From smoked sheep dung to bananas, and astrology-inspired bars to vermouth, this year’s Tales of the Cocktail was the usual riot of the insane and the essential. Alice Lascelles takes time off from straining her torpedo fuel through a loaf of bread to report on this year’s top trends
It was an incredible night for the Brits at the Spirited Awards this year, with homegrown talent picking up 10 of the 17 international awards. Ryan Chetiyawardana won both International Bartender of the Year and Best New International Cocktail Bar for Dandelyan (pictured right), while Dave Broom won Best Cocktail & Spirits Writer and Best Spirits Book for Whisky: The Manual.
Also among the winners were Belvedere’s Claire Smith-Warner (Best International Brand Ambassador), Artesian at The Langham (Best International Cocktail Bar), the Beaufort Bar at The Savoy (Best International Hotel Bar), The Blind Pig (Best International Restaurant Bar), Dead Rabbit from Northern Irish expats Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry (World’s Best Cocktail Menu) and Jonathan Downey, who was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
One of the best bars we visited was newcomer Ursa Major, an astrology-inspired bar complete with a happy hour astrologer and a menu that changes with the star signs.
It sounds corny but this vast, open-plan space had all the sleekness of an art gallery with its polished concrete floors and acres of plate glass.
Drinks (for Cancerians, anyway) were refreshing and fruity, with lots of rum and blanco tequila, lengthened with juices and punctuated by amari, vermouths and more unexpected ingredients – citric acid, white balsamic vinegar, and El Guapo Cucumber and Lavender Bitters, for instance.
Four banana-laced cocktails in 48 hours led us to conclude that banana drinks were definitely a thing at Tales this year. Variations included a cocktail of Amaro Lucano, rum and crème de banane garnished with a dried orange slice and a banana chip; a Scotch-based recipe of Ardmore, fino sherry and peated coconut garnished with fresh banana and parsley by Ryan Chetiyawardana; and a tiki drink at Latitude 29 made with vodka, tamarind, allspice, lemon and banana.
The best banana drink, though, was the delightful Three Bananas Emojis at Ursa Major which used rum, lime, orange oleo and banana liqueur to create a fresh, green, almost floral drink that was the antithesis of a banana split.
‘Banana is the new blue drink,’ declared Callooh Callay’s Richard Wynne.
Tiki was everywhere this year at both the pop-up events and cocktail bars around the city. Leading the luau was Latitude 29, a new bar and restaurant distilling the expertise of tiki authority Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry. This joint was tiki old-style with a list reviving many classics, as well as a host of lesser-known tiki drinks.
Chetiyawardana and Brian Kientz of Nola’s SoBou bar also teamed up to present Tiki Tocky, a pop-up at 19th century restaurant Tujague’s, showcasing ‘The Past and Future of Tiki Cocktails’. Not far away in the French Quarter, the courtyard of Cane & Table bar (caneandtablenola.com) – from the team behind Nola’s Cure bar – was also teeming with local hipsters enjoying an enticing list of updated ‘proto-tiki’ drinks including Swizzles, Daiquiris and Daisies mixed with Chartreuse, wormwood schnapps and chocolate bitters. Don’t pack away those parasols just yet – looks like tiki’s here to stay.
Vermouth was a hot topic at Tales this year, with brands including La Quintinye, Mancino and Cocchi very much in evidence. Martini showcased its two new Riserva Speciale Vermouths di Torino to great acclaim – the golden Ambrato balanced honeyed sweetness with three types of wormwood, while Rubino combined orange flesh and zest notes with Italian holy thistle and sandalwood.
Mixellany’s Jared Brown also led an inspiring seminar on mixing and making vermouth. He highlighted a trend for blending vermouths – Jimmy Barrat of Zuma in Dubai uses a full-blown solera system while Hidetsugu Ueno from Tokyo’s Star Bar rinses ice for a Martini with bianco vermouth before adding the dry.
Other anecdotes from Brown included the revelation that Churchill bowed towards France when mixing a war-time Martini not because he scorned vermouth (as is often said) but because he yearned for a product that was in terribly short supply; and an entertaining anecdote about Stalin flying in a pair of lemon trees from Georgia in order to have twists in time for the cocktail hour.
The whisky world clearly felt it was time to grasp some nettles this year. In ‘The Audacity of Sourced Whisky’, a panel debated the current trend for craft distillers sourcing and trading whisky from elsewhere and passing it off as their own, asking whether this should be recognised as a respectable, and historic, practice or condemned as an act of marketing fudge-ry.
At ‘The Blinder Truth About Ageing Whisky’, meanwhile, an A-list panel lead by Diageo’s head of whisky outreach Dr Nicholas Morgan used a blind tasting to challenge a number of preconceptions including the notion that age always equalled a better whisky. Morgan also urged the audience to recognise the artistry of blends – a fact amply demonstrated by a first taste of the new Johnnie Walker Rye Cask Finish. And thanks to the recent launch of Haig Club, grain whisky was also up for discussion with a Cameronbridge 18yo showing the complexity that a grain whisky can achieve over time.
In amongst the excess, several high-profile figures made the case for a (marginally) healthier lifestyle. USBG’s charismatic New York chapter president Pamela Wiznitzer used her 15-minute ‘SED’ talk to explain why she no longer does shots on the job, while Belvedere’s Claire Smith-Warner waged war on sugary drinks with a screening of the documentary on obesity Fed Up, accompanied by sugar-free and teetotal cocktails.
In a talk entitled ‘Is Non-Alcoholic the new Vegetarian?’, Artesian’s Alex Kratena made a case for a more imaginative approach towards non-alcoholic cocktails. ‘If chefs don’t need meat on every single plate, why do we need alcohol in every single drink?’ he asked.
We also liked the fact that the menu at neo-boudoir bar Bellocq (thehotelmodern.com/bellocq) divided drinks into low proof and high proof – not quite as preachy as a unit count, but helpful for anyone wanting to pace themselves.
Another packed talk was a session on smoke by Dave Broom and Ryan Chetiyawardana that took a detailed look at the variations in flavour compounds produced by peat from different terroirs. We learned that Islay peat, which contains a lot of seaweed, produces more iodiney, marine characters while mainland peat (which contains more trees) has more caramelised, woodsmoke note.
Broom added that real pros don’t talk about peating in terms of parts per million (a term that’s often on the lips of whisky anoraks) – if you want to sound like a distiller, apparently, it’s only ever a case of light, medium or heavy.
But the discussion wasn’t limited to smoke of the peaty variety – according to Broom, craft distillers are now also experimenting with smoked nettles, chestnut, marijuana and sheep dung, often inspired by flavours found in their local cuisine.
Science-mad drinks writer Camper English used the 1897 publication The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages by A Emil Hiss as the starting point for a talk on old-school mixological techniques including DIY carbonation, clarification and faux ageing methods favoured by Jerry Thomas.
The highlight was a section on homemade natural colourings using ingredients including saffron, beetroot and spinach, culminating in a rainbow highball made with multicoloured ice. Other kaleidoscopic experiments featured a rainbow of Ramos Gin Fizzes and a blueberry drink that turned from blue to purple when the pH was lowered with the addition of acid phosphate.
He wasn’t the only one to celebrate blue drinks at Tales – Grey Goose ambassador Joe McCanta garnished his talk on theatricality behind the bar with a cerulean cocktail of Grey Goose Le Citron, blue curaçao, bianco vermouth and thyme as vivid as a hotel pool – complete with miniature towel.
Bitterness was a big theme at Tales 2015 with seminars on Fernet-Branca, cinchona and a comparative tasting of amari hosted by Luxardo ambassador Francesco Lafranconi, the American Bar at The Savoy’s Erik Lorincz and Bittermens founder Avery Glasser. Undaunted by Glasser’s cautionary tale of quinine poisoning, the audience dived into a flight of amari that included one of the real finds of tales, Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista (21% abv), a craft amaro from central Italy made with local herbs and honey.
The all-natural East Imperial Tonic, a tonic water made with hand-picked cinchona, also had its debut, while a pop-up shop in the lobby of Hotel Monteleone boasted a profusion of new cocktail bitters including Suze’s excellent just-launched range. Other favourites included the Rose Pepper Tincture from Cure All Bitters and a vivid trio from Crude that included a pokey Rosemary, Grapefruit and Peppercorn bitters.
One of the best historical talks of the week saw mixographer David Wondrich join Beachbum Berry for a seminar on the drinking habits of troops during WWII.
We learned that Jägermeister was a favourite of Nazi hunting parties and that the Italian army always ensured it was well-stocked with Campari sodas, Chianti and caffè corretto even when tanks and guns were in short supply. When Russian troops weren’t distilling samogon, they whiled away evenings downing vodka shots and playing Cuckoo, a lethal party game involving pistols and a pitch-black room.
Berry took us through the tropical drinks improvised by the US Navy, before demonstrating how a loaf of bread was used to filter out the noxious colouring in alcoholic torpedo fuel to make it drinkable. We tasted war-time classics including the Suffering Bastard, Three Dots and a Dash and a victory cocktail called the MacArthur Punch (red wine, rye whiskey, curaçao, Cherry Heering) – but flavours were really secondary in this fascinating and sometimes poignant study of drinking under fire.