde Common), San Diego (Best American High Volume Bar—Polite Provisions) and Denver (Best American Bartender—Sean Kenyon). Chicago got two nods, for World’s Best Cocktail Menu (The Aviary) and Best New American Cocktail Bar (Three Dots and a Dash), while New York, as per usual, hauled in the most awards with three (the Dead Rabbit won World’s Best Drinks Selection and Best American Cocktail Bar; The NoMad was crowned Best American Restaurant Bar). Which brings us to...

4. What’s the problem, Los Angeles?

For the second year in a row, the nation’s second-largest city was shut out at the awards ceremony. Ditto this year for Philly, Boston, Miami, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. But L.A. getting blanked again was the big news at Tales, particularly among Angelenos, who seemed to take it as a sign their entire craft cocktail scene is in jeopardy. As one despondent bartender from a swanky eastside lounge whimpered, “If this keeps up, I may have give up my dream of becoming a famous mixologist and get a real job as an actor.”

5. Bartenders are doing more than mixing drinks

While presenting at the Spirited Awards—the Oscars of the craft cocktail community—Dale DeGroff, the country’s best-known practitioner of the mixological arts, quipped that when he started in the drinks business many years ago, “Bartenders used to bartend instead of win awards.” Now they do both. The production value around the whole scene has gone up and you can see it in the awards-show-level effort put into the Spirited Awards' opening bit with Dan Aykroyd and countless luminaries from the cocktail community. I even got a cameo hitting pay dirt in a Mexican jail cell.

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