Industry insiders and cocktail enthusiasts flocked to New Orleans for the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail, which took place July 17-21, 2013, in the Hotel Montelone and other locations around the French Quarter. Seminars and tasting rooms held during the five-day event were joined by dinners, parties and other spirited events.
Attendees had their choice of 60 seminars throughout the week, during which volunteers and cocktail apprentices poured sample tastes of spirits and cocktails. Master distiller and drink historian Jared Brown presented “When American Bartenders Invaded Cuba,” which explored the time in the 1920s and 1930s when U.S. bartenders flooded Havana bars after Prohibition cost them their livelihood.
From 1914 to 1928, the number of American visitors to Cuba (referred to as “Paris of the Caribbean”) increased from 33,000 to 90,000, and there were 7,000 bars in Havana alone. Eventually the Cuban bartending community founded a union to regain their careers, but not before the Americans put an indelible stamp on the country’s bar community.
Brown explained the tradition of throwing cocktails, which involves pouring them back and forth from mixing glass to shaker tin rather than shaking, a technique practiced in Cuban spots like Floridita, and one still in use in bars in cities like Barcelona. He also explained the reason why a real Cuban Mojito tastes very different from one sipped elsewhere. (Yerba Buena, a different variety of mint, is macerated with lime, sugar and mint for 15 minutes before adding the rum and serving, rendering rich, full aroma and flavor.)
A panel of experts including Armagnac ambassador May Matta-Aliah, EWG brands portfolio director Audrey Fort, CEO and founder of Perigee Spirits Charles Henri de Bournet and Otis Florence of the New York bar Pouring Ribbons, and author/journalist Jason Wilson led a seminar exploring what grape-based spirits adds to cocktails. In “Grape’s Great Leap Toward Immortality,” the participants explained how, as with wine, terroir plays a huge role with these spirits, which can add mouth feel, roundness and a smooth finish to drinks.
Since 2002, Wilson noted, sales of brandy and Cognac have increased by 44%, so he posed the question as to why they (along with Armagnac) aren’t widely used in cocktails. Speculation that their “bling” and luxury affiliation, coupled with their impression of being “stuffy” beverages sipped out of that most ill-contrived glass the snifter, and confusing labeling and celebrity endorsements, have all contributed to the reasons why bartenders aren’t reaching for them more often.
Attendees tasted Kappa pisco, Campo de Encanto pisco, G’Vine Floraison gin, a series of aged Armagnacs from Casterède, and cocktails like the Martinez-like Vice and Virtue, made with pisco, Islay Scotch, Yellow Chartreuse, agave and Angostura bitters.
Famed cocktail historian David Wondrich and Tiki author Jeff Berry presented “The Dark Ages of Mixology: 1967-1988,” an era when every drink seemed to be cloyingly sweet, blended, made with cream, or a combination of all three. Unlike the “hedonistic” quality of Tiki bars in the 1930s and early 1940s, after World War II Americans wanted everything to be bland, simple and minimal. But as Berry pointed out, a fine line exists between minimalism and sheer laziness.
The 1970s saw the emergence of “fern bars” adorned with foliage and Tiffany lamps, where the socializing was important, not the drinks. Cocktails for that era ranged from frozen Piña Coladas and Daiquiris to Harvey Wallbangers. (Speaking of the latter, some may mock the vodka-, orange juice- and Galliano-based sip, which was invented in 1952 and promoted by a Galliano salesman, but to Wondrich, the Harvey Wallbanger is “not a bad drink.”)
The seminar wrapped up with information about cocktails during the 1980s, including the creation of the ubiquitous and often maligned Cosmopolitan. Cosmos may not be in fashion today, but they opened the door to the current craft cocktail movement.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter @kmagyarics.