If you can't imagine waking up with the pungently bitter Italian amaro, I'm with you. As I stepped onto the elevator of the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans shortly after 9 a.m. last Friday — soon to be joined by a woman already lavishly trashed — I wondered if I could handle so strong a flavor so early.
For the uninitiated, Tales of the Cocktail is very likely the nation's foremost convention celebrating and promoting the mixed drink. It's an industry event, to be sure, where bartenders battle against each other in mixology competitions and the world's booze-makers roll out their latest products. But it's also a playground for connoisseurs, critics and folks who simply enjoy a good stiff belt.
This was the 10th year of the convention and I can personally testify how much it's grown since 2007 or whenever it was I first attended. Back then, I don't remember seeing anyone checking badges or taking tickets for seminars. This year, many of the events were sold out months in advance, and security personnel shut down tasting rooms not one moment past the scheduled time.
But a couple of things thankfully haven't changed a bit. Firstly, seminar topics are as esoteric and off-the-wall as always, including sessions on the use of alcohol in religious ceremonies, the importance of aroma and a discussion of how our sense of taste changes as we age. Also, the convention still has the feel of one big, barely contained party, with folks happily scurrying from one event to the next on unsteady legs and the hotel lobby buzzing at all hours.
Speaking of buzzing, I've learned that it's possible to quaff — or at least sample — three or four dozen high-test cocktails over the course of a 16-hour day and yet not feel actually drunk. Even more importantly, I avoided waking up with a hangover. Granted, there were moments when I worried that I might be nauseous if I took one more sip, but those moments passed and I grabbed the next drink.
At any given moment, there are any number of different functions going on at Tales of the Cocktail. There are the ticketed seminars that are part history lesson, demonstration, tasting session and sometimes awkward attempts at booze-related humor. Then you've got the free-form tasting rooms designed to promote a specific spirit line or distiller, where convention attendees mill about with various samples of cocktails and appetizers. Also, there are the pop-up stations around the hotel or even in the street outside, where drinks are handed to any adult ambling by.
Finally, there are various tours, promotions and luncheons, some of which, like a riverboat cruise and an event taking over the art museum, clearly made quite a dent in some company's marketing budget. Others were wonderfully quirky in their creativity, such as pedicab rides to a nearby barbershop for free haircuts — or, more likely, given the population, muttonchop trims or mustache waxings — while you sip whatever beverage is footing the bill.
But, apart from the revelry, what was learned? Well, most superficially, if you're tired of heavily tattooed bartenders who look like carnies, dandies or characters out of There Will Be Blood, too bad. The suspenders-and-triby hat look isn't going away any time soon.
More substantially, the explosion of new spirits continues apace, with such unveilings as Edinburgh Gin; Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch; SAGE, a very palatable herbal, gin-based potation from the same folks who make root-beer-flavored liqueur; and Campfire Whiskey, a blend of rye, bourbon and scotch from High West. Alas, I missed the tasting for this last one — and I've since heard a rumor that some antiquated liquor law has already put an end to this particular concoction.
My next post will dwell on other yummy discoveries — and a few gross-outs — during Tales.
And, as for the breakfast Fernet. Silly me. Up in the media suite, they were serving the Eva Peron, a short drink mixed with Fernet, Carpano vermouth, Domaine du Canton ginger liqueur, ginger beer and lime. Not only was it not bitter, but it wasn't overwhelmed by ginger, as I'd feared. Smooth yet pleasantly earthy and umami-ish, it was the best use of Fernet I've tasted outside of the Toronto.
Which reminds me that there was a seminar devoted to debating the origin of cocktails named after certain Canadian cities. No Joke.
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