Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Every American Cocktail Conference You Should Attend This Year

Emily Arden Wells

With the resurgence of the cocktail, the bar and spirits industry has grown exponentially, creating a demand for conferences dedicated to those who work in the industry. And one of the most well-known conferences, Tales of the Cocktail, has quickly become one of the most important events for bartenders and industry insiders to network and share ideas through seminars, tastings and epic parties.

Similar conferences and festivals have popped up all over the country in recent years, making it easy for cocktail lovers to hop from one to the next, traveling from city to city. You might be wondering what makes a great cocktail conference: local flavor, talented bartenders, knowledgeable industry leaders, education initiatives, festive parties and, of course, delicious drinks. Here’s a roundup of some of the best cocktail festivals in the country, one for each month. So get to planning—there are many places to go and many cocktails to be had!

June 2016: The Hukilau (Fort Lauderdale)

The Hukilau will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Mai-Kai restaurant.

Tiki enthusiasts from all over the world convene in Fort Lauderdale every year for The Hukilau (June 8–12), a weekend dedicated to the celebration of Tiki and the Tiki cocktail. The event is in its 15th year and this year will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Mai-Kai, the legendary Polynesian restaurant located in Fort Lauderdale. Seminars are Tiki-centric in topic: “Tiki Revival,” “The History of Tiki” and sessions on how to create your own Tiki carvings. The events are just as eccentric and Tiki focused: There’s a Tiki Road Trip Pool Party, marina swim shows featuring fire-eating mermaids (!), burlesque performances, surf band performances and film screenings. The highlight is the Tiki Tower Takeover, in which the country’s most talented Tiki bartenders including Paul McGee, Martin Cate, Jeff “BeachBum” Berry, St. John Frizell and Brian Miller will be shaking and stirring at the top of Hyatt Regency’s Pier 66, a revolving cocktail lounge. If you have an affinity for all things Tiki and love tropical prints and mugs with Polynesian warriors on them, as well as pool parties, The Hukilau is the cocktail conference for you.

July 2016: Tales of the Cocktail (New Orleans)

Prairie Rose

The largest and most impressive cocktail conference of the year is in New Orleans. Tales of the Cocktail (July 19–24) is the best place to rub shoulders with the icons of the cocktail world, attend some of the most extravagant parties and pop into lectures given by the world’s best brand ambassadors, writers and historians. Attending TOTC can be like trying to drink from a fire hose: There are numerous lectures that happen simultaneously, opportunities to meet master distillers and parties scattered all over the city. Tales has so many offerings it’s sometimes difficult to pick and choose what to attend, but the seminars and events are wonderfully specialized. Love Spanish vermouth? There’s a seminar for you! There are city tours, pop-up shops, book signings, tasting rooms, massive brand parties hosted by Pernod Ricard and William Grant, spirited dinners that pair cocktails and cuisine, and the grand finale on Saturday evening—the Spirited Awards, considered the Oscars of the cocktail industry.

August 2016: Texas Tequila & Margarita Festival (Houston)

Love Margaritas? Lucky for you, there’s a weekend-long festival entirely dedicated to tequila, Margaritas and more Margaritas: the Texas Tequila & Margarita Festival (Aug. 20, 21) in Houston. Highlights include the Tour de Tequila, the Margarita Grand Tasting, which includes a competition for the Best Margarita, and the Outdoor Margarita Festival, which serves different versions of Margaritas and fajitas.

September 2016: Paris on the Plains Cocktail Festival (Kansas City)

(image: Jason Domingues)

The Paris on the Plains Cocktail Festival (Aug. 26–29) is an annual celebration of a few things Kansas City loves most: barbecue, music and cocktails. The heart of the festival is the Paris on the Plains Bartending Competition, a once regional cocktail competition that has since become national. During the four-day festival, visitors can attend seminars given by some of the industry’s best luminaries, including Steve Olson, Matt Seiter and festival founders Brandon Cummins, Doug Frost and Ryan Maybee, and hit events such as the Kansas City Showcase, a charity evening that highlights local bartenders and chefs. Make sure to stop by the old Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange for a taste of Rieger’s Kansas City whiskey, a blend of corn, malt and straight rye whiskey and just a touch of oloroso sherry—a revival of a historical style of whiskey made in the City of Fountains.

October 2016: Portland Cocktail Week

Portland Cocktail Week (Oct. 17–23) is highly focused around advanced industry education and produced in partnership with The Bar Institute. Attendees of the prestigious program select a “major” such as Advanced Bartending, Beyond the Bar, Bar Ownership, or Innovation and Development, and spend two days attending lectures focused on those subjects either as an “undergraduate” or as a “master class.” There is an option for a festival pass that allows people to attend “after-school activities” (parties scattered all over the city) and bounce around to seminars and audit classes. This is the only cocktail festival that offers in-depth study of particular facets of the bar business, which is great for those looking to improve their craft or learn how to start their own business. If you don’t get into this conference, fret not—The Bar Institute is hitting the road this year and will bring a three-day version of the festival to Phoenix, Baltimore, Austin, Miami and New York.

November 2016: Craft Spirits and Beer Miami

In its third year, Craft Spirits and Beer Miami (Nov. 6) is an artisanal beer and spirits festival that hosts small producers from all over the world, with a special focus on distillers and brewers based in Florida. There’s a grand tasting with food pairings prepared by local chefs, trade seminars, pairing dinners and happy hours throughout the weekend. This year’s festival is going to be held in Wynwood, Miami’s art district, making it even easier to hop from tasting events to galleries and some of the city’s hottest restaurants.

December 2016: Golden State of Cocktails Preview (San Diego)

(image: Natasha Moustache)

December is generally reserved for holiday parties and family events, but there’s one cocktail festival to help cocktail lovers get into (or avoid) the holiday spirit. The Golden State of Cocktails Preview (Dec. 6–8) is held the first week of December in San Diego, with the main event held in Los Angeles at the end of January. The San Diego preview has seminars dedicated to the history of cocktails, cocktail techniques and bar management and given by some of the country’s most talented bartenders and bar owners, including Dushan Zaric and Alex Day. There are tasting rooms, parties and pairing dinners, as well as previews of some of the events to be held in Los Angeles, including a peek at the Collectif 1806 cocktail library, presented with historical cocktail pairings.

January 2017: San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Emily Arden Wells

January is cold and bleak throughout much of the U.S., and most people are either doing a post-holiday cleanse or hibernating at home with Netflix. But a dry month is worth skipping for a trip to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference (Jan. 11–15, 2017), where the weather is warm and the Margaritas are cold. In its fifth year, this conference is a true nonprofit event that gives 100 percent of proceeds to Houston Street Charities to benefit the children of San Antonio. This conference is wonderful because it provides seminars for bartenders who want to focus on career development and cocktail innovation, with book signings and cocktail events for consumers all over the city. The parties are heavily catered by local restaurants, giving ticket buyers a generous taste of local flavors and delicacies such as handmade Mole and Frito Pie along with signature drinks such as the Beso Margarita.

February 2017: Arizona Cocktail Week (Phoenix)

Bartenders’ Brunch at Arizona Cocktail Week.

Arizona is another great place to thaw out in the winter, and warming up in the sun is even better with a cocktail in hand. Arizona Cocktail Week (mid-February 2017) is a weeklong celebration of cocktail culture filled with events, tastings, seminars and dinners. Some of the highlight events include the Cocktail Carnival, in which bartenders showcase their craziest ideas such as boozy caramel corn alongside carnival performers. Another signature event is the Bartender Swap Meet, in which bartenders bring homemade bitters, syrups and tonics and trade them for books, shakers and Tiki mugs.

Bottle tops at USBevX. Emily Arden Wells

Bonus newbie: An up-and-coming conference to watch in the next few years is USBevX (Feb. 22–24, 2017) in Washington, D.C, a cross-industry conference in its second year that puts producers of wine, beer and spirits in the same room with bartenders and vendors. There’s a large exhibition component in which participants check out impressive copper stills alongside bottling lines, label producers and cork manufacturers.

March 2017: Aspen Aprés Ski Cocktail Classic

(image: Emily Arden Wells)

The Aspen Aprés Ski Cocktail Classic (March 9–12, 2017) takes place in the historic mining town of Aspen, Colo., and caters to avid skiers and snowboarders who love a great cocktail. Daytime events are scattered all over Ajax mountain, including a Hendrick’s Hot Gin Punch pop-up bar at the top of the gondola. Events begin in the afternoon, allowing participants to get a full day of skiing before attending the Grand Tasting at The Little Nell, or Spirited Dinners featuring some of the country’s best cocktail talent, including Jim Meehan, Julie Reiner, Tad Carducci, Kim Haasarud and Bridget Albert. The highlight of the trip is the Aprés Temperance Society Ski Race, in which participants race for a gold medal in costume. If you love to ski and love cocktail events, the Aspen Aprés Ski Cocktail Classic is not to be missed.

April 2017: Miami Rum Renaissance Festival

Cocktail at Miami’s Freehand hotel.

The Miami Rum Renaissance Festival (April 22–23, 2017) is a weeklong celebration of rums made all over the world, specifically fine sipping rums. The festival takes place in Miami, a city that loves rum and rum cocktails, and is considered the most important rum conference of the year. The highlight of the conference is the RumXP competition, in which the world’s best rums are selected by a panel of notable rum experts who fly in from all over the world. Additionally, there are seminars that cater to everyone from bartenders to enthusiasts, parties held at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai, and VIP Tasting Bars where experts share their private collections of vintage, rare impossible-to-find rums. For those who love rum, this festival is the best place to access the industry’s most talented blenders, distillers, writers and collectors.

May 2017: Thirst Boston

Thirst Boston (mid-May 2017) started as a way to celebrate Boston’s cocktail culture, but the founders also wanted to celebrate the great coffee and beer made in the city. The conference offers scheduled parties, seminars and events highlighting bartenders from all over New England. The celebration kicks off with a gala held at the historic Hampshire House, a turn of the century mansion in Beacon Hill where the best bartenders from Boston will be shaking and stirring cocktails for partygoers.

And if you feel like leaving the country: The Tokyo International Bar Show and Whisky Expo (May 13-14, 2017) is a dream cocktail conference for any enthusiast. Listen to Gaz Regan reveal the secrets from his life behind the bar, attend master classes on the art, blend with Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo, check out seminars focused on cocktail trends and catch the Flair Bartending Performance by Shoko Tomita. Not to mention, attendees will be in the heart of Tokyo and in striking distance of some of the best Japanese cocktail bars such as Bar High Five.