Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

At the Huge Bar Industry Event Tales of the Cocktail, Drinking Is No Longer Everything

Monkey Shoulder’s “Frozen Monkey” after-party at Central City BBQ during Tales of the Cocktail Image: Josh Brasted

Minutes after the sodden drinks industry extravaganza kicked off in New Orleans last month with a brass band, a San Francisco bartender began his own Tales of the Cocktail seminar on the value of silently conveying your sobriety.

“There’s a positivity in saying ‘no,’” says Mark Goodwin, the founder of The Pin Project, which earned a 2018 grant from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation for his endeavor to create a mechanism to take the awkwardness out of saying you won’t be drinking. “Let’s get back to ‘drink responsibly.’ Let’s get behind that.’”

It may seem incongruous, but it’s all part of the foundation’s plan to support the whole spirits industry profession, not just discuss, and sample, what’s on the menu.

Piscotarian Project 2.0 tasting room at the Royal Sonesta hotel. Jacob Tyler Dunn

The scandal of 2017—when Tales founder Ann R. Tuennerman resigned after criticism for appearing in blackface in a Mardi Gras parade—forced a reckoning, and since then the organization has been transformed into a foundation with high-minded values, themes and grant opportunities. That’s how The Pin Project got funded last year, and Goodwin was back to formally launch what he and collaborator Didi Saiki have planned next for their community-centered view of sobriety.

“Healthy living can be in tandem with having a good time,” says Saiki. And that, for this grown-up version of Tales, is exactly the point.

“When we took over the foundation in 2018, we knew what’s so lovely about Tales is that it has such an engaging community,” says Tales executive director Caroline Rosen. “It’s an epicenter globally for so many bartenders and industry professionals. We wanted to make sure we put an emphasis on supporting the whole bartender, and that was everything from your mind and body to inclusivity and sustainability.”

Amy Ward, the founder of The Healthtender, leads a class on self-massage techniques at Ketel One’s “Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It!,” a “Beyond the Bar” seminar at the New Orleans Athletic Center. (Josh Brasted).

The Healthtender, leads a class on self-massage techniques at Ketel One’s “Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It!,” a “Beyond the Bar” seminar at the New Orleans Athletic Center. (Josh Brasted)

That kind of programming expanded from about 15 hours worth in 2018 to about 55 hours in 2019. “This is something we’re dedicated to,” says Rosen.

But if Tales attendees are standing a little straighter, it might also have something to do with the lower-proof drinks in their hands. Campari kicked off the weekend with a takeover of a Harrah’s casino bowling alley, complete with various punches and an entire bar dedicated to Aperol Spritzes and Negronis.

Later in the week, it would host “Afternoon Aperitivo” sessions to dole out branded swag, spritzes and popsicles.

Milagro’s “Luminosa” after-party at the New Orleans Board of Trade. Josh Brasted

“The last couple of years [low-ABV cocktails] have really started to blossom, and it seems to be happening around the country,” says Tad Carducci, a brand ambassador for Amaro Montenegro. “You can get all the flavor, all of the experience and don’t necessarily have to whack somebody over the head with alcohol to put body into a cocktail and make it delicious.”

Also getting in on the party was Absolut Elyx, which brought back its daytime garden party, complete with 1980s fever-dream outlandishness. This year, however, Elyx global brand director Miranda Dickson arranged for the first time to host a spritz bar.

“It’s about an experience, and a spritz, which is much more sessionable,” says Dickson. “It’s brighter, fresher and something I would want to drink on a bloody hot day.”

Hendrick’s “Peculiar Palace” activation at the Orpheum Theater. Josh Brasted

Orpheum Theater (image: Josh Brasted)

Other trends were also on display. Spiked sparkling water company Truly offered sips of its new Truly Hard Seltzer Draft, a product its creators hope allows bartenders to integrate its brand more closely with the LaCroix generation’s thirst for low-calorie fizzy and fruity beverages. Slushies, ice pops and other frozen treats were happily slurped up by attendees tired from the New Orleans heat, which settled in after Hurricane Barry came up as a nonstarter in the days leading up to the event.

Even though Tales is still growing into its newly laid roots as a more holistic look at the industry, not to mention its new home base at the French Quarter’s Royal Sonesta hotel, that doesn’t mean it went without its annual display of lavish over-the-top parties and brand activations.

Diageo turned a downtown event space into its own take on New Orleans’ annual Jazz Festival, Hendrick’s transformed an entire theater into its topsy-turvy “Peculiar Palace,” and “Breaking Bad” stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul showed up to sling sips of their new mezcal, Dos Hombres, from behind the bar at Napoleon House, which later won the foundation’s Timeless International Award.

Aaron Paul (left) and Bryan Cranston (second from left) pour cocktails made with their mezcal, Dos Hombres. Chelsea Brasted

Cranston says he and Paul went to Oaxaca, Mexico, a few times in search of the right mezcal to put their names to, always looking for something that wouldn’t remind Cranston of his high school days sipping something that “smelled like rubbing alcohol.”

“We actually tasted a couple that still had that scent,” says Cranston. “I couldn’t get past the nose of it. ... It’s got to be the full package or else why bother?”

Cranston reappeared later for Tales’ annual Spirited Awards dinner, at which New York City’s Dante earned the title of World’s Best Bar. American Bartender of the Year went to Julio Cabrera of Cafe La Trova in Miami, and International Bartender of the Year went to Monica Berg of Tayēr + Elementary in London.