Bartenders Rediscover 'Fun' at Tales of the Cocktail

20100721-talesofcocktails.jpgI'm home from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and deep into muffaletta withdrawal, but as Jason Wilson wrote in Wednesday's Washington Post, last week was full of previews of what's to come in spirits and cocktails.

Last week I wrote about a few of the rare and upcoming spirits that were being trotted out at Tales; Wilson adds to this list with a preview of Zucca, an Italian amaro flavored with Chinese rhubarb; and a Damson gin produced by Scott Krahn, founder of DH Krahn gin, that is made at Finger Lakes Distilling in New York.

I ran into Scott at one of the event's tasting sessions, and he gave me a taste of the product, dubbed Averell's Damson Gin, which will be available starting October 1. Bottled at 33 percent alcohol, the liquor is infused with a sour, knobby variety of plum that gives the drink a bright tartness akin to that of sloe gin, without the syrupy sweetness that often plagues that style of spirit. Other new releases include Redemption Rye, a relatively young (2 1/2-years old) whiskey with a whopping 95 percent rye mashbill, made in Indiana; and the full line of Jade Absinthes, made in France by Ted Breaux and available in the U.S. for the first time.

While these are all encouraging signs of the expanding realm of available flavors and styles of spirit, Wilson also touches on another element at Tales that bears watching in the future: the apparent discovery of "fun" by craft bartenders around the country. It may seem ridiculous that we're talking about having fun in relation to an aspect of the food world that seems built entirely on the concept, but as Wilson writes, the recent trend of speakeasy-style bars and unsmiling, arm-gartered bartenders sucked a lot of the joy out of going out for a drink.

It's clear that the speak-easy trend of the past three or four years is on the wane, so much so that a caricature of the speak-easy bartender has emerged and become an object of lampoons. "The bigger your beard, the curlier your mustache, the better bartender you must be," sniped Angus Winchester, a London "global bar" consultant and a "brand ambassador" for Tanqueray gin, at a seminar called "Bartending Fun-da-mentals." "Mustaches and arm garters do not make a bartender."

This renewed emphasis on the service and hospitality side of tending bar rather than a bartender's efforts at attaining "bar chef" status were echoed by a new group of roving bartenders at Tales of the Cocktail, identified by their stickers and t-shirts labeled "Mixfits." In a now-hidden Facebook page, this group of bartenders summed up their philosophy: "I don't care how many bitters you make... Step off your mixological high horse and be a bartender. Smile, make me smile, honor our craft." As further proof that the art of pleasing guests is once again in, this year's Spirit Awards selected Seattle's Murray Stenson of Zig Zag Café—a bartender as renowned for his hospitality skills as for his talent at mixing drinks—as "American Bartender of the Year."

There's plenty afoot in the drinks world, and this renewed emphasis on the simple pleasures of going out and having a drink with friends can only be good news. What are some of the other elements of bars and the spirits world that you're looking forward to in the coming year?