If you’re in the drinks industry or a serious cocktail aficionado, you might just have noticed a lot of talk recently about New Orleans and Tales of the Cocktail. Now that the week-long gathering has passed and we’ve had a couple of weeks to recover, I thought I’d have a stab at trying to understand what makes this gathering the biggest, and arguably the best of the year when it comes to all things cocktail and spirit related. When over 20,000 people travel not only from across the US but from around the world, you know there must be something special about it: but what?
If you really think about it New Orleans is a strange place to hold a cocktail and spirit related event. It certainly has a history when it comes to cocktails, with drinks such as the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Sazerac hailing from this city as well as the famous Peychaud’s bitters, but history alone isn't enough to make it a cocktail epicentre of the world. There are many other cities that have a much more developed modern cocktail scene, with New York and London immediately springing to mind, and in fact there are only a small handful of bars in new Orleans where you’ll find it easy to get a great cocktail. So why do so many people make this pilgrimage every year?
Almost everyone I talked to over the five days I was in New Orleans mentioned what a pain it was to get there. Long flights and rented cars are the norm, especially if you’re travelling from overseas. Yet even given the fact that NOLA isn’t easy to reach, no one seems to mind making the effort. Now certainly there are a lot of great seminars and presentations, but in all honesty you can see most of them at various other bar shows around the world, or read about them on websites, so why do so many people go to so much effort and expense to be in New Orleans for five days of the year?
Now don’t get me wrong, Tales of the Cocktail is a great event, the largest gathering in the drinks industry, and is fantastically organised by Ann Tuennerman and her team, a feat that shouldn’t be underestimated considering the fact that on each of the five days there are literally dozens of events, seminars, parties and tastings being hosted. Organising so many events and managing the movements of more than 20,000 visitors, keeping seminars on schedule and ensuring that five days runs smoothly is no mean feat. When it kick off you literally can’t move in the French Quarter of New Orleans without bumping into bartenders and brand ambassadors from around the world.
One of the great things about TotC is that it has become the showcase for what’s happening in our industry, with almost everyone who presents developing new material or talking on the latest topics of interest, specifically for Tales. In other bar shows around the world, we often get a second or third look at these presentations, but Tales is where most people choose to showcase their latest research and try to put on the best show of the year.
Despite the size, complexity and depth of events, it’s still surprising that Tales has grown into the phenomenon it has become. There are plenty of other bar shows around the world, in cities that could be considered to have a better cocktail pedigree, and yet it’s new Orleans that plays host to by far and away the biggest and arguably the best spirit and cocktail gathering in the world. So why isn’t it Bar Convent Berlin, London Cocktail Week or the Manhattan Cocktail Classic that’s anticipated as the biggest event of the year? Why do so many bartenders, owners, spirit brands and distributors travel to this little corner of the US as their annual cocktail pilgrimage?
Ten years ago when Tales of the Cocktail started out, it was just a small gathering of drinks authors and notables from the industry, but as the years have gone by it has grown into something barely recognisable as the same event. Of course ten years ago there was a growing cocktail movement in some of the larger cities around the world, but really the resurgence in cocktail culture was also in it’s infancy. Whatever city you live in (or near) think back ten years and ask yourself where you would have gone for cocktails? The chances are that unless you were in one of just four or five cities around the world, your choices would have been pretty limited.
As the last decade has unfolded things have changed a lot, now there are great cocktail bars in many cities across almost every country around the world. At the same time communication about cocktails internationally has transformed beyond recognition. Just a decade ago there were really very few resources for sharing and exchanging ideas and information about cocktails and spirits, whereas now there are bartender forums, social media, blogs and websites dedicated to every subject imaginable. This sharing of knowledge and breaking down of international barriers has meant that cocktail related events have suddenly become a lot more widely known too, so from a timing point of view it couldn’t have been better for Tales.
Finally, the cocktail culture that has grown around the world coupled with new ways of talking about it and sharing ideas, has meant that we have a new phenomenon, which is ‘cocktail celebrities’. In days gone by there have always been ‘big names’ in the industry, but before social media and blogging, they were faceless names, often on distant shores. Now they are brought to life and seem more accessible to us all, so the idea of travelling to meet them and learn from them has become more realistic and appealing. The fact that Tales started as a meeting point for authors and journalists to exchange ideas, and that many of these people are now the VIP’s of our industry, means that Tales has become the event to visit if you want to rub shoulders with the influencers of our trade.
Another thing that Tales of the Cocktail has going for it, is that it takes place in New Orleans; I mean come on, who doesn’t want to go to a city famous for it’s food, music and especially for it’s party atmosphere? If you stop and think about it, New Orleans isn’t exactly well placed in terms of travel when compared with many other cities famous for their cocktails. Within the US you have cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, all of which are pretty far away from NOLA. From Europe, most countries don’t offer direct flights, so inevitably you’re looking at having to change somewhere two or three hours flight away from New Orleans. But such is the draw of this magical city, that people are willing to make the effort and bear the expense of getting there.
So given that there’s a cocktail event, in a city that isn’t a major hub for international travel, and isn’t one of the leading cocktail cities in the world, it would have to have a lot going for it to make so many people travel from every corner of the globe.
Well New Orleans certainly has a lot going for it! It’s almost hard to know where to start, but if you’re a fan of jazz and blues, then there are few cities that compare, from the bands you’ll find playing in bars every night, to the quality of the buskers working the streets, you’ll struggle to miss the musical heritage on offer in this city. For me this is definitely a big draw, and talking to other visitors one of their highlights is finding a bar or a club with great live music and experiencing part of the musical heritage of the city.
On top of the music, there’s the food to consider too. New Orleans prides itself on its culinary reputation, and it doesn’t fail to deliver on that front either. Of course the food ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, but if you love oysters, soul food or just plain ridiculous sized portions, you’ll be in heaven. Jambalaya at Coop’s, an oyster Po’ Boy and of course beignets are a must while in New Orleans, but as part of TotC there’s an entire evening of ‘spirited dinners’ which sees bartenders and brands teaming up with local chefs to present a menu of dishes paired with cocktails or spirits. The only difficulty you’ll have is deciding where to eat, and stopping before you’re too bloated to move.
Another thing that makes New Orleans such a great destination for a cocktail event is the party atmosphere it’s famous for. If you mention New Orleans to most people, their first thought (other than maybe Hurricanes) will be Mardi Gras, with images of streets heaving with people, live music, drinks in plastic cups and strings of beads being thrown to the crowd. Now everyone knows that bartenders like to cut loose when they get a chance, so hosting an event in a city that is famous for partying, has probably done more to make Tales grow so big than any other factor.
The reality is that most of Bourbon Street (famous for being the rowdiest street in town) is pretty much just a throng of drunken tourists, but for dipping in and out of it’s still fun. Move just one block over and you’ll find everything from goodtime dive bars, to sophisticated watering holes, and the fact that you can drink on the streets doesn’t hurt either. Basically New Orleans is a playground if you like drinking, eating and live music, and to me this is one of the biggest draws of attending Tales.
In our modern era of social media, blogs and websites, it’s easy to have a list of contacts from around the world, many of whom you might never have met in person. Sharing information and knowledge from thousands of miles away can happen instantly, and this has helped to create what really feels like a global family within our industry. This to me, above all else, is what makes Tales of the Cocktail so special; sure there’s a chance to learn or to sample new spirits and cocktails, but actually it’s the people you meet and the experiences you have that make Tales the must attend event of the year.
So next year when you’re planning which events to visit, make sure Tales of the Cocktail is at the top of your list. This year I caught up with old friends from France, Sweden, New York, Seattle and San Francisco as well as making new friends from cities across the US, Australia and Europe. I spent time with good people, in a city that literally never sleeps, and most of that time wasn’t spent talking about cocktails and spirits, it was spent drinking, shooting guns and playing poker, or just hanging out (while hungover) and laughing with friends. I think in five days I managed to tick three things off my bucket list; it’s that sort of a place!
Tales is special, not only because it offers up the most in depth learning experience when it comes to sharing knowledge within the drinks industry, but because it’s a chance for us to have a drinks industry family gathering in a city where almost anything goes. The fact that you may learn and experience new things about drinks is just a bonus when compared to experiencing New Orleans with friends, both old and new.
photographs courtesy of Andy Ives at BarLifeUK