Inside 'Tales of the Cocktail,' Where Bartenders Perfect Their Craft
Spencer Warren, beverage director of the downtown restaurant group that includes Butcher and the Rye, Tako and Meat & Potatoes, is a genuine star at Tales. He's Pittsburgh’s most noticeable bartender at the event.
photos by hal b. klein
Last week, I attended Tales of the Cocktails in New Orleans for the fourth time. The festival is part bartender convention, part liquor-company trade show and part bacchanalia for those who enjoy a well-crafted drink.
By my first visit in 2011, Tales already was a much bigger and broader event than when Tender Bar + Kitchen's Craig Mrusek attended in 2008, but even with the wild and wonderful brand-sponsored parties, the focus still was clearly on deepening the knowledge of spirits professionals and cocktail aficionados. Now it feels as if it’s as much a commercial endeavor as it is an educational one.
Liquor, barware and lifestyle companies sponsor pretty much everything; more than 300 were prominently listed on the Tales of the Cocktail app. If you attended Tales last week, you had to wear bracelets marked with Tales and sponsor logos; because those bracelets weren't removable, you had to have them on even when you were out on the town. That type of branding, I’m sure, earns a lot of goodwill from the tourism bureau for bringing thousands of people to New Orleans during the typically slow, sweltering summer season, but it made me feel akin to a pawn in an advertising endeavor.
The conference’s tasting rooms used to be a place to learn about smaller distilleries, take a more in-depth look at some established ones and to discover new flavors. Selection this year wasn’t as deep because it’s become quite expensive for producers to sample their spirits. Worse than that, many of the rooms were overcrowded, making it nearly impossible to have any sort of lengthy discussion with the distillers and brand reps. My passion for mezcal started at Tales 2012 almost entirely because of a tasting room I visited that year; I didn’t have anything close to that same experience this year. Many of us also were forced — I tried to opt out but was told I couldn’t — to wear RFID locators that tracked our movements inside the tasting rooms. Instead of being a data point in an overcrowded room, I spent more time this year exploring New Orleans restaurants (the General’s Chicken at Red’s Chinese was the highlight of my trip).
For the last few years, a Pittsburgh contingent rolled strong down to New Orleans, but this year our crowd was smaller. Spencer Warren, beverage director of the downtown restaurant group that includes Butcher and the Rye, Tako and Meat & Potatoes, is a genuine star at Tales; he's Pittsburgh’s most noticeable bartender at the event. Warren's Dessert Lilly, a tart play on a daiquiri, was the official cocktail of Tales of the Cocktail, so at the welcome toast thousands of jolly cocktail fans enjoyed his drink. Later in the week, he and I enjoyed one at Cane and Table — one of my favorite places to drink in New Orleans — where it was featured on the cocktail menu. If you’re looking to try one in Pittsburgh, it's served frozen at Tako downtown and will be for the foreseeable future.
Former Butterjoint bartender Amanda Carto now lives in Austin but chose to pay homage to Pittsburgh by listing Butterjoint as her home bar for the cocktail apprentice program. Tako’s Maggie Meskey, who herself has risen through the CAP ranks to become a leader in the program that is the backbone of Tales, also worked behind the scenes. Tales-vet Jess Keyser and first-timer Abbie Rhodes left Union Pig & Chicken to attend a few seminars. And I presented “Mon Rye: America’s Original Whiskey” with Meredith Grelli and Wes Shonk of Wigle Whiskey. We got deep-nerdy about the historical context of rye whiskey development in Western Pennsylvania and the benefits of growing and distilling rye today.
I spoke with a couple of Pittsburgh bartenders who’d previously attended Tales; they told me if they just wanted to have fun while doing a little bit of learning, they’d rather attend Camp Runamok, a bourbon-fueled summer camp for bartenders. If they wanted a focused learning experience, they said Portland Cocktail Week offered significantly better educational opportunities for bartenders. Tales, they felt, was now too expensive and too commercial to make it worth taking time off of work for a trip to New Orleans.
There’s still a lot to love about Tales of the Cocktail, particularly the seminars, which remain as good — and often even better than they ever were. Washington, D.C. bar revolutionary Derek Brown’s seminar “The Greatest Whisk(e)y Category Is…” was a raucous rally for supporters of bourbon, scotch, rye and Tennessee whiskey that combined education and entertainment at the highest level. Despite a rousing argument on behalf of bourbon by JP Fetherston, who runs bourbon-focused Southern Efficiency in DC, the popular vote went to rye.
One of my favorite seminars was "The Big One: Drinking WWII,” presented by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and David Wondrich. I learned the tiki craze was cemented during the war because of the confluence of influence of soldiers returning from the Pacific theater (where it was a dismal place to drink compared to the significantly more lively European theater) and the relative availability of high-quality rum compared to whiskey (U.S. distilleries converted into rocket/torpedo fuel factories) and gin (importation stopped by German naval blockades). Special props to Wondrich, a Pittsburgh native, for showing a slide of soldiers from the Steel City having a good time and letting the crowd know that it depicted, “People from Pittsburgh doing what people from Pittsburgh do.”
The short Q&A that followed, however, was emblematic of the direction that Tales is taking. With time for only two questions, someone from the crowd asked Wondrich what exactly he did and if he’d written any books. And sure, if you’re not a cocktail fan, you might not know that Wondrich did in fact write the book (Imbibe!) that is largely credited with popularizing contemporary craft-cocktail culture. But you’d think that would be basic knowledge for someone who is attending Tales. It's certainly a good thing that now another person knows the deep scope of Wondrich's knowledge (and hopefully will become a regular reader of his Esquire column) but you'd think the person would run a Google search before asking that.
The spirited camaraderie and love of learning remain fixtures at Tales of the Cocktail, and that continues to make a good reason to go to New Orleans in the sweltering summer heat. Still, I get the sense that the commercialism genie will be hard to stuff back into the glass bottle, no matter how beveled that bottle is.