Confessions of a “Tales” Virgin
As a part-time bartender, full-time cocktail evangelist and newly minted drinks writer, I thought it was my duty to go and finally experience Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, a week long celebration of spirits, the mixtures they can be served in, and the people who create these wonderful elixirs.
It started as a post-Katrina pick-me-up for the local economy in 2003 and has grown to an event that attracts somewhere around 20,000 bartenders, liquor representatives, brand ambassadors and serious drinking enthusiasts. Needless to say, it is a colorful affair, not for the faint of liver.
The majority of activities happen in and around The Hotel Monteleone, home of the world famous Carousel Bar. Registration, bookstore and bitters market, morning bloody Mary bar, nightly pool parties and a great number of seminars are all held here. It is also the social center. You can’t walk into the lobby without running into someone you know. This is where we regularly caught up with our fellow Charlotteans Stefan Huebner from Heist, Andy Maurer from Soul Gastrolounge, Bob Peters from Pisces and Fletcher Elkins from Block and Grinder.
Since my wife and I plan to open our own bar, we stuck with mostly practical seminars. Our ambitious schedule allowed us to divide and conquer eleven sessions in three days. Heather took back-of-house seminars, including menu design and bar operations, while I took front-of-house seminars, such as how to train bartenders and a session on efficiency. The most fun I had was during my seminar on garnishing, a hands-on class that included making a citrus pirate ship.
Seminars aside, the majority of people go to Tales for the camaraderie and the tasting rooms. In hotel ballrooms and meeting rooms, liquor reps push their latest wares. All have some sort of organizing theme, whether a spirit type or geographical location. The more elaborate are sponsored by a single brand and are experiential rooms that includes booze, food and giveaways.
I can only describe Tales as a convention for professional extroverts. You just start talking to everyone. You find out where they’re from, what they’re doing, what’s new in their market, even that they are proposing to their girlfriend that day. It’s a total love fest.
Tales veterans like to say, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” There is free booze available all day long and each seminar included at least two cocktails. The best advice we got was from Fletcher: “If it’s not the most amazing thing you’ve ever had, don’t finish it; sip it and dump it out.” On top of all of the day drinking and seminars, there are brand parties at night and New Orleans itself. Keeping at least mildly sober is a chore.
Our saving grace was Killer Poboys, a pop-up restaurant of sorts stuffed in the back room of a bar. They had great sandwiches like sweet potato and collards, five-spice meatloaf and pork belly. The portions were large and the price wasn’t bad. Another refuge was SoBou, which had a happy hour menu that included alligator corn dogs, foiegras-stuffed sweet potato beignets, and house-made beer-nuts. While the food and cocktails here were excellent, it was the staff that had us returning each day.
Tales has become a must-go for those serious about the world of alcohol. Knowing what is coming next and networking are important in any field, but especially in the food and beverage industry. As our journey into this world unfolds I look forward to many more trips to Tales. I just hope my liver can handle it.
Kevin Gavagan is a musician, cabinetmaker, and a cocktail connoisseur. He's still searching for the perfect location to open his bar, Haunt, but until then he'll continue to bring his classic and modern cocktail interpretations to pop-up events around the Charlotte region. Follow him @HauntBar.