In eight years, this convention focused on the history, making and enjoyment of mixed drinks has grown from an event catering to industry insiders and a motley collection of cocktail enthusiasts to an international launch pad for new products and a major promotional platform for existing brands.
In 2007, when I came to my first Tales, some of the seminars had perhaps a couple of dozen attendees. This year, they've had to expand to another French Quarter hotel to add ballroom space. Even so, I dropped in on two different seminars today in separate ballrooms and could barely find an open seat.
I chalk this up to what I call the "St-Germain Effect." Making its debut at the 2007 Tales was a new liqueur not yet on the market. Called St-Germain, it was made from, of all things, the fragile blossom of the elderflower, which is harvested by hand in tiny batches once a year by a handful of French farmers. Sounds like the very definition of a back-shelf boutique liqueur, but through a canny combination of stunning packaging, clever marketing materials and a unique, sublimely floral flavor, St-Germain proved an instant hit.
Within six months, I began to notice that nearly every decent bar in Atlanta had a drink using the distilled elderflower. Only two weeks ago, the New York Times observed, "St-Germain liqueur seems to be on every cocktail menu from New York City to the Hamptons."
Anyway, according to my theory, when booze-makers and liquor distributors saw St-Germain's success, they realized that, for a fraction of what they'd spend rolling out a national marketing campaign, they could go to Tales to efficiently reach the most important audience of all: bartenders. For most products, word-of-mouth is considered the most desirable form of advertising, but if you can compel people to put your beverage on a cocktail menu, half the battle is won.
So, what goes on at Tales?
>> Seminars — Right now, I'm sitting in a tiki-bar session hosted by the founder of Trader Tiki flavorings, the author of Tiki Road Trip and the owner of Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, as they talk about the history and ongoing revival of tiki culture.
>> Tastings — Free events sponsored by drink-makers offering samples of their wares.
>> Demonstrations — Classes devoted to the techniques of making good drinks.
>> Competitions — Bartender face-offs and drink recipe contests.
Oh, and lots and lots of drinking. There are the usual suspects — whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, brandy and various liqueurs and aperitifs — but I've also seen a head-spinning array of cachaça, bitters, amaro, mezcal and, of course, absinthe. It's not uncommon for conference-goers to sample 30-40 cocktails and/or shots in a day.
So, I'm headed to the next seminar, but look for a wrap-up on Monday.
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