It’s billed as the world’s premier cocktail festival. But it’s not just boozy drinks that draw spirits aficionados to Tales of the Cocktail, which recently marked its 10th anniversary in New Orleans. It’s learning about new trends, tasting new distillations and rubbing shoulders with the world’s top bartenders, spirits professionals and brand ambassadors that makes this five-day festival a spirits realm must.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot of drinking going on. All day and night, hundreds of tasting rooms, sampling panels and parties offer festival-goers the chance to feast on the world’s best and brightest hooch. Spirits purveyors break out the best of their portfolio and mixologists bust plenty of new cocktail moves.
Innovation is everywhere, even in the most benign-looking sipping cups.
Here’s some of what we learned — trends, flavors and spirits categories — at Tales of the Cocktail:
BRINGING THE A GAME
In its quest to be hip, the craft cocktail movement occasionally lets bar service suffer. Instead of engaging the customer, bartenders with waxed mustaches and an abundance of tats spent too many minutes focused on the process of making a drink.
“People are getting sick of mixology. They’re getting sick of our focus on ourselves. They want good service,” said Tobin Ellis, a hospitality and bartending consultant. “It’s about how you treat people and take care of them.”
Ellis said that the modern craft cocktail movement may have brought us better drinks, but it has not necessarily brought us better service.
Bartending guru Tony Abou-Ganim couldn’t agree more. He said that bar service is critical to the success of any restaurant or hotel.
“The bar isn’t a waiting room — it’s the beginning of your dining experience. It’s the first course. It sets the tone.”
In other words, bartenders need to start making eye contact and establishing rapport with customers.
THE BIG BATCH
If you’re making one you might as well make 100. That’s the thinking behind the trend of cocktails on tap — large batches of cocktails stored in keg-like systems for high-volume consumption.
“We all appreciate the effort that bartenders put into the art of cocktails. But most people just want to have a good drink — they don’t care about what’s happening behind the bar. So why shouldn’t they get a cocktail fast?” said Scott Huth, bartender at Tavernita in Chicago.
Think of tap drinks as “keg” or “bulk” cocktails. They’re stored in a system that preserves big batches of cocktails, such as the Negroni, under a carbonation system that keeps them good for weeks. This method allows craft cocktails to be dispensed quickly and at a higher profit margin for the bar.
Kevin Diedrich of Jasper’s Corner Tap in San Francisco said that proponents are not looking to undo the good work of the craft cocktail movement; just simply looking for a faster way to serve quality drinks.
“If you want to wait 15 minutes to get a cocktail, fine,” said Matt Seiter, bar manager of Sanctuaria in St. Louis. “If not, come to us.”
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
“People are always looking for the new trend. How about we just start using thing that taste good and have been around for a long time?” said Houston bartending wiz and Anvil Bar & Refuge owner Bobby Heugel. An advocate for heritage spirits, Heugel spoke at a panel on the joys of all-American apple and peach brandy (in vogue before American bourbon got its legs), as well as European eau-de-vie.
“We’ve neglected these spirits in the U.S. and the roll they played in cocktails. When you use these products, you’re really getting down to the details.” And isn’t it all in the details? Heugel and his fellow panelists argued that cocktails using the “fruit of the still” (aged fruit spirits) should be applauded for their creativity and flavor depth and dimension.
Even after a full day of pouring cocktails, many bartenders attending Tales of the Cocktail repaired to a rather nondescript bar called the Old Absinthe House which offers a great selection of scotch, and makes a good Ramos Gin Fizz. Oh, and it also pours absinthe.
The ritual of drinking this potent anise-flavored spirit is growing, said Anne-Louise Marquis, brand ambassador for Pernod Absinthe. Outlawed for nearly 100 years, the U.S. ban on absinthe was lifted in 2007, ushering in a new era of absinthe appreciation.
“It was misunderstood. It doesn’t make you hallucinate or cut your ear off,” Marquis said, referring to the suggestion that Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his ear under the influence of absinthe.
An acquired taste for sure, absinthe is a social drink, meant to be consumed slowly and with attendant ceremony. It also happens to play a role in tiki drinks as well as the classic New Orleans staple, the Sazerac.
India is one of the world’s largest liquor markets but you don’t hear much about Indian spirits. That’s because they’re not available here, a situation that Delhi-based spirits consultant Rohan Jelkie hopes will be corrected soon so that Americans will be able to appreciate fenny (or feni), a clear spirit made from coconut palm sap or cashew apples.
Mixed with juices or soda, fenny makes for a unique if pungent cocktail. Like Brazilian cachaca or Peruvian pisco, Indian fenny could be a comer. So too could baijiu, a complex Chinese spirit distilled from sorghum that is the third most popular spirit in the world.
At a lunch sponsored by Moutai, renowned spirits professionals such as Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich extolled the pleasures of Kweichow Moutai’s baijiu, named the official spirit of China. Consumed in tiny glasses or ceramic cups, baijiu is meant to be drunk throughout a meal and often as part of a toast. It’s something that should appeal to spirits adventurers.
“Asian spirits are the dark side of the moon; we know next to nothing about them,” said Wondrich, referencing Chinese baijiu, Japanese shochu and Krean soju. “They’re challenging flavors — pungent and strong. I think it will be discovered, like tequila in the 1940s. It’s over-the-horizon stuff.”
F. Paul Pacult doesn’t want to take anything away from our love affair with vodka, tequila and small-batch whiskey. But he can’t figure out why American drinkers aren’t swooning over rum. No other spirit is more versatile and flavorful than rum, said Pacult, publisher/editor of F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal.
Offering the broadest palate in all of the spirits categories and sporting a tremendous pedigree, rum is poised to grow beyond its common appeal (tiki drinks, Cuba Libres and often maligned daiquiris) to be the next major player in the spirits world, Pacult said.
“Producers are bringing out all their best stuff,” he said. “The collective drinking public is demanding it. They want greater complexity and greater challenge from their rums. A white rum isn’t enough anymore.”
Maybe global warming has something to do with it, but we’re all looking for cooling quenchers in a hot world. For cocktail enthusiasts, this has given rise to the low-alcohol drinks or cocktails with more juices or sodas.
Food and spirits professional and James Beard Award winner Jennifer English said to look for the resurgence in the highball and cocktail coolers made with only one ounce of alcohol and plenty of mixers.
“The influence of tea is also going to be significant,” English said. “Tea adds layers of flavor and plenty of quenchability.” We’re not talking about tea-flavored spirits (although products like sweet tea vodka are gaining ground) but using brewed tea as a mixer cocktails. And it’s not just mixing plenty of tea into spirits, she added.
Tea syrups as a cocktail ingredient also are a trend.