If you’re a booze industry insider, this might seem like an article that doesn’t need to be written (it’s an accusation we’re pretty used to at this point). Why wouldn’t you care about Tales of the Cocktail, the single largest cocktail festival in the world, host of the alcohol business’ equivalent of the Oscars, and carrier of the torch of classic and modern drinking culture?
Well, to start, most people have no idea what the hell it is. That may be shocking to those of us who spend our weekends tasting vermouth and pontificating about Jerry Thomas, but the fact of the matter is that the average person’s life doesn’t allow the time or energy to care about that sort of thing. And that’s okay, because Tales of the Cocktail was created explicitly to get the general public excited about craft booze, whether they know the first thing about it or not.
What is Tales of the Cocktail?
Tales, as it’s come to be colloquially known, is the product of nearly a decade and a half of masterful promotion, word-of-mouth buzz, and general booze geekery, all coinciding with an explosion of global interest in craft cocktails. More concisely, though, it’s a week-long industry conference on steroids (or, you know, a few too many Frozen Daiquiris).
That said, its origins were much more humble. Founded by Ann Tuennerman (née Rogers) in 2002 as a half-day New Orleans bar crawl, Tales of the Cocktail was conceived as a way to promote her fledgling cocktail history tour company. As attendance and hype grew, a handful of sponsors allowed her to begin expanding the event into something larger.
Following the horrific destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tuennerman put Tales on hiatus—but she couldn’t stay away for long. In 2006, she returned to New Orleans, cobbled together what funding she could, and resurrected the beloved festival. In the ten years that followed, new sponsors hopped onboard, attendance expanded from a few hundred to tens of thousands, and Tales of the Cocktail cemented itself as the premier cocktail and spirits industry event in the world.
These days, it serves as something of an anchor for the global community of cocktail enthusiasts. What might otherwise be a loosely-connected scene of bars, bartenders, bloggers, and barflys has, at least for the last decade, had a unifying focal point in this New Orleans institution. The historic Hotel Monteleone has become a mecca of sorts, playing host to a pilgrimage of epicurean celebrities and their admirers every July.
Why You Should Care (and Attend)
Now, that’s all well and good if you’re already sold on this whole “craft cocktail” thing, but the prospect of spending a week surrounded by insufferable, suspender-clad “mixologists” in the midsummer humidity of New Orleans probably doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Fortunately, as we’ve written elsewhere, those pretentious stereotypes have little bearing on reality. The vast majority of bartenders and enthusiasts are giddy for an opportunity to share their passion, and Tales of the Cocktail exists in large part as an educational venture. The week is filled with presentations, tastings, and a seemingly endless stream of drinks concocted by some of the best bartenders in the world—enough to turn anyone into a certified cocktail geek.
Then, of course, you have the Spirited Awards, the alcohol industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony for bars, bartenders, cocktail writers, and pretty much everything in between. At the ceremony, which serves as the climax of the festival, the coveted annual titles of Best Cocktail Bar, Bartender of the Year, Best Cocktail & Spirits Publication, and more than a dozen others are handed out in both American and International categories.
While that might just sound like a bunch of self-congratulatory back-patting, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the highly-competitive world of elite bartending. These are people who have quite literally dedicated their lives to the craft of making drinks, and seeing them put their skills on display throughout the week (whether at a seminar or something a little less academic, like the Bar Fight Club) is a pretty incredible experience.
At its core, Tales of the Cocktail is a celebration of the unbridled, creative glee that great drinking has provided throughout history. This is an event where some of the world’s most talented cocktail experts come together to share their knowledge, their inspiration, and a week’s worth of drinks with anyone who’s interested, from die-hard aficionados to curious passersby.
If you’ve ever wanted to see what all this cocktail fuss is about, it’s worth a trip. And hey, worst case scenario, you end up with a sweet vacation in New Orleans where you drink to just about as much excess as you would have otherwise.