From the joys of the periodic table and sessions on health and wellness to the rise of Big Beer and clarified milk punch, this year's Tales of the Cocktail was the usual mix of the essential and the whimsical. Ten-year Tales veteran Camper English reports on the trends from New Orleans
Hip London, swinging San Fran
At the 10th annual Spirited Awards, London bars won in every international category for which they were eligible, bar one. That one, for World's Best Spirits Selection, went to 50-year-old San Francisco tequila bar Tommy's, known for the Tommy's Margarita, a deep archive of current and vintage tequilas, and its amiable beverage manager/tequila category ambassador Julio Bermejo.
As for London, it was the Connaught Bar at The Connaught that topped the bill, winning both Best International Hotel Bar and the coveted World's Best Bar award. Hotel bars proved their strength, with the award for Best International Bar Team going to the American Bar at the Savoy, while Dandelyan won World's Best Menu.
Other gongs won by the UK included Best International High Volume Cocktail Bar for Callooh Callay, Best International Restaurant Bar for Hawksmoor Spitalfields, Best International Cocktail Bar for Happiness Forgets and Best New International Cocktail Bar for Oriole.
This year there was a more diverse group of US winners than the usual New York-heavy selection, with bars in Las Vegas (Herbs & Rye for Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar) and Miami (Sweet Liberty for Best New American Cocktail Bar) earning trophies.
San Fran was also well represented. Cool-casual ABV took the prize for Best American Bar Team, surely due in part to its division-of-labour system, where bartenders take shifts as servers so customers are always near a friendly expert. Tiki bar Smuggler's Cove won Best American Cocktail Bar thanks to its massive selection of rum, excessively long cocktail list, cult-like affinity club and some of the nation's most talented bartenders.
Clarified milk punch
Clarified milk punch (as opposed to New Orleans Brandy Milk Punch) is a several-hundred-year-old technique enjoying renewed popularity in top bars, particularly in the US and UK. As Eamon Rockey of New York restaurant Betony explained, the basic recipe of milk, spirits, acid/citrus, flavourings and spices is incredibly versatile, and the real trick is mastering the technique.
By adding an acid cocktail to milk, which curdles it, the curds capture the colour and solids of the cocktail, polishing and clarifying it, and making it relatively shelf stable if handled properly. (At Betony they actually now offer a selection of 'reserve milk punch' that’s anywhere from one to 18 months old.)
Rockey and Gareth Howells of Forrest Point in Brooklyn discussed their different techniques for producing the punch, with Rockey choosing to add alcohol after clarification to give drinkers more options, and Howells ageing/resting the ingredients at several stages for deeper flavour integration.
In the seminar room, the Betony team live-clarified a watermelon milk punch filtered through a Superbag hanging from a hotel luggage cart, with attendees able to add their own spirits at the table.
Bartender health and fitness programmes, including ergonomics consultations, race training mentorship and nutrition education, have been adopted by many spirits brands in recent years, and they've become integral to bartender conventions as well. There's now an overlap between bartenders doing downward dog in the morning and those dragging
themselves home from Bourbon Street.
During the past few years at Tales, different brands have hosted daily (refreshingly non-alcoholic) juice and smoothie bars, and Novo Fogo cachaça has led group runs. This year the convention offered up an additional range of group classes with a travel fitness company called The Sweat Social, and participants could choose from yoga, cycling, boxing and other programmes in the early mornings. Never has so much happened at Tales of the Cocktail before 9am.
As the industry and brands move towards encouraging long-term career growth for bartenders with courses on how to open bars and move into management, health and wellness has become an increasingly important part of the long game plan.
My prediction for Tales within the next few years: on-site child care.
Out of Asia
The international whisky boom continues, with producers from America, Scotland and Japan replacing their single-malt and other age-statement labelled bottles with less-specific expressions.
This year Suntory helped stretch the supply further, releasing its new blended whisky, Toki, which is recommended for mixing into highballs and other cocktails. The launch party at Tales featured carts with highballs on draught, served in beer mugs as they do in Japan, along with component tastings of the individual whiskies that make up the blend.
And while half a decade ago Japanese whisky may have needed the exotic caché of saké and shochu to boost its perception, now the opposite is proving true. In the US, more importers are bringing in Chinese baijiu and promoting it for use in cocktails, and Japanese shochu might be getting its shot soon, too.
Kikori rice-based whisky would likely be considered a shochu if it were sold in its native Japan, but in the US it qualifies as a whisky and is labelled as such. At Tales this year, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association hosted several events with the emphasis almost entirely on the whisky-like (but usually lower-proof) shochu.
Beer crashes the cocktail party
Beer always has a place at mixology events (usually as a chaser/spacer/refresher between cocktails), but this year there were three brewery tours, two seminars, two tasting rooms, a brand education room and one lounge sponsored by beer companies. Sessions included boilermaker pairings, beer Mimosas, beer cocktails, beer programme logistics for bars, and other activations.
Big Beer also appears to be edging in on craft cocktails. AB InBev (Budweiser's owner) emphasised its craft acquisition Goose Island in several activations, while Constellation Brands (Corona) promoted a collaboration of its Mexican beers with its recently purchased organic tequila brand Casa Noble.
Might we soon start to see beer brands buying up craft distillers as if they were smaller brewers, or are they just trying to gently nudge their way onto the taps at craft cocktail bars?
It's elemental! Nitrogen, Carbon and Oxygen
The seminars at Tales are becoming increasingly specific and scientific. This goes for both ingredients (one focused only on nutmeg, another on eggs) and techniques. One seminar concentrated on air and its component gases, while another focused on carbon.
These elemental seminars, both sponsored by Bacardí, were delightfully technical (surely this year set a record for gas law formulae in PowerPoint presentations at a cocktail convention) and practical, and indicate that bartenders are seeking a better understanding of practical chemistry to fine-tune their beverages.
The overlap between the two seminars was carbonation, of course. One addressed why colder liquids hold more CO2, plus practical info such as proper gas line pressure depending on elevation of the tubing past the height of the keg.
Ahead of the air seminar, Bacardí’s food scientists aged lime juice for different lengths of time and under different conditions before analysis by a tasting panel to test oxidation. They reached some interesting conclusions, such as that vacuum-packing juice to keep air out didn’t have much of a preservation effect compared with keeping the juice cold; also that juices clarified in a centrifuge last longer than those with pulp mixed in.
The carbon-centric seminar also covered carbon filtration in great depth, both on an industrial scale and in a few creative ways, such as using coconut charcoal in cocktails. The crowd enjoyed a black Daiquiri (Blacquiri?) coloured and textured with charcoal, but tasting just like the classic.
After years spent investigating, dismissing, then coming to terms with 'craft' vodka, inquisitive cocktailians have begun to explore the truths and fictions of small-batch distilling, rum blending, and other not-always-honest production and promotion systems.
In the seminar entitled 'When is a Rum NOT a Rum?', panellists warned the audience about implied age statements and rums distilled from ingredients other than sugar cane, and also discussed possible (but improbable) universal classification systems that could be used on rum globally.
In 'Bourbon: Do the Myths Matter?', the panel looked more at marketing and tall tales than production, and addressed the myths and folksy legends in the bourbon industry that are purposefully perpetuated but often a stretch from the truth. The conclusion? Bar consultant Erick Castro says, 'Many legends in the bourbon world were completely false, but the stories themselves reveal much about our country's history and values, and because of that alone, they will always be relevant.'
Seeking to separate out the difference between craft and just crafty, the speakers in 'Ten Things to Ask Every Craft Distiller' discussed how some distillers are merely rectifiers, how some use shortcuts for ageing, and how many work hard to imply they are doing things they're not. Questions included, 'Do you buy neutral grain spirits, and if so what do you use them for?'
The far-off future
Two seminars this year addressed drinking in the distant future, one on Earth and the other in outer space. Perhaps these future-focused seminars are subconsciously motivated in part by the modern eco-cocktail movement as we pay more attention to things like spirits produced from sustainable crops, reusing bottles, eliminating waste such as drinking straws, and reducing or reusing water.
The terrestrial seminar, subtitled 'Drinking in 2116', touched on sci-fi technology such as the use of retinal scans instead of IDs, and robotic bartenders, but dealt mainly with practical issues of the future such as climate and population changes. With global warming, our brandy may come from Sweden and there might be a lot fewer barrels around, so spirits will probably change quite a bit.
The other seminar, 'Cosmic Cocktails' (sponsored by Belvedere Vodka, the parent company of which once sent some Ardbeg into space), was all about drinking not on Earth, but while orbiting it. Panellists covered the history of drinking alcohol in outer space, and discussed more practical matters such as how bubble clumping prevents carbonated drinks from being fizzy.
This isn't really an issue, however, because, as writer Tristan Stephenson pointed out: 'You can't burp in space!'
The bigger picture
Perhaps a sign of maturity in the modern cocktail world is the newfound acknowledgement that it's not all sunshine and rainbows, and a new era for Tales is providing a platform for discussions of sensitive topics. The organisation announced a new Sustainable Spirit Award to 'recognise the people in our industry who are leading the sustainability charge through the work in their own bars while encouraging others to follow their lead'. Dandelyan was one of the bars that won.
Following some hot-button discussions on social media recently, Tales also hosted a session on 'Gender Intelligence', addressing gender inequality in the bar world, as well as a separate session on improving diversity in the industry. It seems that 14 years into Tales of the Cocktail, key industry players are beginning to focus not merely on improvement of cocktails, but development of bartenders' quality of life, growth of their careers and the bigger-picture issues of diversity and inclusion.