I just returned from my third annual visit to Tales of the Cocktail, an almost week-long event that, for mixologists and the media who cover them, is what the Cannes International Film Festival is to movie critics: a little bit glamorous, a lot of information to drink in and a lot of fun.
Tales takes place in New Orleans, the city where legend says that the cocktail was born. It’s still a city that’s all about eating and drinking, so it’s the perfect setting for Boozeapalooza, and the Tales organizers have done an outstanding job of bringing in the brands and the bartenders who really make cocktail culture interesting and exciting.
I spent a lot of my time there being an ambassador for Cincinnati, carrying around Queen City Cookies in my bag so that I could use them to convince anyone who didn’t believe me when I bragged that we have a great food and drink scene here. Rosemary Sesame Savory Shortbreads are very persuasive. And every time I met a unique new distiller, I told them about our growing craft cocktail bars and especially about Molly Wellman’s Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. “You should visit us! You could have a tasting for your whisky!”
But I’m not at Tales to teach — I’m there to learn. Since Tales is about trying new products and seeing creative ways to use the classics, that means I’m there to imbibe. Each day starts with cocktails and continues well into the night.
At one of the media breakfasts, we began with a drink they called the Irish Breakfast Shot: a shot of Kilbeggan whiskey with butterscotch liqueur, followed by an OJ and Irish-bacon chaser. We had to taste the whiskey neat too, of course, and then have a little in an Irish coffee.
How do I stay sober enough to meet new people and report what I discover? It can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. As a fellow reporter said, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I rely on the rule I try to use during restaurant reviews: Taste everything; finish nothing.
When you run into all-day marathons of drinking — tailgating, the Kentucky Derby, Christmas with the in-laws — here’s my strategy: Drink lots of water, at least one sip for every sip of booze, and a healthy glassful at least once an hour. Remember that water is what you want when you’re thirsty. Nibble food all day long. Forget the concept of not letting things “go to waste” because if you finish your drinks, you’ll be the wasted one (and then you’ll miss out on the next round!).
The one time I failed at my own rule was at an event for Purity Vodka on my fourth afternoon at Tales. The concept was really cool — using rapid infusion to create your own vodka flavor. I selected cucumber, fresh cilantro and just one slice of jalapeno, put them into a carafe with a healthy pour of Purity and plenty of ice. The top goes on, and a nitrous oxide canister gets inserted in a special spout. Then you shake, let it rest for thirty seconds, and voila — amazing, naturally flavored, perfectly chilled vodka. I was so pleased with how mine turned out that I drained the glass. And then, after a tipsy conversation with Purity’s Master Blender Thomas Kuuttanen, I sort of slid back to my hotel for a nap. Lesson learned, once again!
Anyway, there’s much more to report. Absolut hosted an amazing event (where it snowed in New Orleans in July!) and upped my respect for vodka drinks. Gin was on my radar, too. I think people who are dipping their toes into cocktails avoid gin because it has a stuffy reputation, but some of the nicest drinks I tried at Tales were gin-based. I went to a seminar on Gin & Tonic where I learned that Spain is the country that drinks the most G&T — who knew? They’ve got bars specially devoted to perfect Gin & Tonics, with hundreds of gins to choose from, house-made tonics and garnishes that bring out the best characteristics of each. To take your highball up a notch, they suggest you use a 3:1 ratio of tonic to gin, and a quality tonic, like Fever-Tree. Use a balloon wine glass so you can smell the aroma, and instead of the typical lime garnish, pick a citrus or botanical that matches the drink’s scent. Adam Bernbach, one of the seminar speakers, suggested Plymouth gin with orange.
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