Things I Learned, or Relearned, at Tales 2010

  1. Enough already with the early-morning Tuesday flights. Next year, if I need to be at Tales on Tuesday, I’m arriving Monday afternoon or evening. Also, it’s impossible to get a drink at 6am in my home airport.
  2. Always eat when you’re offered food, especially if said food is free. You’ll be drinking the rest of the day; you need something to absorb the booze.
  3. Ditto for water. The bottles of Fiji they offer at every session and in every tasting room? I drink more bottles of Fiji water in five days at Tales than I do the rest of the year.
  4. You really don’t have to finish every drink that’s offered at seminars. I relearn this lesson every year, and will probably continue to relearn it.
  5. The Cocktail Apprentices, or CAPs, work their asses off. They deserve to be thanked by name at every panel, by every moderator. I saw Eric Seed do this on the Full Proof/Overproof panel and vowed to do it at mine. For the record, ours were Frank Cisneros, Hal Wolin, and Lou Bustamante.
  6. Enough already with the early-morning Monday flights. I was bored, bored, bored on Sunday (in part because I blew all my money on Tales and couldn’t go to Cure or Cochon). Also, it’s impossible to drink in the airport at 6am. Hell, it’s nearly impossible to eat in the airport at 6am, assuming you want hot food. Either leave after the last panel Sunday or leave later on Monday and find something to do Sunday night.

Bacardi Ad: The Outsider

Number 4 in Bacardi’s series of short films/long ads has hit YouTube this morning. In the interest of disclosure, Think Espionage, the agency that produced these films, invited me to attend the premiere at Tales of the Cocktail on Thursday afternoon, while munching on tasty treats and sipping a Cuba Libre mixed by Bacardi Global Ambassador David Cordoba. Disclaimer aside, I enjoy the hell out of this ad. Filmed at a real bar in London (though the speakeasy front is a fiction), the film differs from the previous three in that it stars an actual bartender, Nicolas Saint-Jean.

[Click through to watch large, in HD.]

I expect this one to spark some comments and maybe a little snark. Bring it on.

The Mysteries and Secrets of Distilling in Cognac, the Cellar Master’s Essential Work and Classic Cognac

This one’s quite a mouthful… Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and unhappy to be awake, I stumbled to the Royal Sonesta for Dale De Groff’s cognac seminar.

His panelists included Salvatore Calabrese, Alain Royer, and Olivier Paultes. Calabrese is one of the world’s most famous bartenders and also author of a book about cognac. Alain Royer has worked with cognac for most of his life and now works with Renaud-Cointreau Group. Olivier Paultes has also worked with cognac most of his life; he is now cellar master for Frapin and Fontpinot. And if you don’t know who Dale is …

So DdG started off with a history of cognac, the region and the spirit. He moved quickly through this material, so my notes are somewhat sketchy. He wanted to get right into the first tasting portion of the panel. We started with a 2009 distillate of cognac, bottled off the still. Not a lot of complexity to this, as you’d imagine. Floral (lavender, violet) and fruity (a hint of citrus zest) on the nose and tongue, but also quite hot. It needed a few drops of water to open it up and get past the alcohol burn. We moved on to a VSOP Frapin, then a VSOP Château Montifaud and an XO Château de Fontpinot. I’m pretty inexperienced when it comes to cognacs of this caliber, so I don’t really trust my tasting notes. I’ll just say I thought the Fontpinot was just gorgeous, though.

A quick aside here: if I remember Dale’s definition correctly, in cognac terms, a château is a single house producing all its own cognac. These cognacs don’t blend their cognacs with distillates from other houses, like mass-market cognacs do. This is, in a rough sense, analogous to a single-malt scotch.

The final cognac tested was called Vat 49, and it was unusual. It’s from the Forgotten Casks program imported by Preiss Imports. A blend of older cognacs, containing brandies from 1904 and 1955. Interesting and a bit of a challenge.

Next part of the panel dealt with still construction in the cognac region, and this part was great. Royer played a video showing craftsmen taking a flat sheet of copper and hammering, bending, and shaping it into the rounded wall of the boiler. Someone interrupted with a question to Royer: “What’s the price of a cognac still these days?” Answer: “A Ferrari.” As labor intensive as it is to build one, I’m not surprised.

We were running low on time at this point, but Calabrese, the mad bastard, had a couple of surprises for us. First up, a pre-phyloxera cognac from 1865. That’s Eighteen Sixty-Five, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Phyloxera is a pest that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the late 1800s. The only salvation was to take European vines and graft them onto North American rootstock, which had evolved alongside phyloxera and was thus resistant. Many wine and brandy experts insist that pre-phyloxera wines and brandies were much different in flavor and character from today’s. I don’t know the provenance of the stuff that Calabrese brought along, but it’s a survivor. I thought it nosed like a madeira or a sherry, and caught a lot of complex aromas, but I also thought that the flavor was a little flat.

However, it was the other surprise that was a true treat, an 1805 Sazerac cognac.

A little history here: when the Sazerac cocktail–now rye whiskey, sugar, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters–was originally a brandy cocktail. And the brandy of choice was Sazerac. From what I can tell, though, the Sazerac cognac succumbed to the phyloxera pest. A bottle from 1805 is a rare thing indeed.

Which made it surprising when Calabrese mixed about half of a 200ml bottle into a Sazerac. I was one of the few who caught a sip of it, and zoh-mah-gah. The drink was far richer and more complex than any Sazerac I’ve made or tasted with rye or modern cognac, and I can reasonably suspect, a tipple I’ll probably never taste the likes of again.

Botanical Garden

Thursday morning, I had the pleasure of sitting in on the Botanical Garden seminar, presented by Charlotte Voisey and Jim Ryan of William Grant & Sons. Voisey and Ryan discussed the roles that various botanicals play in gins.


The seminar was lighthearted but info-packed. Four actors played the role of different botanicals and were decked in colorful outfits. At the right moment, the actor would come out into the room, dance or strut or even swagger around to music, and then exit. It sounds cheesy but it was actually quite fun.


Charlotte started, describing the history of the science of botany, and how our understanding has evolved over time.

They then split the world of gin botanicals into four groups: spice, floral, citrus, and other. They said there was honestly no better term they could derive than “other.” In spice, they covered first the biggie: juniper. They worked through coriander, caraway, and cubeb.

The cocktail served during this portion was the Snapper. Their version included Hendricks gin, rice wine vinegar, spices and a float of port.

They moved on to citrus: orange peel, lemon peel. They use a bitter orange, like that found in marmalade, for Hendrick’s. As for the lemon, it’s there to help correct and soften other flavors. Cocktail was the Citrus Fizz, in which they tried to layer the citrus flavors in the drink. It was gin, Solerna Blood Orange Liqueur, creme de violette, rhubarb bitters, and the juices of orange, lemon, and lime.

Among the floral botanicals used in making Hendricks are chamomile, elderflower; meadowsweet, and rose petal. The cocktail served here was the Pall Mall Punch: Hendricks, chamomile tea, lemon, honey syrup, and Peychaud’s. Lovely drink.

wee cuke

Finally, the elusive “other.” Just three things here, one of which will certainly not surprise anyone: first, angelica root, and orris root and the non-shocker, cucumber. I was interested to learn that cucumber’s essential oils are too low to be added in distillation, so they’re infused in afterward. For this round, they served up the La Luna, which was really kind of fun, but a little strong: Hendricks, cucumber juice, jalapeno syrup, and lime. A very green drink.

Tales 2010: Blow-out Beginning

So it begins… Tuesday, I hit the ground in New Orleans, after waking up at too-early-o-clock for my flight. After an exhausting morning of travel, I checked in to the Monteleone and came down shortly after for my first drink at the Carousel Bar, a Sazerac.

First drink in NOLA

In short order, I met up with the ladies of LUPEC Boston, who aren’t normally as fuzzy as Pink Lady is, here:


They were off to Coop’s Place for lunch, and asked me to join them.




Soon, the Pacific Northwest fell upon us, with a stray Texan in tow.

(That’s Paul Clarke facing away, Rocky Yeh facing toward, John the Bastard facing away, and stray Texan Mindy Kucan facing toward, marking her Twitter handle–@drinkswmindy–on her arm.)

Later, it was off to d.b.a. for the Tuesday Tasting. Organized by Jake Parrott, the tasting is a venue in which anyone interested can bring a sample bottle of some obscure booze, whether found in your grandma’s private closet or made at home.


Bandwagoneering: White Manhattan

Talking to bartenders, reading blogs, I’ve noticed a trend rising over the last several months: you take a classic whiskey cocktail, such as the Manhattan or the Sazerac, and you swap in an unaged (“white”) whiskey for the brown stuff. If you’re not familiar with white whiskies, they’re nothing more than unaged whiskies that have never seen a barrel. Spirits straight from the still, and cut with water (in most cases). You can say they’re like moonshine, but the key point here is that moonshine by definition is illegal. As my friend Matthew Rowley wrote, “If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.” (For more information: Simonson, Clarke, Cecchini, Rowley)

Legal white-dog whiskies, as the unaged stuff is called, aren’t exactly new to the market. I tasted some at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008. But they’ve been slowly gaining ground among bars and consumers since then and started making their way onto cocktail menus. As I mentioned above, one popular way is to replace the brown spirit in a classic whiskey drink with a white. I wanted to riff on this, but instead of using a white dog, I chose Bols Genever. It’s a favorite in our household, a malty botanical spirit that’s the precursor to modern gin. Bols tastes uncannily like whiskey, so I thought it would play well in this type of preparation. I tried a couple of different ideas–one using Carpano Antica vermouth–to re-create the Manhattan cocktail, but this is the one we liked best.

Nieuw Amsterdam

Stir, squeeze on lemon peel, discard peel.

Nieuw Amsterdam

photograph © Jennifer Hess

ToTC 2010: Tentative Schedule

Next week brings the 2010 edition of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, and I thought I’d run down some of the events I’m planning to attend. My calendar’s booked pretty solid this year, although I have a bit of downtime near the beginning. I booked my sessions back in March, when I was a working bartender, so bear in mind that some of my choice had a lot to do with bringing cocktail ideas back to a restaurant bar. I could be upset about that, but as John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Onward. Some of this is subject to change. Most of the seminars are solid, but I might try to move one or two around if I can.

Two years ago, I arrived on Wednesday and left Sunday morning, thus missing one of the seminars I was most interested in, St. John Frizell‘s look at the life of Charles Baker. (He adapted his talk into an article for the Summer 2008 issue of Oxford-American magazine, fortunately, and the text of the piece is online at St. John’s website.) This year, I’m staying through Sunday and leaving Monday morning, also ass-early. Look for my bleary-eyed mug at MSY.


  • Get up ass-early for a 6:30 flight from Providence to O’Hare. After an hour-and-a-half layover, it’s off to Louis Armstrong Airport.
  • Cab to the Hotel Monteleone, where I’ll be crashing out for the week.
  • Probably grab a po-boy and then hit the Tales Tuesday Tasting at d.b.a. that afternoon, which I’m eager to do. I love the d.b.a. bar in New York’s East Village. I would sometimes take an afternoon off work and repair to d.b.a.’s patio with a beer, a good book, and a cigar. I’ve never been to the NOLA d.b.a., and I’m looking forward to it.
  • Then, it’s back to the Quarter for the Tales Blogger reception. Then dinner, somewhere. Not sure yet.


  • First up, one of my working-bartender choices: Liquid Disc Jockey – Controlling the Flow of Any Room. I will probably try to switch out of this, maybe attend Camper English’s seminar on presentations which is at the same time.
  • Next up, the Beefeater Welcome Reception. The 2008 version was off the charts in terms of the amount of food served, so I plan to stuff the heck out of my face.


  • Busy, busy, busy. First up, Botanical Garden, Charlotte Voisey’s look at the use of botanicals in distillation. Another event chosen to enhance my skills behind the bar. This one, though, I’ll keep because it sounds great, even to someone who’s “just” a writer/blogger. Using seasonal herbs and other ingredients in cocktails is my “beat” at Edible Rhody, so I hope to learn a lot that I can bring to the magazine.
  • Then, At Full Sail, the look at overproof spirits with Audrey Saunders and Eric Seed. This one will be popular, I know.
  • After that, Umami in Cocktails, moderated by my friend Darcy O’Neil. Again, a professional-bartender choice, but again, one I’ll keep because I like the topic and it’ll give me writing ideas.
  • Then, another private event, one I hope to be writing about post-Tales.
  • Spirited Dinner will probably follow, although I’ve made neither choice nor reservation.



  • My big moment: Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Rookies. Assuming I don’t stroke out first. I get to share a seminar with the Robert Hess who isn’t my father-in-law? Damn.
  • Blair the Bear’s Tiki Now! I think this one’s close to selling out.
  • Paul “The Godfather” Clarke’s Art of the Aperitif. Great topic for Tales.
  • Then, I’ll probably disco-nap prior to the Bartender’s Breakfast at midnight.


  • A light schedule. Dale DeGroff’s Cognac panel to start…
  • Followed by the Sprezzatura Bartender panel. I want to get the cut of Vadrna’s jib.
  • Then probably just a few last drinks at Carousel with any other stragglers.


  • MSY > CLT > PVD > bed for a week.