From hedonism to geekiness, with Scotch whisky playing an ever more significant part.
‘You doing Tales?’ It’s a question which drops into every conversation in the bar industry from January onwards. The reply is usually in the positive and most often accompanied by a knowing smile. If you have done Tales before, then no more words are necessary.
For those who haven’t experienced the full madness of the event, it’s a bit like a Glastonbury for the spirits world – with all the attendant ecstasies, self-inflicted damage, lack of sleep, mass bonding sessions, but maybe more learnings.
To be more precise, Tales of the Cocktail takes place over four days every July in New Orleans – though each day seems like a month. In a good way. There are seminars – geeky, detailed, provocative, educational, instructive. There are tasting sessions, there are pop-up bars, there are enormous parties, there are dinners, there are inevitable late-night sessions where new friends are made and old acquaintances reconnected.
It’s networking in the nicest possible way. All in 100-degree heat and 200% humidity, in a city which has total disdain for sleep.
We veterans have it planned like a military campaign. Don’t overdo it. Plan dinner. Pack Berocca. Don’t be afraid of grabbing a power nap. Avoid late-night tattoo parlours. Realise that New Orleans will always win in hand-to-hand combat.
I get (slightly) better at it every year, but still return to the bosom of my family with a few more lines on the face, a sprinkle more grey hairs; broken, but elated.
Tales also presented an opportunity for Dave to pick up not one, but two Spirited Awards
It is also a chance to gauge the temperature of the bar trade globally: what’s hot, what’s cooling off, what are the trends? Take Scotch, for example. If reports are to be believed, this is a category in decline, a style of spirit that has had its day. Tales would suggest otherwise.
I got a hint of this the day before I landed in New Orleans, when I did a gig at the fantastic Reserve 101 whisky bar in Houston. The next day, I had breakfast with Ryan Roberts who runs Cullen’s – another top-end Houston Scotch bar.
At Tales, I ran into Leslie Ross, who is bar manager for the same city’s Treadsack bar group, and who sent across images and recipes for some of the Scotch-based cocktails she’s been working on.
A dying category? Not in Texas and not, if Tales is the measure, in the rest of the bar world.
When I started going to Tales, you’d be lucky to see a Scotch seminar. Distillers approached the event with a certain trepidation, unsure of how to engage with a world where vodka and (to a lesser extent in those days) gin ruled.
This year there were more Scotch seminars than ever – and they were all were sold out. The bar trade clearly wants to continue to learn.
Ryan Chetiyawardana and I talked of peat and smoke in drinks, Ian McLaren of Dewar’s led an incredible class on scientific research into bottle aging in spirits – something of real interest to Scotch lovers – which also touched on the degradation that takes place in the bottle through oxidation and exposure to light. Much more on this soon.
William Grant threw a massive party, but also celebrated Scotch in the guise of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Monkey Shoulder. Edrington’s Cutty had events, while Beam Suntory showcased its entire whisky portfolio in its Julep House.
I tried to moderate the proceedings when six malt ambassadors hurled insults at each other in a mass blind tasting in front of 240 people – which culminated in Grant’s Lorne Cousins accompanying AC/DC’s Long Way to the Top on bagpipes.
Meanwhile, Diageo reprised its 2014 class on the difference between age and maturity, with a blind tasting which included Port Ellen and Brora.
Yes, there were other spirits – agave, gin, and a strong showing from Bourbon – but that’s only right. The point is that Scotch is, in Tales terms, on an equal footing. It gives us all something on which to build.
I returned shattered, but happy. Plans are already afoot for next year. Bigger, broader, deeper, more fun.
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Festivals and events 16 July 2015
Day two of Tales throws up a heated whiskey debate, and a heavy metal bagpipes surprise.
Festivals and events 15 July 2015
Day 1 at the hedonistic drinks fest served breakfast cocktails, peat geekery and a Stormtrooper DJ.
Festivals and events 17 July 2015
Becky Paskin's third day at Tales proves whisky brings people together like nothing else.
Festivals and events 27 July 2016
Scotch whisky is as significant as any other spirit at this annual New Orleans cocktail festival.