Ann Tuennerman and her team started planning this year’s Tales of the Cocktail the day after last year’s festival ended. The event, which she founded in 2002, has grown from a family reunion for the cocktail world’s cognoscenti, to the largest gathering of bartenders, distillers, marketers, distributors and enthusiasts in the world; and that’s no accident.
Besides having the hardest working production team, Tales multiplies every year because New Orleans is the perfect location to host a cocktail convention in July. Its sauna-like humidity and temperature drive hotel rates down to prices working bartenders can afford, and it’s one of the only places on Earth that thousands of bartenders can blend into the city’s nightlife scene.
If you started organizing your New Orleans trip a year ago like the Tales team and all the big liquor companies that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to underwrite events, you probably have your week planned out on the new Tales of the Cocktail schedule app. If you’re like me, you’re still piecing it all together, but thanks to the website and an army of helpful staff you’ll encounter at the Hotel Monteleone, it’s not too late.
With that said, every year bartenders, brand owners and patrons pull me aside weeks before the festival and tell me about a harebrained plan to crash the party, and I have to apply the brakes. At this point, many of the festival’s most celebrated speakers' seminars are sold out, and in order to protect her sponsors, Ann monitors guerilla marketing like a game warden. Best to stay on this woman’s good side if you want to come back.
Be advised that while Tales seems like a great place to lose your fucking mind and act like it’s Homecoming along with everyone else on Bourbon Street; what happens in New Orleans does not stay in New Orleans.
For those of you with a hotel room and tickets, applause, I’ve agreed to share my Tales strategy with Eater. Going into my ninth consecutive year, I think I’ve got this under control. But before I give you my highlights for the week, I’ll establish one ground rule. Be advised that while Tales seems like a great place to lose your fucking mind and act like it’s Homecoming along with everyone else on Bourbon Street; what happens in New Orleans does not stay in New Orleans. If you’re in the business—even if you value your status as a regular at any bar on Earth—the likelihood that someone who will help determine your future will witness your folly and weigh you down like a Kevin Bacon beignet in the years to come should prevent you from behaving like an extra in The Hangover.
For those arriving today, a day before seminars begin, Bacardi has sponsored the annual "Ode to the Bowl" bowling tournament at 10 p.m., which the amazing bar team from Hollywood’s The Spare Room produce. While this event is by invitation only, the secret to getting into sponsored events is to harness the supply chain. Bacardi distributes tickets through public relations agencies, wholesale distributors, and high profile bartenders. If you don’t know anyone who fits this profile, you have your work cut out for next year.
Tales kicks into high gear on Wednesday at 10 a.m. when New York City historical oracle David Wondrich joins forces with New Orleans’ own Jeff Berry to present cocktails of the World War II era. If you can’t get in to that, try and catch Boston’s Naomi Levy discussing how to sustain a career in bartending at 3 p.m. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself.
In the evening, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer himself will serve as Tales of the Cocktail's first keynote presenter at Harrah’s Casino, where he’ll sit down with Ann’s husband Paul for a discussion on the role of the bartender in the hospitality equation. Including speakers of Danny’s pedigree, plus new programming like "Meet the Makers" sessions at the festival’s central nervous system (Hotel Monteleone), are just two examples of Tales’ ever-evolving high quality content.
After Danny’s talk, you’ll be ready to witness one of the cocktail world’s greatest spectacles in two acts: the Pernod Ricard Welcome Party followed by the William Grant after-party. While they don’t explicitly compete for bragging rights (the brands provide busses to get everyone from party to party), no holds are barred when it comes to size and production quality. There was at least one camel at the William Grant party last year…
... the secret to getting into sponsored events is to harness the supply chain.
You’ll probably wake up a little groggy on Thursday morning, and after lunch at Acme, Cochon, Lüke, Green Goddess or Willie Mae’s Scotch House, you’ll have time to make one of Tales’ Content Director Phil Duff’s #SED Talks at 3 p.m. at the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. The cocktail renaissance has incubated a handful of brilliant people over the past decade, and Duff’s hell-bent on raising intelligence quotients alongside everyone’s blood alcohol level over the course of the week.
After shopping your way through Cocktail Kingdom's gift shop and Octavia Books' pop-up in the Hotel Monteleone lobby (save room in your suitcase or be prepared to buy another one) following your second day at Tales, you’ll be ready to head out for more drinks. The Dynamic Duos programming, which I’m participating in each night, pairs some of the world’s top bartenders (not saying I’m one of them) with New Orleans’ finest. If I wasn’t tending bar at Cure on Thursday, I’d head over to Cain & Table to witness "Tiki Titans," then queue up (Franklin Barbeque style) to get in to the Bar Fight Club at Generations Hall at 10:30 p.m.
By Friday, you’ll have given up on sleep and treating your hangover with anything other than more cowbell, and you’ll be up early to see Jacob Briars and Simon Ford’s "The International Barflies Bucket List" seminar at 10 a.m. The witty duo have traveled more miles in the past decade then most airline stewardesses, and they chair Tales' prestigious Spirited Awards, so keep your spoiler alert on high. Diageo and Bacardi host portfolio parties Friday night, but you may want to conserve some energy for the final leg of the marathon.
If you’ve seen the movie Hey Bartender or work as a journalist, author, brand ambassador, brand owner, or at one of the world’s best bars, restaurants or hotels—you know that Saturday night is the Academy Awards of the bar business. The Spirited Awards finalists were announced a month ago, and the nominees and their teams will spend the day primping nervously (at pool parties that resemble a Hells Angels barbeque) or attending seminars like Paul Clarke’s "Bars Built to Last" at 10:30 a.m. in the Royal Sonesta’s Grand Ballroom or Andy Seymour’s "Three Phases of Hospitality" seminar in the same room at 3:30 p.m.
The Spirited Awards ceremony kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at the Sheraton, and you’ve either got your tickets and wardrobe picked out, or you've secured a dinner reservation at one of the city's amazing restaurants before the Bartender’s Breakfast party begins at 11 p.m. at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Besides eating grilled oysters, po’ boys and gumbo all week, also make sure to carve out time to belly up to some of New Orleans' world class bars. The French 75 Bar, Napoleon House, Sazerac Bar and Carousel Bar are your old standbys and Cure, Cane & Table, Compère Lapin, Latitude 29 and Sylvain are my favorite modern bars.
I’ll be on a red-eye out of town by the time you rise Sunday morning, but once you do wake up, head over to Jackson Square to help Father Bill Dailey (that’s not a typo) bless the festival and stagger over to the Bon Vivant’s legendary Pig & Punch barbeque in Washington Square. Despite its raucous reputation, charity (the barbeque sells tickets and tee shirts to raise money for charter schools) and grace (under the pressure to produce such a colossal event) are two of the festivals most endearing legacies.