Last March, while attending the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, I reached out to Ann Tuennerman, Founder of Tales of the Cocktail, to see if she would meet with me for a quick coffee chat. Although she was prepping to head out of town for her Tales on Tour Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, she agreed to meet with me in between a workout, picking up dry cleaning, and a host of other errands that she needed to complete before taking her production across the seas.
Still battling the storm of controversy over her participation on the Krewe of Zulu Mardi Gras float just a few weeks prior, Ann was embarrassed by her naiveté yet honest in owning her mistakes and open to learning how to move forward from the incident—not just for herself, but in finding solutions that could benefit the bartending and spirits industries as a whole. We talked for a good hour about the industry and about how I, as an admitted newbie to this industry with my own hopes of promoting diversity inclusion, can jump in and become an industry leader just as she has been for the past 15 years.
Since that conversation, I have kept in contact with Ann and was recently appointed to the newly established Tales of the Cocktail Diversity Council. So with Tales of The Cocktail 2017 now upon us, I reached back out to Ann to check in, get some updates on what I can expect at this year’s conference, and to see if anything else had been learned since our last conversation regarding the Mardi Gras controversy.
Happy to take my call, she jumped in right away with: “This is a generous industry. Sometimes people will feel very intimidated, but you don’t need to be. Everyone is welcoming and happy to be here. You’re going to meet master distillers that are just as excited to talk to you as you are to them. You’re going to meet so many amazing people and contacts. Just remember, we’re not going to run out of alcohol. You don’t have to squeeze everything into one event. Pace yourself. You’re going to be overwhelmed… in a good way!”
Tales of the Cocktail Turns 15
Celebrating its 15th year, Tales of The Cocktail has grown into the largest cocktail conference in the world. More than 15,000 attendees are expected to arrive in New Orleans this week to attend an event roster that exceeds 300 scheduled activities.
“You know, when we started this event, we literally had 50 people shoved in the back room at the Carousel Bar,” said Tuennerman. “It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years. I feel really good about that because we created the industry. Before we started Tales, bartenders had no place to gather. They didn’t have their own tribe. They didn’t have an official group to talk to. I’m very proud to have created this and to still be working with some of the same people who have been with me since day one.”
This year’s Tales of The Cocktail offers 84 seminars, over 80 tasting rooms, Spirited Dinners, and a host of certifications for bartenders to continue to improve their skills. Each year, a committee of peers in the industry curates the events. The seminars committee had 67 people from 28 countries who reviewed more than 300 seminar submissions. The seminars selected range from cocktail- and spirits-focused education to entrepreneurship, as well as industry issues, including sustainability and sexual assault prevention training.
“The committees keep what we are doing very relevant within the industry,” said Tuennerman. “We don’t have all the answers, but we want to be the leader in presenting topics that are important to our industry. Be it gender equality, violence prevention, sustainability, diversity… we want to continue to be a leader in helping have these conversations. We have the opportunity to gather all these people to discuss these subjects at Tales, and again all year long on our website.”
One hot topic at this year’s conference will be around the issues of diversity. New this year is the addition of the Tales of the Cocktail Diversity Council, which will discuss unconscious bias and diversity blind spots within the industry. “[Lack of] diversity is an industry problem, not just a Tales problem,” said Tuennerman. “There’s a lot of unconscious bias. It’s like how the industry asks a bartender to refer one of his friends to fill an open position, and that position gets filled with someone who looks just like him. I think it goes back to realizing that these are unconscious habits and seeing what can be done differently. It takes some work, and I think we all have to look internally and recognize the unconscious bias. I’m really encouraged and excited about what we have the opportunity to do with the Diversity Council. The things that the council will be doing is just starting the conversation in a positive, constructive manner. Just being more conscious that these issues exist is the first step.”
One thing that will be missing this year, however, is Ann’s husband and co-founder of Tales of The Cocktail, Paul Tuennerman, who resigned after the fallout of the Mardi Gras controversy. “Paul will not be at Tales this year, and frankly, it is a loss that the Industry should recognize. I owe him an apology for what I’ve put him through. Tales would have never become what it is today without him, and he has, without ever being asked, bailed me out repeatedly. Because Paul opted to remain in the background all these years should never diminish the contributions he has made to the Event and the Spirits Industry. He made an incredible sacrifice on that Friday so that others could continue on and benefit from our collective works.”
When asked about her major takeaway from the controversy, Tuennerman said: “I didn’t realize how much of a public figure I or he [Paul] was. Riding in Zulu has been on my Mardi Gras bucket list for years. It’s a beloved carnival organization that has contributed a lot to New Orleans…It has been very painful, but my philosophy has been that we’re not going to hide. We’re going to get out there and tackle this issue head on.”
Since 2008, Tales of The Cocktail has contributed over $100 million to the New Orleans local economy—primarily benefitting small businesses, restaurants, bars, and hotels in the French Quarter. Tuennerman continues: “I take a lot of pride in the fact that the city embraces our guests. Tales of the Cocktail brings in more revenue to small businesses than Mardi Gras and The New Orleans Jazz Festival. We don’t want to see the city hurt behind our mistake. That’s why the Diversity Council is so important. We are looking at issues around diversity to be identified and recommendations to be addressed. I’m optimistic that something really good will come out from all of this. “
I have to appreciate Ann’s gut-wrenching honesty. Admittedly, this style is not well received by everyone, but it is what has kept Tales of The Cocktail alive for the past 15 years. When I asked her about this, and for some advice around protecting the integrity my own business, she said: “You have to stay true to your brand. Stay true to your vision. I am very protective of TOTC and our brand, and the people we serve…I want to protect our sponsors and our events. When you put 15 years of your life into something, you’re very protective of it. I always follow my gut feeling and have been true to that. Its not easy creating something that’s new…I created an idea, got people to buy into it, and that turned into 15 years of successful events.”
Encouraged and excited to pack my bags for what I know will be a whirlwind of excitement, an opportunity to make major industry connections, and participate in making real change within the industry, I thanked Ann again for always returning my emails and calls and agreeing to this interview. She chuckled and said, “I think you should always meet with anyone who asks you to meet with them, and you should always dance with anyone who asks you to dance.”
All photos credited to Jennifer Mitchell Photography