Tales of the Cocktail Takes the Show to Canada

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


French Culinary Institute instructor Dave Arnold at Tales of the Cocktail in Vancouver. [Photograph: Paul Clarke]

Every summer for the past eight years, a steadily growing crowd of bartenders, spirits-industry professionals, journalists, and other curious drinkers has convened in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, an event that basically boils down to five days of boozy education and celebration. Not surprising for an event in New Orleans in July, the weather is usually wiltingly hot; also not surprising for a convention of drinks professionals (which for many equates with "professional drinkers"), an event that's akin to the Detroit Auto Show of cocktails usually turns into an all-hours week-long festivity—an easy feat to accomplish, given the event's Big Easy setting.

Last week, however, the organizers and sponsors of Tales of the Cocktail sought to answer a couple of fundamental questions: How will this signature New Orleans event function in another, less notoriously party-hearty city? In particular, will the first-ever Tales "On the Road" event, which was held in Vancouver, B.C., last Monday, translate into Canadian?

After spending several days in Vancouver for before-and-after celebrations, as well as for the main event on Monday, I can say with a little surprise that the answer is "mostly yes."

If I was hedging my bets before the event, I had my reasons; for one thing, while Vancouver is home to Canada's craft-cocktail renaissance and some of the city's best bars are on par with their craft-cocktail compatriots in San Francisco, L.A. and New York, it's still a very young scene. Also, Canada's national and provincial laws regarding bar opening hours and the availability and tax rates on certain spirits largely works against the no-holds-barred celebratory atmosphere that accompanies Tales events in New Orleans.

But through sheer enthusiasm of the region's bartenders and curious drinkers, and likely abetted by a few shades of good luck, the Vancouver event seemed largely a success, with sell-out crowds for most if not all the seminars and festive crowds at the receptions and other events. The sessions were largely a "greatest hits" of past Tales of the Cocktail, with seminars on the stormy history of the Mai Tai by exotic-drink historian Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, a raucous session on ice (yes, it's possible to get worked up about frozen water) highlighted by the chainsawing of a massive block of crystal-clear ice, and a seminar on the science of cocktails led by French Culinary Institute instructor Dave Arnold, pictured above with his set of calculations regarding experiments on the chilling/dilution of drinks. (And to be true to the host country, there was also a seminar on Canadian whisky, which, somewhat fittingly considering the subject matter, was rather bland and vaguely disappointing.)

All told, for an event that's so closely affiliated with New Orleans, the Tales of the Cocktail event in Vancouver demonstrated that not only could the "brand" extend into other areas, but it could do so while stoking plenty of excitement in local bars and restaurants. So far event organizers have only said they plan to make the Vancouver extension an annual event, in addition to the much larger event in New Orleans in July.

But as the craft-cocktail movement continues to grow in cities such as Portland and Boston, and as cities such as Minneapolis, Nashville, and Louisville start to make their mark in mixology, it's worth considering what other places would be appropriate homes for such an event. What about your city? Do you think your area bars and cocktail culture would be a good location for this kind of gathering?