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Crisis (Maybe) Averted: Inside the Remaking of Tales of the Cocktail

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(image: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

It retrospect, maybe it’s not surprising that an event that brought 20,000 bartenders to New Orleans and doused them in gallons of sponsored booze would have its share of missteps. Over Tales of the Cocktail’s 15-year existence, founders Ann and Paul Tuennerman were faced with a string of controversies that threatened to sink their beloved festival, including an accidental drowning debacle, a finances debacle and, of course, the infamous Mardi Gras blackface debacle. If you think “blackface debacle” sounds like something one doesn’t just bounce back from, you’d be right.

By now, you’re probably all too familiar with the details of each of these scandals. (If not, read up here.) Maybe you even breathed a little sigh of relief when it was announced that the Tuennermans would finally step aside and let Tales live on with new leadership. (Philanthropists Gary Solomon Jr. and Sr. and NOLA bar owner Neal Bodenheimer bought the festival last fall.) But the question remains: Will Tales 2.0 manage to right the wrongs of the past?

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Gary Solomon Jr.

Before signing on to the deal, Bodenheimer surveyed his industry colleagues to find out if they thought the event was worth saving. “The resounding feeling was we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” says Bodenheimer, pointing to the sorely needed $18 million the festival brought into New Orleans every summer, not to mention the huge networking opportunities it offered to young bartenders. “I didn’t like the idea of where our industry would be without Tales.”

In February, the new board appointed an executive director, Caroline Nabors Rosen—no stranger to controversy herself, having most recently led the foundation of embattled chef John Besh.

“Our first order of business was to turn Tales into a true nonprofit,” says Rosen, addressing concerns that surfaced last year, when an anonymous letter posted online raised the question of financial impropriety under the Tuennermans. When Bodenheimer looked closely at the finances, he found more smoke than fire, but both he and Rosen put openness and transparency at the top of their list of priorities for the rebooted event.

Neal Bodenheimer (image: Kevin O’Mara)

“The proof has got to be in the pudding,” says Rosen, who will work with a diverse advisory committee to determine where to direct $250,000 in grants to support issues of inclusion, addiction, health and wellness within the industry. She’s also instituting an annual Day of Service at Tales, to bring education and hospitality back to a festival that, some say, had gotten a little too loose.

“Tales has, for various different reasons and various actions from parties, become somewhat tarnished these past few years,” says Stuart Gregor, who participated in Tales in 2016 but elected to take his gin brand, Four Pillars, to Bar Convent Brooklyn this year instead. “Although it was a bloody heap of fun, our ‘master class’ was probably less masterful than it might have been, and a few other executions weren’t quite to the standard we’d hoped.”

(image: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

Lynnette Marrero also pulled her female-focused bartending competition, Speed Rack, from the official Tales on Tour program in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year.

“After the [blackface] controversy, we received a lot of messages from women who felt that it was a huge disrespect to the community,” she says. “We were hoping to leverage their PR, but the poor judgment of the Tales founder to post anything racially sensitive on social media made that PR value nonexistent.”

What happened with Tales might be an indication of how the bar industry—and maybe even society as a whole—is growing up. Veteran bartender Don Lee, who headed Tales’ Cocktail Apprentice Program for 10 years, criticized the Tuennermans’ too-little-too-late response to issues of racism, sexual assault and consent.

(image: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

“They were so busy fighting over perceived threats [and doing] damage control for themselves than trying to take care of the victim or making sure there would be justice,” he says. “They had the opportunity to be a thought leader and really shape the industry, and they kind of declined to do that.”

Lee says watching the Tuennermans’ response to the blackface issue was “like a slow car crash. They could’ve changed the narrative at any point, offered a mea culpa, but instead they doubled down, like, ‘You just don’t understand New Orleans.’ You shouldn’t be trying to justify this thing; you should be trying to turn it into a teachable moment not only for yourself but also for the entire industry.”

The new team needs to prove it will be more socially aware in today’s diversity-conscious, post-#MeToo era, says Lee, though he’s “cautiously optimistic” about Tales 2.0.

(image: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

So is Marrero, who will be back at the festival this year, and Colin Asare-Appiah, who resigned from the Tales Diversity Council when Ann reinstated her husband without running it by the committee first. Still, he’s looking forward to Tales’ next chapter.

“I think you’ll see a difference in the subject matter in the panels; there are going to be a lot of first-time presenters of color and of [all] genders,” he says. “The big parties and the excess—they’re going to take a back seat for a while while we focus on what’s really important to the industry.”

As for Lee, he insists that Tales’ critics have been acting out of love.

“People criticize Tales because they want it to be better,” he says. “I want to live in a world where there’s this amazing Tales that does all these things, not because I want it to go away. I want it to be this shining example that can show the rest of the world how good things can be.”

Brands: Four Pillars
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