NEW ORLEANS - The Season of the Drink is upon us once again: Tales of the Cocktail 2015 has come to town, marking its 13th year in the Big Easy. From around the world they've come - thousands of bartenders, liquor reps, spirits producers, bar owners, beverage industry scribes and cocktail enthusiasts here to witness the monster truck of all spirits festivals in the grandest of all party towns.
New Orleans is a city that knows how to drink: From its primordial jambalaya sprang more than a few now-classic cocktails - among them the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz and the insufferable Hurricane. We know her as NOLA, and she is among America's craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud's French 75, Antoine's Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it's not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here.
The five-day festival can be grueling, overflowing as it is with workshops, networking, happy hours, competitions, tastings, spirit-paired dinners, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions and French Quarter camaraderie, huge parties and... even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one's resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if one is not careful - for instance, advanced bartender trainings; tips on opening and running a bar; seminars about the flavors of Cognac, the reemergence of Canadian whiskey or the pairing of cocktails with cigars; and of course, the singularly unique city itself.
This is my fourth year at Tales, soaking in knowledge and sunshine and chronicling the shenanigans as the members of Texas' craft-cocktail community represent the Lone Star State. Texas, along with New York and California, is among the top-represented states at the festival, which last year drew nearly 18,000 attendees. About three-fourths of those were working bartenders or industry professionals.
"Everything we do is in support of the spirits industry," said Paul Tuennerman, co-founder of the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, which sponsors the festival and just gained rights to the city's annual Daiquiri Festival too. "We want to ensure that flavorful cocktails are served for years to come."
Most of the action is going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street (home to the famously revolving Carousel Bar), where Wednesday morning's annual Texas party helped kick things off for the fourth year in a row, with Austin's bar peeps leading this year's charge. The bar staff of The Pastry War, Houston's pioneering agave spirits spot, is among a handful of crews competing in Thursday's yearly Bar Fight (which this year has gone international, with competitors representing Paris, London and Melbourne).
Texas is also known to bring its oversized presence to the U.S. Bartenders Guild's annual midnight toast, and in general you'll find Lone Star peeps chilling at local spots like Cane and Table, One Eyed Jacks and Erin Rose, where Dallas' Mate Hartai (of Remedy) could be found late Wednesday enjoying frozen Irish coffee with The Standard Pour's Brian McCullough and Christian Armando.