It’s one of those New Orleans clichés that just happens to be true: when we get together to eat in this town, the conversation reliably steers to the last meal we had or the next one we’re already anticipating. But this week that routine might be changed up a bit to focus more on the last and next cocktail and the places to find them.
This week marks the return of Tales of the Cocktail, an annual gathering that’s part industry conference and part festival for professionals and enthusiasts from the world of cocktails. Last year, some 20,000 people flocked to New Orleans to attend its various events, including bartenders from around the country, cocktail experts from around the world and distillers, marketeers and suppliers from all across the spectrum. Tales of the Cocktail might be the biggest and most important event of its type anywhere right now, and it’s right in our backyard.
While Tales of the Cocktail stretches over five days, this event is also closely entwined with something happening all throughout the year in New Orleans, something that seems to be growing day by day. Some call it the craft cocktail trend, others a craft cocktail scene, and still others a movement. However you want to define it, it’s big and it represents a significant shift in the attitude and approach to drinks in this city, one that’s about revival and creative innovation all at once. It represents a different image too, one much different from the hazy emblems of Bourbon Street excess, the powdered punches served in enormous plastic cups.
In fact, in some ways the rise of craft cocktails in New Orleans mirrors the culinary world. An appreciation for the fresh and hand-made holds sway and, like their chef counterparts, the professional horizons for craft cocktail bartenders have soared as their work gets more attention and acclaim. It’s common now for bartenders in the craft cocktail circuit to travel across the country, attending industry events, giving presentations and even consulting on new projects. One New Orleans bartender has been flown to Hong Kong for a consulting gig. Another has given talks on the history of drinks at the Smithsonian.
Along the way, New Orleans has become an industry town for people interested specifically in craft cocktails. After all, there’s history here. Many now-classic cocktails originated in the Crescent City and people who value authenticity do like to come to the source. There’s the city’s unique character too. It’s that little-big-town effect that nurtures bonds of camaraderie for people working in the same niche, and bartenders here definitely have each other’s backs.
And of course there’s the way Tales of the Cocktail brings the drinks world to New Orleans each summer. The event has been instrumental in developing local talent behind the bar, encouraging exploration and showcasing new ideas. And it’s proven to be a magnetic recruiting tool for out-of-towners to make the move to New Orleans.
Like the romantic soul swayed by Carnival majesty and like the musician inspired by Jazz Fest, bartenders who come to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail might just stick around. Once they get a taste of the history, the momentum and the possibilities here, some decide to add their own tales to the mix.
Find this year’s event details at www.talesofthecocktails.com.