The tenth annual Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans has concluded. The fog has begun to lift. And the general topography of the landscape is starting to come into view.
Yes, more sophisticated cocktail-making techniques and products were rolled out, as they are each year. More awards were given to bartenders by their fellow bartenders.
But this tent revival for the cocktail craft also seemed have more confidence in itself and its mission than in years past, when it often seemed to be looking more beseechingly for approval from the world at large. It’s generally a sign of a maturing movement is when the gulf between reality and parody starts to narrow, and everyone’s OK with that. To wit: Hey, Mister Mixologist, did you have to go to college for this? Everyone loved this video and talked about it, yet it could have a been a documentary shot at Tales.
One more sign of a maturing movement is that it starts to explore a broader, often more literary understanding of itself — of looking where it fits into a larger culture beyond.
And that was true this year. The highlights for me this year weren’t the erudite disquisitions on techniques and ingredients. Rather, it was some of the more freeform presentations about cocktail culture.
The “I Love/I Hate Cocktails” debate on Saturday was outstanding. A group of esteemed panelists (including Max Watman, Toby Cecchini, Angus Winchester, Jacob Brier, and Allen Katz) each spent a few minutes debating, not-quite-Oxford-style, whether cocktails were a worthy art form, or just a hyped-up trend that obscured the underlying goodness of straight spirits. Its was a showcase for some great writing and analysis.
My favorite hypothetical question, from Max Watman: “The cocktail is not a refreshment. You've all been here a few days. Do you feel refreshed?”
The Sporting Life II — held at the Irvin Mayfield Jazz Playhouse and hosted by Allen Katz — had more the feel of an open-mike event, with luminaries performing original works as well as historic writing about cocktail culture.
Among the most memorable: Anne Louise Marquis’s chronicle of a night behind a bar, and how it feels to be a woman constantly hit on by increasingly drunken (and pathetic) guys. Yes, it’s a set-up for cheap humor, but Marquis brought gave it an uncommon depth and burnish that made it sing.
Then there was Dale DeGroff, who showed off his acting chops in recreating Dylan Thomas’s last hours before dying of alcohol poisoning — and then debunking the myth that the poet expired on a barroom floor after 18 shots of whiskey. Nice touch: serving the audience a shot of Jameson as he performed.
But the single most extraordinary presentation of the conference was by Gaz Regan. With slides and music, Regan talked movingly of his parents — the best publicans he ever knew — who owned and ran pubs in England. His performance was only nominally about drinks and drinking, but also everything about it. And about death and letting go. I noticed a lot of discreet wiping away of tears in the audience.
It's not cool to cry at a cocktail conference, of course. Yet, in the end, Regan reminded us of how drinking and powerful emotions have always been linked. Foams and tinctures and exotic spirits? That’s just a sideshow.