Serious Eats: Drinks

Michael Neff and Carey Jones Look Back on Tales of the Cocktail

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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

Michael Neff's Take

At this point, most readers of this space don't need to be introduced to Tales of the Cocktail, the annual gathering of cocktailians and mixologists that takes place in the French Quarter in New Orleans. I attended this four-day mega-conference with Serious Eats editor Carey Jones, and my intention was to post regular updates of what I saw and experienced among the jury of my peers from the streets of The Big Easy.

While my attempts at live-blogging Tales of the Cocktail fell victim to the sheer intensity of the schedule, I did participate in many events, attended several seminars, and took copious notes on what was going on around me. What follows are thoughts about the event itself, some highlights, and a few musings on why the cocktails were so bad.

1. Tales of the Cocktail is impressively huge. Imagine hosting hundreds of little parties that take place over four days across an entire city, and you'll get the smallest idea of what it is to be in New Orleans in late July. It takes an army of people to execute every detail of every event that takes place from Wednesday morning through late-night on Saturday, from bartenders to brand teams to volunteers, and they all worked way harder than one should at an event celebrating The Sporting Life. The logistics involved were mind-boggling, and the people who organize the event deserve kudos for not only pulling it off, but pulling it off well.

2. The field of new spirits was surprisingly anemic. I attended many tasting events, hoping to discover new products that would take the mixology world by storm, and I was surprised to discover that nothing stood out as the next big thing. I tasted very few spirits that I hadn't tasted before, and the distilleries that participated seemed to do so from a sense of obligation rather than having something compelling to offer.

There were exceptions, of course: the new gin from Tuthilltown was delicious, as well as both 6-Year and 10-Year offerings from Rhum Clement. Whistle Pig has a new expression coming that might be interesting, depending on how they price it. Other than that, there was very little out on the tables that I had not seen before.

3. Speaking of spirits, the best things I had were not served at events, but handed to me surreptitiously on street corners and in the lobby of the Hotel Monotoleone. While the tasting rooms were relatively uneventful, an intrepid group of shadow-presenters skipped the formal events and took a more direct approach to introducing the mixology crowd to their brands. Some were friends—Marko Karakasavic of Charbay and the boys from the upcoming Avua Cachaca, to name a few—and others were new, but it bodes well for the future that the most exciting spirits I tasted were served from hip flasks.

4. The Employees Only Pop-Up Night will become the stuff of legend at future Tales. The West Village staple and winner of last year's Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for Best Cocktail Bar truly showed everyone how to throw a party. Sure, they made cocktails, but they also threw a honey of a bash, and everyone wanted to go. It's very difficult to balance gravitas and good times, and the boys from EO once again showed that you can be a "serious cocktail bar" without boring people. Or judging them. Or telling them to stop dancing on the bar-top. The Second Line escorting people out at closing time was particularly inspired. Brilliant.

5. The cocktails at Tales were terrible. I tasted hundreds of them, many from world-famous bartenders, and encountered very few that I could even finish, let alone enjoy. There was no love, no care, no craft, and not even the slightest nod to quality. There were certainly exceptions, but depressingly few. The utter lack of quality in the cocktails was endemic, and I hope that every person serving them was as embarrassed as I was (not) drinking them.

While my time at Tales was both rewarding and productive, this last point colors the entire experience for me. If you're going to name your event after cocktails, the cocktails themselves should be phenomenal. They weren't. Too sweet. Too sour. Clashing flavors. Unnecessary ingredients. Each cocktail suffered from its own manifestation of awful and I'm at a loss to understand why everyone seemed to be okay with it.

Maybe the humidity compromised our tastebuds. Maybe no one tasted their batches. Maybe they did, and decided people wouldn't notice or no one would care. Who knows? But if you're going to assemble the world's best bartenders and put them in front of an audience of their peers, one would hope that they would work especially hard to exceed the expectations of a very critical audience. Instead, I watched most people phoning it in.

In this business, if you want to be great you have to prove it over and over, night after night, and cocktail by cocktail. It never stops, and you never get to be done. Maybe I'm being unreasonably judgmental, but I'm not the one who started throwing around superlatives. When you begin declaring royalty and using phrases like "Best in the World," you have to prove yourself on a constant basis, which means you always, always have to strive for perfection. Even at Tales of the Cocktail.

Carey Jones Adds...

I found it telling that my two favorite Tales experiences were the two that felt the least formal. A seminar on American vermouth (more on that to come), with Paul Clarke moderating a panel of four vermouth makers, struck me in its honesty and simplicity. Vermouth in America is such a new thing, and these four producers didn't claim to have all the answers; didn't claim they'd mastered the style, or that theirs was the last word in American vermouth. They just talked straightforwardly about the process of trial and error (and error, and error), what they'd tried and what they loved—it felt like a conversation with people passionately engaged in a new experiment, speaking honestly about their experience.

The other highlight? While many liquor brands sponsored lavish dinners, the two founders of Brooklyn Gin, Joe Santos and Emil Jattne, kept things comparatively simple. In their rented French Quarter apartment, they invited a friend of theirs—chef Daniel Burns, formerly of Noma, The Fat Duck, and the Momofuku world's head of research—to cook dinner for 20. (Okay, it wasn't that simple.) The menu was straighforward but superbly done (a chilled corn soup, a chilled shrimp salad), the cocktails made with care; wine was swilled, shots taken, plates shared. Drinking is, at heart, a convivial experience, a way to connect with others, spend a moment apart, consider what you're drinking and share that with those around you. And that's what this dinner party did. I wasn't at the early years of Tales, but feel that this was the original spirit: "Let's all get together and drink good things."

I too was impressed by the scale, the scope, and the immense logistical undertakings of Tales—but found the people gathered down there to be the greatest draw, and the moments where they could truly interact the most worthwhile.

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