Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tales of the Cocktail

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 12:17 PM

Fourteen glasses of rum on the mat, 14 glasses of rum...
  • Scott Henry
  • Fourteen glasses of rum on the mat, 14 glasses of rum...
Did you know that the earliest Russian vodkas were flavored with fruit? Or that rum was overtaken in popularity in the U.S. by whiskey only after politically motivated embargoes made it difficult to import? Or that the curacao citrus, from which the popular, orange-flavored liqueur is made, is actually green, wrinkled as hell and otherwise inedible?

OK, I think I've heard something about that last one, but the fact is that Tales of the Cocktail is a great place to learn new, if arguably trivial, facts about your favorite drinks, as well as get a glimpse of the latest trends in mixology and taste the newest products, often months before you see them on the shelf of your local package store.

For instance, the recent explosion of Italian amaros (amari?) — the bitter liqueur made by Averno, Cynar, Fernet and, one of my favorites, Montenegro — was so well represented at Tales that a seminar on the subject had filled before I could sign up. Also, the Italian and French love of aperitifs, such as Lillet, Campari and Aperol, a relative newcomer here, was also duly noted. Pisco, the mild Peruvian brandy, continues to make inroads in the national cocktail scene, while I didn't see as much attention paid to "white dog," the un-aged bourbon or "silver whiskey" as it is sometimes called, as I had two years ago. Both of those are good trends as far as I'm concerned.

Another trend I noticed is a perennial, namely, that rum is the Roger Dangerfield of spirits (for you millennials out there, that means it don't get no respect). I've been hearing predictions for years no at Tales that premium rum will soon enjoy the popular renaissance that high-end vodkas and tequilas have enjoyed, but so far it hasn't happened. This year, probably the best seminar I attended was a guided tasting by master spirit taster (how's that for a job?) Paul Pacult. The nearly 200 people who filled a ballroom at the Monteleone Hotel were each greeted by a placemat set with 14 1-oz pours of various rums made in the Caribbean, Central and South America of both sugar cane and molasses.

Pacult, the proprietor of the subscription-only Spirit Journal, is my favorite seminar leader at Tales, not just because he's typically animated and funny, but because he offers insightful tasting notes that have allowed me to better appreciate whatever it is I'm sampling. For instance, when you give your beverage an initial sniff, inhale deeply with with your mouth slightly open so the fumes can reach your taste buds. Believe it or not, there are master distillers who learn more from smelling their product than from tasting it.

How to get people interested in sweet tea vodka
  • Scott Henry
  • How to get people interested in sweet tea vodka
When you've got 14 shots to work your way through, a spit cup is essential because you can't possibly swallow everything and hope to remain upright. And I've also learned that, although it seems very natural to let spirits sit on your tongue as you taste them, after a day of doing this, the surface of your tongue will feel like it's been sand-blasted. So give it a swish around the mouth until you get a taste, then spit most of it out.

Anyway, here are some of my tasting notes from the rum session:

* I was surprised by how smooth and caramelly the 10 Cane was, given that it's fairly cheap.

* Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, a new rum from Venezuela, is pleasantly reminiscent of vanilla frosting.

* Ron Abuelo 12, a Panamanian entry, was quite popular with the audience, but I thought it too coconutty. I don't like coconuts.

* Shellback Silver, a new light rum from Barbados, has a nice vanilla flavor. BUt don't look for it yet because it hasn't made it's way stateside yet.

* My personal favorites were the Zapaca 23-year-old from Guatemala , which was drier and more complex than most we tasted; Depaz Blue Cane, a rhum agricole from Martinique made from... you guessed it, that was surprisingly delicate; and the Banks 7, a blended rum for which the "7" doesn't indicate the age, but how many countries and islands are represented in the blend.

While at Tales, I bumped into Holeman & Finch barkeep Greg Best, who said the Banks 7 was the most interesting new product he tasted over the weekend. So, wouldn't you know it, this particular rum also hasn't made its way to Atlanta yet.

Speaking of local bartenders, I also ran into the celebrated Miles Macquarrie of Leon's Full Service and Kevin Bragg of 4th & Swift, who's coming off some bartending wins this year.

Every year, I hear complaints about how overly ginormous and industry-driven Tales has become, and it's true. When you have tasting rooms dedicated to Midori and Amaretto Disaronno, and pool parties centered around Jagermeister, you know that no self-respecting bartender put these events together.

And yet, it's relatively easy to sidestep the cheesy stuff — such as, say, yet another sweet tea-flavored vodka handed out in the street by swimsuit-clad pin-up girls — as seen above, while you keep yourself open to new discoveries. My own moment of surprise came at a VIP tasting (for which someone gifted us with tickets) where folks were pouring Johnnie Walker Blue and high-end cognacs. At one unassuming booth, I sampled something calledBalcones Texas Single Malt Whisky, a fruity, woody potion that has much of the complexity of a Scotch.

At the Balcones Whisky booth. Can you spot the bartender?
  • Scott Henry
  • At the Balcones Whisky booth. Can you spot the bartender?
Apparently, the Balcones Distillery, heretofore unknown by me, previously specialized in whiskey made from blue corn, but has now turned out this small-batch winner, for which I for one will be watching the shelves.

It's that kind of spirited serendipity that keeps me coming back to Tales. That and four days of free booze.

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