NEW ORLEANS -- They came, they saw, they cocktailed - and by Sunday evening, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 had been conquered. Thousands of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, product reps and cocktail enthusiasts -- a good portion of them from Texas -- swarmed New Orleans' French Quarter last week for the spirits industry's biggest gathering, taking in five days' worth of workshops, networking, tasting rooms, parties and spirit-paired dinners.
From brand-sponsored cocktail breakfasts to rum seminars to after-party confabs at favorites like Erin Rose (home of the Frozen Irish Coffee), there's a lot to take in. But mostly, as Texans showed last year, the festival is about camaraderie - a time for those who practice and support the cocktail craft to revel in each other's knowledge, company and support. Bar staffs get better at their craft - by watching each other work, learning about new products, trends and techniques, discovering the history behind what they do -- and as a result, we, the consumers, get a better bar experience. It's a win-win.
One big happy family. Except for one thing: While festival rivalries are never bitter, Texas members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild got word that heading into this year's ritual midnight toast, another USBG chapter had Texas in its sights.
The opening salvo
AMONG THE MANY traditions of Tales - which drew 18,000 people in 2014 - is the USBG's annual midnight toast, held on Thursday night of the festival outside the landmark Old Absinthe House, at Bienville and Bourbon streets. The toast is a quick but raucous affair, a celebration of unity, but of course, Texas can't help but go big. And having been late to the cocktail game behind places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago - a deficit Lone Star State cities have since made long strides toward closing - maybe there was a little something to prove as the 2014 toast approached.
Either way, forces aligned: With a Texas-staffed event simultaneously happening at a two-story venue across the street, "there were, like, Texas fight songs and Texas flags waving from up on the railing," remembers Dallas' Chase Streitz, Bulldog gin's Texas ambassador. "It was like Texas Mardi Gras for 15 minutes."
"Texas is kind of the underdog of Tales," said Alex Fletcher, bar manager at Dallas' Henry's Majestic. "So it was kind of, like.... You know. Texas style."
It was all over quickly. But rumors soon began that a Texan had thrown a rival chapter flag to the ground, and naturally its owners were not amused. When Travis Tober, beverage director at Austin's VOX Table, heard they were going to come out swinging this year, Texans decided it was time to rally.
The Texas effect
TEXAS' MARK ON TALES is huge, given the state's size and proximity to New Orleans. Festival founder Ann Tuennerman says representation likely lags only behind New York and California, but this year marked the fourth in a row that a Texas-run party helped kick off the week - and as far as I've been able to tell, it's still Tales' only state-specific event.
Among festival attendees were Houston cocktail enthusiasts Michelle Mata, Teddy Bucher and Laura Villafranca, who were making their second, fourth and sixth Tales visits, respectively. At a dinner at famed Commander's Palace to showcase Maker's Mark's new Cask Strength bourbon, the state went four-for-four, with one table seating a Houston-based rep for Beam Suntory spirits, a wine enthusiast from Austin and a pair of spirits writers from San Antonio and Dallas.
One morning in the festival's pop-up bookstore, bartenders Christian Armando (of Uptown's Standard Pour) and Austin Gurley (of Plano's Whiskey Cake) browsed the festival's ever-increasing stock of spirits-related books and cocktail enhancers, from ginger-turmeric bitters to smoke-and-salt bitters to a $75 bottle of truffle bitters.
Even the weather was Texas hot - which made the lavish pool parties thrown by spirits producers like Trinidad-based House of Angostura - all the more welcome. As an Austin attendee posted on Facebook: "Never in my life have I felt more confident in my decision to pack 8 undershirts."
Ready to rumble -- or maybe not
THE RALLY PLAN was this: To meet at Thursday night's High West whiskey-sponsored barbecue dinner at One Eyed Jacks on nearby Toulouse Street. Chris Furtado, High West's Texas rep, had brought a backpack brimming with Texas flags, ready to distribute. From there the group would move on to Erin Rose, and finally to the Old Absinthe House. "I'm sure I'll be hoarse by the end of the night," Furtado said. "I've heard they (the other chapter members) have a chant. We're not that organized."
He had big hopes, though, expecting other Texas-based liquor reps and distributors and hordes of bartenders. But by 10:30 p.m., when it was time to move on to Erin Rose, there was just him and a pair of Texas supporters from Reston, Va.
Outside Erin Rose, the passing minutes brought only a trickle, the backpack stayed full, and by 11:15, Furtado seemed concerned.
At last, a handful of others showed, including Austin's Tober, USBG Austin chapter president Jessica Sanders, North Texas chapter president Brian McCullough and bartender Julian Pagan of The Mitchell in Dallas.
The showdown was barely a half-hour away.
Cocktails, cocktails, everywhere
THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY is now a $23 billion beast. The category made up 35 percent of alcohol sales last year, a slow but steady rise from 29 percent in 2000, with new products coming out all the time.
So you can't blame brands for going all-out to win favor. On top of dozens of Tales tasting rooms, spirit portfolio giants William Grant & Sons, Diageo and Bacardi are known for their extravagant parties, with multiple drink stations churning out brand-specific cocktails amid the sensory smorgasbord.
Rutte, a Holland-based line of vodka and gins, made its official U.S. launch with a presentation led by master distiller Myriam Hendrickx and packets of the many botanicals that go into its products - juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and, interestingly, nuts, which influence its genever (gin's European precursor). Then came another party, with more drinks handed out, and oysters done Dutch: On the half-shell, with a splash of gin.
With so much liquor flowing freely, it's wise to heed the words of advice that preface many a festival: You don't have to finish that. In other words, unless a drink is truly special, a taste is enough. Then set it aside. Another one will show up soon. And there's plenty of water to go around.
That said, among the drinks I actually got the chance to try, these were my top four. I might have even have had one or two of them twice.
SWEET AND DANDY (by Kellie Thorn, Empire State South, Atlanta): This sublimely bittersweet gem from Alameda, Calif.-based St. George Spirits - of which I am a loyal fan - featured its California Citrus vodka, Suze bitter liqueur, vanilla liqueur, lemon, green tea syrup and orange peel. I arrived late to the St. George tasting, so I only got to try it because publicist Ellie Winters was nice enough to share hers with me.
SOLERA PINA (Lynnette Marrero, Zacapa Rum): OK, it was crazy hot at Diageo's annual House Party, held at the city's Contemporary Arts Warehouse, and between that and the killer 80s-cover band onstage, it somehow seemed OK to fall for a snow-cone cocktail. Featuring Zacapa rum along with amantillado sherry, macadamia nut syrup and pineapple, its icy crunch was gloriously enhanced with a sprinkling of Marrero's vanilla-infused salt.
TIERRA D'ORO (Jim Kearns, Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, Greenwich Village, New York); and MACHO PUNCH (Tony Abou-Ganim, The Modern Mixologist): At Thursday's packed Peruvian pisco tasting room, at least a half-dozen versions of the classic Pisco Punch were on display, and these two were absolutely standout.
Kearns' Tierra D'Oro spiced up Pisco Porton with lime, aji Amarillo (a Peruvian chili) syrup, passion fruit syrup, guava puree and classic pineapple, gorgeously presented with an edible flower garnish. Meanwhile, the gregarious Abou-Ganim mixed Macchu Pisco with floral Yellow Chartreuse, pineapple gomme syrup, lime and lemon and a garnish of pineapple and pineapple-ginger foam to sweet, refreshing effect.
Don't call it a comeback
THINGS WERE LOOKING shaky as the Texans headed into battle a couple of blocks away. But as the group neared the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville, a critical mass began to form, constellations of others joining in along the way as they closed in. "Let's do this, Texas!" Tober yelled.
The avenue was a gumbo of Bourbon Streeters and festival-goers, but little Lone Star flags were already waving en masse as beads rained off the balconies. A bigger flag drew a lineup of Texans for selfies and, as midnight loomed, the throng broke into a loud, proud group-sing of "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
The big showdown - well, it never materialized. If the rumors had ever been true, the evidence was nowhere to be seen or heard. "I don't know what happened," Furtado said. "We owned it."
And then it was over once again, and the festival rolled on. San Francisco's ABV bar reigned victorious at Tales' annual Bar Fight (which went international this year) and won Best New American Bar at Saturday's annual Spirited Awards, while Denver's Williams & Graham was named Best American Cocktail Bar and New York's Ivy Mix took Best Bartender honors.
Sunday's annual picnic rewarded those who went the distance, but for many, Tales was a beatdown and done before they knew it - with great memories tinged with realizations of how much they had yet to learn or regrets over missed opportunities.
"New Orleans, you were a whirlwind romance this year," Austin's Sanders posted on Facebook. "Can't believe I have to leave already!"
And from Whiskey Cake's Gurley: "Well, that was an experience. Tales of the Cocktail, you win this time. Back to Dallas."
Here's a glimpse of Thursday's midnight toast.