Whiskey Time And Tales Of The Cocktail

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Why A Cocktail Convention Might Also Be The Best Whiskey Festival

By Kurt Maitland

(Credit: Kurt Maitland)

You might have seen them. They work or dabble in booze and disappeared for a few days in late July only to come back a few days later, easing back into their normal routines and looking just a bit worse for wear. What were they returning from and why has it taken such a toll?

The “they” in question are returning from what has become an annual migration in the spirit world. In late July, much of the world spirits industry heads to where the South meets France meets the Bayou. Bartenders, distillers, brand ambassadors, writers, bar owners, high ranking officials for every spirit company known to man et al, converge on New Orleans for a cocktail festival.

However, it’s not just any cocktail festival. It would take more than that to bring all of these people together to endure the unrelenting summer heat of New Orleans. What was initially supposed to be a festival to celebrate the wonder of a well-made cocktail has evolved into one of the best spirits festivals in the world. Regardless of what was the original plan when Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) kicked off a decade and a half ago, this is what it’s become.

TOTC sprang from Ann Rogers’ (now Tuennerman) 2002 New Orleans Cocktail Tour. That laid the ground work for Tales to be born the following year.  Due to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, Tales skipped 2005, but only that single year, and since then the event has prospered.

TOTC (also sometimes simply “Tales”), which started out as a small gathering of cocktail lovers, is now arguably the world’s best spirits festival. Each year attendees are treated to five days of seminars, dinners, tastings, networking events, after parties, etc. and much more. That is a bold claim, but here are some reasons why

Tales Is Brand Agnostic
Generally speaking, festivals have the brands “siloed” off from each other. At one and two-day festivals, the brands do their thing, set up their tables and banners, pitch their whiskies and stay in their lane. This is standard operating procedure at many whiskey festivals, and usually it makes a certain sense. At a whisky festival, there are a lot of whiskies to try and it makes sense to have your potential customers and current fans focus on your core brands and experiences when they are at your booth.

Dave Pickerell, Alisa Henley and Georgie Bell
(Credit: Kurt Maitland)

For longer/multi-day festivals, I like to point at Islay’s Feis Ile as a must for any whiskey fan. I love Islay, because how can you not love an island with eight (soon to be nine) great distilleries and whiskies, beautiful people, and spectacular scenery? The current format for Feis Ile is structured with festival days, where most of the distilleries get a day of their own (Jura and Kilchomen currently share one) and is a perfect way to showcase what makes each distillery special.

That said, as a fan of whiskey and not being afraid to “cross the streams,” it would be amazing if along with the standard options, there were also events that allowed competing brands to interact more. I think this is currently more prevalent at bourbon festivals than it is for Scotch events, and I’d like to see more of it in play in the Scotch circuit.

At Tales, that dream is reality. Because there is such a strong educational focus throughout the event, (and don’t worry, I’m not forgetting the drinking but but hear me out), you will find multiple events showcasing an assortment of different brands and spirit, interacting to educate participants on the process of aging, the influence of a particular wood, the history of a style or type of whiskey, etc. Whether you love whiskey, own a bar, are a collector, or just want to know more about what you are drinking, Tales has events for you.

For example, here is a sampling of this past year’s offerings –

  • Hey Scotch, Where’s My Age Statement? – Moderated by whisky educators and self-confessed whisky geeks Georgie Bell and Sam “Dr. Whisky” Simmons, the panel of Tristan Stephenson (author and celebrated owner of whisky bar Black Rock in London), Bill Thomas (whisky broker, collector and owner of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, one of America’s top whisky bars), discussed age statements from their side of the trade, while the longest serving Malt Master in the Scotch whisky industry, David C. Stewart MBE of The Balvenie, shared the realities of managing maturing whisky and the secrets of the stock model.
  • The Manitoba Whiskey Experiments – Folks from Crown Royal plus Ewan Morgan, Stephen Wilson and Canadian whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux, presented a progressive tasting of traditionally aged whiskies plus some novel experiments from their giant plant in Gimli, Manitoba, revealing secrets about what lies in their warehouses. This included the dissection of samples with the aid of groundbreaking “e-nose” (electronic nose) technology.
  • Rectify My Love: A Story of American Whiskey – This examined the little known and (to the extent that it is known) widely misunderstood history of America’s rectified whiskey. Panelists and storytellers included Ryan Maybe (Manifesto, J. Rieger KC Whiskey), Larry Rice (The Silver Dollar), Dave Pickerell (Whistlepig Rye) and Moderator Chad Arnholt (Tin Roof).
  • A Journey Into the World of Vintage Spirits – Expert Edgar Harden led a journey deep into the land of “Dusties,” or rare finds occupying unsuspected and forgotten shelf space. Stories of unusual spirits; defunct brands; thick, heavy glass; gorgeous classic labels; fascinating closures; indecipherable tax stamps and (most important) how he found them were just part of the presentation.
  • Finding Classic Cocktails in the Dusty Archives – Speaking of dusty things, Philip Greene, a descendant of the creator of Peychaud’s Bitters, a co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail and author of two best-selling cocktail books, spoke of turning pages in archives that typically aren’t where you’d think to look for classic cocktails, including vintage cocktail menus, archived newspapers, even fishing logs, personal correspondence, and medical records.
  • Bar Indepth: Quinary, Hong Kong – If one wondered what they needed to do to open a bar rated in the Top 50 in the world while simultaneously helping to grow a promising cocktail culture and missed this seminar, that person is probably kicking themselves now. Multi award-winning bartender Antonio Lai and his business partner gave attendants a peek behind the curtain of Hong Kong’s Quinary, by Tastings Group.

(Credit: Kurt Maitland)

These are just a few of the classes/seminars that a participant could attend (and those were only the ones with a focus on whiskey). Frankly, those classes (plus generous helpings of drinks in between.) made me forget about one of my favorite classes, Multiple Malt Masters (MMA), a panel discussion on whiskey, bringing together some of the biggest names in the industry. A regular at Tales, MMA is irreverent and informative, with an industry lineup that is near impossible to match, and with rare pours to boot.

This year’s installment featured old school ambassadors (some retired) from several companies pitched against the “young blood” upstarts, representing a competitor’s whisky. The sponsors for the event were Beam Suntory, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, William Grant & Sons, and the host was noted whisky writer David Broom.

That focus on the educational aspect, the offering of experiences that just aren’t part of your standard festival fare and that go beyond the specifics of any single brand, is a real asset to Tales and a big part of what makes it a can’t miss event for whiskey fans. The only drawback is that, like Coachella, events can overlap and you can be forced to make hard choices about what you want to do based on what you are looking to do next. Still, too many good choices is a great problem to have.

The Many Paths At TOTC
Going beyond the official events roster are the dinners, brand parties, and after-parties that are part and parcel of Tales. If you want to “whiskey nerd” out, there are pop-up shops from Cocktail Kingdom and the Market at Tales (which houses bitters, books and other spirit related items).

If you aren’t into the lecture and discussion aspect and want to get some “hands-on” education, there are cocktail events with every spirit known to mankind, bartender showcases, and pop-up bars all over the hotels of the French Quarter. Most of the brands in attendance host their own eventsfrom dinners with master distillers, to bowling nights, to BBQsthe list goes on and on. If you want to drink and be merry, there are few places in the world better in which to do it.

And if you want to meet the people who make your whiskey, most of them will be at Tales and will be surprisingly accessible. Keep in mind, industry people journey from around the world to attend this event and they come back year after year. You’ll run into them in the hotels, between the seminars, at book signings and at after parties. In particular, if you want to ask Dave Pickerell a question, good chance you’ll see him at some point during Tales. Whether you like bourbon, scotch, Japanese, or Irish whiskies, there will be many players of note that you can meet all in one place.

Tales In And Of The Big Easy
Sorry Vegas, but New Orleans is the real Sin City, a town that does not even try to convince you to bring your kids. It’s all about the adult pleasures: fine food, a thousand bars (with a fair amount that don’t close), excellent cocktails and even a casino for good measure. New Orleans was tailor-made for this type of event. Most of the events are centralized in the French Quarter and therefore very walkable. If you want to get away from it all, you have many options: the Garden District, Upper Magazine are both quick cab rides from the Quarter and offer you a break from Tales’ hectic pace. You can learn in the morning and afternoon, eat in the evening and slip back in for a bit of fun afterwards. You can determine the pace and rev it up or throttle it back as you see fit.

Hopefully you see why I think if you want to have a bigger better whiskey experience, there are far worse things you can do than attend Tales of the Cocktail. The things you will learn and experience will make you love and understand our favorite spirit all the more.

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