Could Dale DeGroff have imagined that, some 25 years after he began squeezing fresh citrus and making simple syrups in the service of better cocktails, he would be among the elder statesmen of a 20,000-strong spirits festival? Yet there he was - King Cocktail! - with his signature wry smile, at New Orleans' Hotel Monteleone, flaming orange peels and cranking out drinks like a champ at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits festival that last weekend concluded its 15th run.
A bartenders' walking tour: That's how this all started. Back then a lot of people still thought of bartending as a temporary gig you did on the way to something else - but the spirits industry is now a $25 billion-dollar beast, and Tales is likewise a juggernaut, with people coming to New Orleans from 40 countries for five days of booze-related workshops, career advice, happy hours, tastings, competitions, parties, bonding and networking.
What used to be a manageable, almost intimate gathering of industry professionals riding a wave of love for the craft and quality ingredients has, in some eyes, become too big for its own good, an overcrowded, over-the-top party with sold-out seminars, ever-accumulating wristbands and fewer one-on-one opportunities.
"Tales has become, to me, more about learning one-on-on through networking than in seminars," says Brittany Koole, a bar manager and consultant in Houston.
It didn't help that the stretch of Bourbon Street normally frequented by Tales-goers was a war zone of giant potholes, wire fencing and bulldozers. "I didn't feel the same connection with the area," said Justin Kallhoff of Dallas event space DEC on Dragon, who spent more time off the strip and less time dealing with the big parties.
Just the same, Tales carried on, the clear leader in the spirit-festival world. As usual, attendees this year included a good number of Texans - bartenders, bartenders-turned-spirits-reps, bar owners, bar suppliers, bar goers and those who chronicle it all.
So there were Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Uptown, staffing a table at Saturday's mezcal tasting room at the Monteleone. And Campari America rep Chase Streitz and Megan McClinton of Thompson's, in Fort Worth, were among those who joined Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller for Wild Turkey, for dinner and whiskey at Cochon. "I was lucky enough to get to pour Jimmy a glass, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Streitz, formerly of Bulldog Gin, The Standard Pour and Sissy's Southern Kitchen.
Cazadores Tequila partnered with the Bartender Boxing Organization to sponsor a battle of Houston and Los Angeles bartenders that culminated at Tales. And in a bowling event pitting bartenders from 14 cities against each other in the lanes, Team Texas took second only to Miami.
Major spirits companies, small-batch distillers and beverage-related producers also come to Tales to build or bolster brand recognition. But possibly the fastest growing group of attendees might be people who just like consuming and learning about spirits and the various things made with them - people like Jean Verhaar of Houston. "We are what you call cocktail enthusiasts," she said, at the festival with pal Pam Stevens of New Orleans.
On Thursday, Steve and Beverly Davis of Mobile, Alabama, roamed a tasting room dedicated to pisco, the clear brandy native to Peru and Chile. "A little waitress at Galatoire's told us about (Tales) some years ago," Beverly said. The two have been coming ever since with friends John and Sue Lawyer.
"It's just fun," Sue Lawyer said. "There's no purpose to it but to learn and have a good time." She ducked over to one drink station where DeGroff, now widely considered the godfather of the modern cocktail renaissance, was busy making Algeria cocktails for the masses.
It was at New York's Rainbow Room that DeGroff built a following by reviving classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails in the 1980s, a gig he landed a few years after being hired by restaurateur Joe Baum, the man behind the Four Seasons and other fine dining establishments; the Algeria - pisco, Cointreau and apricot brandy - was among the cocktails featured at Baum's La Fonda del Sol in the 1960s, at a time when anything not a Manhattan or Martini was rare. Now DeGroff had revived the Algeria, with his own twist, for the pisco event. "Because (Baum) was my mentor," he said.
Brands found clever ways to promote themselves, crafting whimsical and interactive tasting rooms, throwing happy hours, offering special product unveilings or cocktail-paired dinners - or, in the case of Amaro Montenegro, the excellent Italian bitter liqueur, having its master botanist demonstrate its 132-year-old production process using herbs and spices, an alembic, a boiler and a macerating device.
Jagermeister, the ubiquitous digestif now angling for craft-cocktail respectability, recruited Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, for a happy hour at Fritzel's, the Bourbon Street jazz pub where LSU students made Jager popular in the late 1980s. And then threw a huge party afterward. And there was Diageo, the giant spirits company behind brands like Tanqueray and Don Julio, scoring Snoop Dogg for its own beats-heavy Friday night bash, while Stillhouse whiskey's midnight party featured rapper (and newly announced partner) G-Eazy.
Workshops this year included explorations of ingredients like grains and bitter gentian in spirits and liqueurs; the use of technology such as centrifuges behind the bar; and the rising popularity of umami flavor and low-proof drinks.
Cocktails were plentiful, served mostly in small plastic Tales cups, and it was wise to heed the oft-quoted Tales adage "you don't have to finish that" while collecting grab-and-go bottled water along the way. That said, I did find the bottom of a few superior creations -my favorites being Laura Bellucci's House of the Rind, a dessert-like mix of Earl-Grey-infused honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and citrus-chamomile bitters served at Sunday's "Legs and Eggs" burlesque brunch at SoBou; and from Aaron Polsky of Los Angeles' Harvard and Stone, the Precious Punch served at Thursday's pisco tasting room, featuring pisco acholado, apricot liqueur and amaro.
Camaraderie is what keeps people coming back to Tales, and festival vets saw old friends while newbies made new ones. Second-timer Ashley Williams, a Bols Genever ambassador who tends bar at Filament in Dallas, was looking forward to being in New Orleans and meeting fellow ambassadors. What had she learned from her first go-round?
"Pace yourself," she said. "You don't have to do everything. There's so much going on. Take some time to just go sit in a park."
Being in the French Quarter, amid the stilt-walkers and human statues and little kids drumming on plastic buckets, it was also worth revisiting gems like the rotating Carousel Bar, grabbing a frozen Irish Coffee at classic haunt Erin Rose or nestling in at the French 75 Bar at historic restaurant Arnaud's, which recently won the James Beard award for bar program of the year.
Around the festival's midway point came the U.S. Bartenders' Guild's beloved annual Thursday midnight toast, on which Texas naturally has put its stamp over the years with waving Lone Star flags and choruses of "Deep in the Heart of Texas." This year's spectacle was a bit more subdued, given that the whole shebang had to be relocated from construction-torn Bourbon Street to the second-floor confines of Bourbon Cowboy Too. Nevertheless, Texas endured - and somehow so did Tales, which will power on to see another year.