Tales of the cocktail: We visit New Orleans for a look at the world’s largest libatory festival

Location: North America, USA

This summer, the great and good of the bar world descended on New Orleans for the world’s largest libatory festival: Tales of the Cocktail. Alice Lascelles packed a spare liver and joined the throng…

There are many bars that pride themselves on a strict set of house rules, but few could beat the Maple Leaf Bar for sheer frankness. ‘Keep dogs on a lead’, says a sign on the wall, ‘–we use strong rat poison’.

It would be enough to put you off your Sazerac if this dive wasn’t so goddam cool. Lit by a handful of glowing red lamps, and kitted out with a few bits of moth-eaten red velvet, it’s one of the most renowned music venues in Louisiana. And on this steamy July evening it’s vibrating to the sound of a 10-piece brass outfit, who bang out spiky funk to a packed and sweaty crowd. Girls gyrate, boys neck bourbon and couples make out in the shadows.

Welcome to New Orleans. Sexy, gaudy, visceral – and home to the world’s largest celebration of all things libatory: Tales of the Cocktail. Launched in 2003, Tales now attracts more than 16,000 bartenders, bloggers, hacks and enthusiasts from all over the globe for five days of seminars, tastings, dinners and debates on topics ranging from the history of saloons and classic cognac drinks to molecular mixology and meat cocktails.


There is a vintage barware collectors’ convention and a full-blown New Orleans-style ‘funeral’ for the current cocktail non-grata (this year it was the Red Headed Slut, a godforsaken mix of Jägermeister, peach schnapps and cranberry juice).

There is a full-blown New

Orleans ‘funeral’ for the current

cocktail non grata

There are absinthe tastings and cocktail dinners, book talks and shake-offs. And that’s all before you’ve even started on a bar crawl that pays homage to native classics including the Sazerac, the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Grasshopper. Add in temperatures of around 35 degrees and you’ve got a recipe to make your head spin.

Which all sounds like a fine time to me, so this year I hitched a ride with Miller’s Gin, who were going out to showcase the new 54% abv bottling created specially for their 10th anniversary. And it comes as no surprise that gin is a major talking point at this year’s Tales, with the revival of Old Tom and Genever styles, as well as new brands including Miller’s 10th Anniversary, Beefeater 24, Oxley and Sipsmith causing much excitement.

‘Gin? We can’t keep it on the shelves,’ is the verdict of Jim Meehan, co-owner of PDT, New York, and panellist for the first seminar of the week, Big Trends (who also went on to win Tales awards for Best American Barman and World’s Best Bar).

Meehan’s fellow panellists at this forecasting seminar also herald the arrival of better-quality and classic liqueurs, with Stone Pine liqueur being singled out, a product that popped up in several cocktails and punches during the week. Meanwhile Michael Waterhouse of New York’s Dylan Prime urges bartenders to experiment with other sweetening agents too, such as sweet potato or beetroot reductions.

Having a ‘signature serve’ like Waterhouse’s famous Pie-tini is key for making your bar stand out, says panellist Simon Difford, before Waterhouse adds that despite some sniggers in the bartending community, these dessert-style cocktails have added $160,000 to his after-dinner business.

Ryan Magarian – co-founder of Aviation gin and top bar consultant – calls for a bit more ‘shock and awe’ in the menu department, ‘a horseradish pineapple Margarita with a seared beef tip – a drink that’s really obnoxious but tastes great!’

With that terrifying vision still rattling round my head, I segue straight into my second seminar of the day – a talk on Storyville, the New Orleans red light district that bred Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton as well as North America’s first electrified saloon.

With a panel headed up by Dave Wondrich, and an audience well-oiled on Parlour Punch, a pre-Prohibition mix of rye, rum, black tea, raspberry syrup, lemon juice and soda, this proves a rollicking account of whiskey, women and song, populated by characters with names like Fightin’ Mary and One Eye Sal.


After a plate of seafood gumbo – a hearty stew made with seafood, okra and rice – it’s time for a drink. Strolling through the antique shop-lined streets of the picturesque French Quarter, I soon hit upon French 75 (www.arnauds.com/bar.html), an elegant but cosy little mirror-lined hideaway that adjoins Arnaud’s, the grandiose (and gargantuan – its multiple dining rooms seat over 1,000) restaurant that has been a New Orleans institution since 1918. The white-jacketed bartenders mix me up a Sazerac made with Old Overholt rye and the local Peychaud’s Bitters, which is served in a blissfully frozen glass. This is good, but a house French 75 (made with cognac) is even better – crisp and delicious.

But as any cocktail hound will know, tasting classics on their home turf can be an anti-climactic experience (I would give the Ramos Gin Fizz at The Roosevelt hotel a miss). In fact, one of the most exciting bars of our visit turns out to be one of the city’s newest – Cure (www.curenola.com).

All high ceilings and clean lines, this slick urban hangout does superb drinks, with an array of esoteric ingredients. We particularly enjoyed a Rum & Fab (rum, rhubarb bitters, honey syrup, Apry liqueur, soda and lemon) and a gothic-looking mix of rye whiskey, Aperol, bitters and spicy Averna liqueur.

Other ingredients that sparked our interest included Damiana Mayan liqueur, apple cider vinegar (in a bourbon punch), St Elizabeth Allspice Dram and Noyau de Poissy, a liqueur made from apricot pits. Check out the Cure bartenders’ esoteric blog at www.roguecocktails.com.

The trend for big-hitting, spiced and bitter ingredients, particularly Stateside, is something that’s picked up on by Pegu Club’s Audrey Saunders the following day at her free-style presentation with Tony Conigliaro. ‘We’re now seeing a lot of tighter, boozier drinks with Benedictine and Chartreuse, but so much so that people are losing the softer palate,’ she says, before calling for the inclusion of more light drinks on lists, not only to assist the session drinker, but also because aromatic volatiles – which give a drink complexity – are more readily apparent at a lower abv.

The duo’s highly scientific approach has been heavily informed by the work of food scientist Harold McGee, and they single out his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen as essential reading for any serious mixologist.

Things get even more geeky when we commence an in-depth examination of the cellular structure of a mint leaf. ‘When fully hydrated, the cells ‘pop’ more effectively when muddled, releasing a greater amount of minty essential oils,’ explains Saunders, ‘while dried-out mint squishes around like a floppy balloon.’ For best results, adds Conigliaro, cold blanch your mint for five minutes in layers of ice and water.

The discussion moves on to shaking methods, and the merits of the ice-free dry shake (best for frothing egg white, which expands faster at warmer temperatures) against an ice-packed hard shake (good for a frail drink like a Daiquiri, says Saunders, as the ice travels less, resulting in less dilution and a ‘brighter’ drink). We’re told to visit www.starchefs.com for a 10-minute film of top bartenders demonstrating their different shaking techniques (something I do alone in my hotel room later that night, feeling ever so slightly seedy…).

Saunders also addresses the irksome problem of the ‘wet dog note’, often found with drinks containing egg white. The solution, she says, is to use an aromatic garnish on top of the egg white, which she demonstrates by way of a sublime Ramos Gin Fizz, topped with a spritz of homemade vodka and cardamom tincture. There’s then barely time to cover the benefits of storing your fruit in citric acid solution and the physics before our time is up and we are herded back out on to the steamy streets.

Blue Crab Donut paired

with a full-size fruity cocktail

nearly finishes us off

Finding myself with an hour to kill, I do a speed tasting of various samples I’ve acquired during my visit. The finds are a lavender liqueur by organic Portland distillery Loft, which is very light-bodied but intensely fragranced, and a vigorous ginger liqueur called Domaine de Canton.

A special bottling of St Germain Elderflower liqueur mixed 40/60 with the orange, burnt sugar and bitter flavours of Averna liqueur is also fantastic. Apart from that, I need only say that moonshine, however artisan, is always a bad idea, as is tropical fruit-flavoured tequila, cheap coffee liqueur and pretty much anything pink.


My liqueur-induced nausea had barely abated when it was time for a ‘spirited dinner’ at the fashionable Café Adelaide. My dates for the evening, David Bromige of the Reformed Spirits Company and Martin Miller of Miller’s Gin, are delightful, but the dinner itself is gruesome. Four courses of heavy, southern-inspired dishes such as ‘Blue Crab Donut with Herbsaint ganache and dried pepper sprinkles’, each paired with a full-size fruity cocktail, nearly finish us off, and as soon as we politely can, we flee to the music bars of Frenchman Street in search of neat bourbon.

My final day, and there’s just time for a spin around the (slightly dusty-looking) exhibits of the fascinating Museum of the American Cocktail, before it’s time to fight my way to the front of a huge queue for the Green Hour, a tasting of top absinthes.

Green Hour curator and editor of www.chanticleersociety.org Robert Hess takes me under his wing and introduces me to three of his favourite new absinthes: the minty/peppercorn Nouvelle Orleans, the grassy lemon balm-spiked Marteau and small-batch Pacifique made with home-grown botanicals. Aromatic and complex, from $60 to over $100 a bottle, these are definitely not for setting fire to.

And no trip to New Orleans would be complete without a spin on the Carousel Bar in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone. Immortalised by Ernest Hemingway, and famous for creating the Vieux Carré cocktail, this bar slowly revolves – all day long. As I sit nursing my drink on my third circuit, I reflect on how perfectly this bar captures so many of the wonderful things about this city: it’s glitzy, musical, literary, sleazy, historic, elegant and unabashedly cheesy – and you can be sure I’ll be coming back round again soon.

The 2009 Tales of the Cocktail Awards Winners

World’s Best Drinks Selection
Merchant Hotel, Belfast

Best American Cocktail Bar
Pegu Club, NYC

World’s Best Cocktail Bar

World’s Best New Cocktail Bar
Clover Club, Brooklyn

World’s Best Hotel Bar
Merchant Hotel, Belfast

American Bartender of the Year
James Meehan, PDT

International Bartender of the Year
Tony Conigliaro

Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book
The Essential Cocktail by Dale DeGroff

Best Cocktail Writing
Dave Wondrich

Best New Product
Bols Genever

World’s Best Cocktail Menu
Merchant Hotel, Belfast

Best American Brand Ambassador
Simon Ford, Plymouth Gin and Pernod Ricard

Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award
Peter Dorelli

Ramos Gin Fizz

Created in New Orleans in 1888 by Henry Ramos, the Ramos Gin Fizz is notorious for needing at least 2 minutes of vigorous shaking to

achieve the required froth. In fact, Ramos’s scented mix of gin, sugar, cream, egg white and citrus juices proved so popular he was forced to hire a squadron of up to 35 ‘shaker boys’ to do the hard work for him. To celebrate, I asked Miller’s Ambassador Jon Santer to create his own take on the Ramos Gin Fizz.

‘I’ve always thought Martin Miller’s Gin, especially the Westbourne Strength, had some peach undertones. So in our Ramos I highlighted them by replacing the orange flavours typically found in the Ramos with peach,’ explains Santer.

50ml Martin Miller’s Gin, Westbourne Strength
15ml 1:1 Demerara sugar syrup
15ml fresh lime juice
8ml lemon juice
15ml egg white
15ml single cream
8ml peach liqueur
50ml Fever Tree soda water

Method: Combine first seven ingredients in a shaker and dry shake to emulsify. Add chunk ice and shake hard. Add soda to the bottom of a frozen fizz glass. Strain mixture into a chilled glass and serve. 

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009

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