Every year in July, thousands of bartenders, distillers, liquor reps and “ambassadors” descend on New Orleans’s French Quarter for what appears as an industry conference, but has been described to me as a weeklong bacchanalia. Back in 2002 Tales of the Cocktail was started by cocktail enthusiast Ann Tunnerman as an industry meet up for the budding field of craft bartending. They did it in July because NOLA event spaces are cheap in the summer because of the utterly brutal heat. Then it became tradition. True to industry form, they embraced the inconvenience and possible pain of doing things unconventionally because that’s what we do. 12-hour shift with a hangover and minimal pee breaks? Sure. Whiskey tasting in 100 degree weather with 90% humidity? Well, as long as all my friends are here.
I first heard about Tales when I got into the fancy cocktail biz, about 4 years ago. This is my first time attending. Because I am writing this book*, I was able to get myself a press pass, which is crucial since the book money so far is pretty much going to cover only travel expenses. Conferences are not cheap. Someone’s got to pay that expo hall rent and keep all that AC on. So, I’m positively giddy, nervous, and not a little bit terrified.
This is not my first visit to New Orleans, technically, but it is in spirit. I went years ago with my family to visit my Aunt who was working at Tulane for a stretch. I was 20, two years into college and I considered myself a seasoned drinker.** My parents, however, are impressively law-abiding Yankees. They raised us with the notion that yes, the rules apply to us, even though yes, we are smarter than everyone else, and it is our job to lead by example. I blame the Puritans. So while my Mom and Dad tromped off to visit Cousin Tony who was bartending in the Quarter, I stayed hone with two eleven-year-olds and a young teen who, while lovely people, couldn’t balm the burn I felt in my heart for being left behind for a visit to (if anything) my rightful place in the world. I remember that, and the Voodoo museum. That was cool.
It was the year 2000, though—as I’ve heard Orleaneans on TV say, “Before the Storm.” I understand the City is much different now. An acquaintance who grew up in NOLA was fourteen when Katrina hit, and she described the atmosphere of her teenage years as something out of dystopian movie. They ran wild, she said. Everyone did heroin. The music was still awesome. Even as a New Yorker who was there in the post 9-11 era, it’s hard for me to imagine watching my hometown build itself back up from annihilation like that.
Needless to say I am psyched beyond words. But the nerves, the nerves temper that. And it’s probably a good thing.
The Challenge: Navigate 5 days of liquor tastings, cocktail samples, booze-soaked networking meals and historic bar tours without dying, while gathering sufficient information to form the core of a great book.*** I have interviews scheduled with distillers and bartenders, and am carrying a whole other list of people I need to track down and talk to me. Or at least give me their card. i am going to have to go against my inborn Yankee reserve and push, follow up and bug people to get the info I want. I am going to require stamina to push through the hours of my usual afternoon nap, and I’m going to have to do it all with a mild buzz on.
*MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Stories and Advice from Women in Bars (Unnamed Press Fall 2018). Your Christmas shopping is DONE, y’all.
**And by “seasoned drinker,” I meant “habitual irresponsible consumer of terrible liquors and sugary beer substitutes to the point of embarrassing myself.”
***Yes. It is going to be GREAT. It has to be.