NEW ORLEANS - With Sunday's yearly Pig and Punch event putting a porky exclamation point on the proceedings, the 14th annual Tales of the Cocktail came to a close for the thousands of bartenders, distillers, product reps, spirits writers and cocktail geeks who rolled into town for a four-day stretch of workshops, discussions, tasting rooms, networking, pop-up events and all-out parties.
The Lone Star State cut a narrower swath through this year's festival than in previous years: Gone was the Texas party that had kicked off the nation's largest spirits industry event since 2012. Just the same, the state's mark on the proceedings is huge, given its size and proximity to New Orleans; representation in years past has lagged only behind New York and California.
This year, its impact was most vociferously felt at the U.S. Bartenders Guild's annual Thursday midnight toast outside the classic Old Absinthe House at the corner of Bienville and Bourbon, a whooping show of industry unison.
The Texas faithful stampeded onto the scene waving Lone Star bandanas provided by High West whiskey Texas rep Chris Furtado. It was by several accounts an impressive showing, even if, for whatever reason, one giant Texas flag's color scheme was upside-down. Then again, as bartender Drew Garison of Parliament observed in response: "There was a lot of upside-down."
Throughout the week, spirits portfolio giants like Diageo and William Grant & Sons threw massive parties to flaunt their standing in a $20 billion-plus industry that continues to boom. Smaller producers sponsored tasting rooms, private events and spirits-paired dinners - like Smirnoff's circa-1941-inspired event celebrating the origins of the classic Moscow Mule cocktail.
And there were workshops, lots of them, many involving booze in some fashion. At Saturday's "Mexican Flavor Beyond Frontiers" seminar, for example, attendees sampled four groupings of vastly unadulterated herbs, spices and chilies with panelist Rick Bayless (the famous traditional-Mexican chef), then learned about the chemistry of each from Ivan Saldana (of Ancho Reyes liqueur and Montelobos mezcal) before tasting a paired cocktail showcasing each category from Scott Baird of San Francisco's celebrated Trick Dog.
With so much booze making the rounds it was customarily wise for a festival-goer to set aside most drinks after a sip or two except for those deemed truly special. Here were a few I personally found worth finishing:
Avanvera (among the Italian bar team's creations at The Spirit of Italy's Brunch Italiano)
This superb concoction was among the drinks featured at Saturday's event showcasing nine Italian family-owned companies at Patrick's Bar Vin. A daytime-friendly low-proof medley of Cocchi di Torino sweet vermouth, Strega (a saffron-tinted herbal liqueur), Italian brandy and dehydrated banana, it was delightful to imbibe and gorgeous to behold, a banana-kissed herbal tea to garnish the cosmopolitan courtyard affair.
(And for those who don't know, Bar Vin owner Patrick Van Hoorebeek may be the friendliest proprietor in town; he painstakingly hunted down my hopelessly misplaced notebook hours after the event, several times returning to me and then saying, "Wait -- there's one more place I can look" before eventually producing it with a smile.)
Fujimori's Fax Machine (Laura Bellucci, SoBou, New Orleans)
I'm a big fan of Asian flavors in cocktails, but one twist I'd not yet witnessed was use of the Japanese spice furikake, a blend of bonito flakes (dried fish), minced seaweed, sesame seeds, salt and pepper. At least that was until I tried Bellucci's fabulous cocktail with an equally fabulous back-story involving the attempted low-tech resignation of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori: She mixes Peruvian pisco with St. George's Green Chile Vodka, watermelon, lime and simple syrup, straining it all into a furikake-rimmed glass. The result was a sweet and tart summer-mood refresher with an intriguingly savory kick.
Golden Slam (Lulu Martinez, Liquid Productions, Miami)
This drink, which Martinez designed for the Tanqueray Gin station at Friday night's rollicking Diageo Games Party, charmed its way through the party morass with its tropical citrus splash of gin, demerara syrup, orange, lemon, passion fruit, Campari and Angostura bitters. It was the only one of the night's drinks I actually made sure to finish.
Savory Course (Scott Baird, Trick Dog, San Francisco)
This earthy drink mimicking a Mexican Michelada accompanied the dried-chili portion of Saturday's "Mexican Flavor Beyond Frontiers" workshop. While the classic supplements Mexican beer with lime, spices, peppers and sauces (anything from Clamato to Serrano peppers), Baird built his version on aged tequila with lime, a hint of Tecate and a painstaking savory mix of pureed dried Mexican chilies, tomato, orange, pomegranate, lime, sherry vinegar and vanilla. The coup de grace: A Mexican-style pickled-carrot garnish.
Meanwhile, at Saturday's annual Spirited Awards, San Francisco's tiki-strong Smuggler's Cove won best American Cocktail Bar of the Year, Miami newcomer Sweet Liberty took Best New American Cocktail Bar honors, Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Portland's Clyde Common was named American Bartender of the Year and London's Connaught Bar was named World's Best Cocktail Bar.
And then it was all over, and debates swirled over after-party bar tables about whether the festival has become too big or where the Quarter's best frozen Irish coffee was to be found. Plans were hatched among newly made friends to convene beyond the confines of New Orleans while Sunday night stragglers like The 86 Co.'s Omar YeeFoon and HG Sply's Mate Hartai - former crewmates behind the bar at Dallas' once-upon-a-time Bar Smyth - could be found relaxing over Miller High Lifes at beyond-the-Quarter dive Bar Redux.
"New Orleans has captured my heart with its vibrant energy, beautiful food and amazing cocktails!" wrote Austin's Jessica Ramirez, who attended the festival as a rep for Cadre Noir Imports. "Until next time, it was an amazing experience with some pretty epic people and in the process I've made new friends! I am truly honored for such a wonderful opportunity."