If you haven’t ever heard of Tales, let me assure you that it’s a little less decadent and a little more educational than its name implies — but still completely fun. Tales, in its eighth year, is held every July in New Orleans and attended by the best bartenders, cocktail bloggers and writers, liquor companies and just plain folks who love the lore and the lush life. I went with a cocktail blogger and several other friends and our motives were actually semi-benevolent. We wanted to drop our vacation dollars on the poor, oil-sogged Gulf economy by wining and dining in a city we dearly love.
So I said it was educational. What did I learn? Besides re-learning — or being reassured — that New Orleans is one resilient town, I learned that cocktails are coming into their own. Call it the Mad Men effect, but I think it’s more than that.
Wine has held on to its role in the mainstream dining scene for the last three decades and diners have gotten familiar with something that — believe it or not — used to be pretty exotic.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, your average American would have been completely intimidated by the wine list of today. The fanciest restaurants had a sommelier to guide you beyond the “house red” and “house white” that you’d find at neighborhood eateries. Cocktails, like the Rusty Nails and Sidecars that the Rat Pack generation drank, were standards. But as wine grew more accessible, the Gin Fizz faded.
At Tales, there was a huge focus on pairing cocktails with cuisine. At the “Spirited Dinners” held all over town, chefs and bartenders (sometimes called “bar chefs”) carefully matched (or cleverly contrasted) drinks with meals. They paired Smoked Softshell Crab with añejo tequila and Aquavit, and Strawberry Pavlova with a 12-year-old rum Demerara Fizz. Like cocktail expert Dale DeGroff says, “We’ve taken the cocktail out of the beverage category and turned it into something culinary.”
So this is going to happen. If you’re not already a cocktail drinker, where do you start? According to the panel at “Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Rookies,” you want to get to know an Old Fashioned. But, even then, there are variations. Best idea, I think, is to get to know a bartender who’s as knowledgeable as a sommelier — someone who cares enough to help you choose something you’ll love.
“The bar is the original chef’s table,” explained Robert Hess at a Tales seminar. He urged restaurants to train servers to know as much about spirits as they do food. “After all,” Hess added, “Booze is high profit, it’s cheap to store, cheap to keep and training people to sell it is a good investment.”
In Cincinnati, this is starting to happen at places like The Rookwood, Senate and Tonic, places that have more than one flavor of bitters on the bar. So think brandy with bacon, bourbon with turkey and game, gin martinis with oysters. And learn a little bit about bitters! The spirit world is a great place to take your palate. Pretty soon, our local restaurant culture will catch on.
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