A Few Of My Favorite Things
By David Ransom

Photo by Charles Steadman

Once again this past July in New Orleans, Mrs. And Mr. Cocktail (aka Ann & Paul Tuennerman) put on what those of us in the business have affectionately come to consider the triathlon of liver survival (drink-filled seminars, drink-filled tasting rooms, and drink-filled dinners and parties… not to mention the obligatory night-ending swing through Old Absinthe House on Rue Bourbon every night just to prove you didn’t expire during the course of the day) that is Tales of the Cocktail (www.talesofthecocktail.com).

Having just completed its ninth year, Tales has grown from a tiny industry-focused event that brought the nation’s top bartenders together for a few days of camaraderie, events, and parties, into a truly international symposium, complete with a “Spirited Awards” program (like the movie industry’s Oscars) that hands out honors to establishments and industry leaders from around the world, and now brings in professionals and consumers from all over the globe to celebrate the world of cocktails in the city that created them.

Rocks Stars and I feel honored to be given the chance to attend each year, and as always, I’m thrilled to be able to share some of my experiences…now that I have recovered enough to be able to write again…

So without further ado, here are a few of my favorite things from this year’s Tales, both good and bad, but really all good, as nothing that includes having a well-crafted drink could ever really be bad… and in no particular order:

Best Hosts Under Pressure: Ann & Paul Tuennerman. Nine years into it, Tales could probably have run itself, but Ann and Paul were everywhere. Every event. Every day. Every night. What amazes me about this is that Paul was recovering from a health scare and had just spent time in the hospital. I have to tip my hat to these two intrepid souls for not staying in the background and recuperating at home while “their baby” was staged. Quite to the contrary, they were all over the place from Tuesday’s Media Welcome Party at Arnaud’s French 75 bar (beautifully run by Chris Hannah, one of NOLA’s finest drinks-smiths – www.arnaudsrestaurant.com),to the final Sunday Brunch with Mr. & Mrs. Cocktail, and everywhere in between. I even ran into Paul solo, visibly tired yet surely on the mend, at the Suntory Suite (www.suntory.com) one afternoon where we chatted on the balcony overlooking Bourbon Street while enjoying a glass of Japan’s finest single malt.

Best All-Out Parties: As always, Wednesday night’s rivalry-free dual billing of the Beefeater Welcome Party (www.beefeatergin.com) and William Grant After Party (www.grantusa.com), showed that brand camaraderie can indeed be attained over a few well-crafted cocktails. “Craft” being the operative word in regards to the William Grant party this year, i.e.: aircraft, as it was held in the New Orleans World War II Museum under a sky full of dangling B-29 Bombers and Mustangs, with uniformed servicemen and “Rosie the Riveters” shaking cocktails while the Andrews Sisters harmonized wartime classics and clips of B&W talkies were shown on spinning globes hanging from the ceiling.

Hats-off to event creative director/producer Miguel Calvo who, when charged with coming up with a unique way to provide ultra-fresh ingredients for what was dubbed the “Hendrick’s Gin Freshest Ramos Gin Fizz in all the World”, brought in lemon trees, chickens to lay eggs, and even a live cow to milk on the spot for the cream!

The Beefeater Welcome party, held in a grand, antebellum-type space on St. Charles Avenue, was the perfect kick-off to the William Grant Wind-down. Hosted by none other than Beefeater’s legendary Master Distiller Desmond Payne, it was classic London: Beefeaters roaming the halls, Fabulous gin cocktails shaken up by some of the country’s top mixologists, and even a quartet of Marie Antoinette’s (think period costumes, not that she was Austrian and probably never went to London) playing chamber music.
A couple of great parties to get everyone into the swing of things.

Favorite Cocktail: Who says Mojitos have to be made with rum? Wandering through the Pisco Pavilion on Wednesday morning (yes, morning), I got to taste a myriad of offerings of what has to be one of the hottest spirits out there these days, Peruvian Pisco.

The room, hosted by a consortium of “competing” Pisco producers like Barsol (www.barsolpisco.com), Macchu Pisco (www.macchupisco.com), Pisco ORO (www.cleargrapellc.com/about-oro-pisco), and my personal favorite, the amazing Campo de Encanto (www.encantopisco.com), was chock full of wonderful cocktails.

But it was when I stopped by the table hosted by Pisco O (www.piscoo.com) that I tasted the deliciously simple creation of O’s Eduardo Diaz, expertly crafted by Nashville’s Bar 308’s (www.bar308.com) bartender/owners Ben Clemons and Alexis Soler: a Cilantro Mojito.

While there were literally hundreds of cocktails created at Tales this year (the official recipe book is 190 pages long), none enraptured my palate like that one did. So simple, so good!

A special mention should go out to another stellar drink, again consumed in the morning (trending now…?): the Sailor Jerry Rum Bloody Mary with Pickles and Bacon. Need I elaborate further…?

Best Seminar: Undoubtedly, Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal guru Ron Cooper’s 3-hour panel on the state of the Mezcal (and by default, tequila) industry in Mexico. Asked by Tales founder Ann Tuennerman to come up with something special, Ron did just that, putting together a panel of agave experts that included Misty Kalkofen and Phil Ward, Tomas Estes, David Grapshi, David Suro, and Dr. Ivan Saldana Oyarzabel. Led by aka wine geek’s Steve Olson, this panel detailed the growing needs and concerns of Mexico’s burgeoning tequila industry, and its quiet, slightly less pressured (for now) cousin, mezcal. Ron even brought samples of smoked and roasted piña to try was we sipped away the afternoon listening to these seers talk about their liquid religion. Fascinating.

Best Seminar With A Volcano (that was almost a disaster): The Glenlivet’s experimental essence extraction seminar (www.theglenlivet.com), where The Glenlivet’s craftsmen walked us through the separation of the oak component from the distillate by way of a liquid nitrogen rotary vacuum pump (due to the costs of the equipment, chances are you’ll probably never try this at home). An interesting exercise, I must say, to be able to taste what a 15 year old scotch is like without the wood, but the real entertainment value (and hence the almost disaster) came when culinary chef David Arnold tried to make instant ice cream by pouring liquid nitrogen into a stand mixer full of cream, sugar, and The Glenlivet, producing a fog-enshrouded volcano of sorts that erupted over the sides and splattered the table and floor all around it. Entertaining, to say the least, yet in the end, the ice cream was actually quite delicious.

Most Ridiculous Party Rejection: After hyping it for weeks to everyone on Facebook, Tobin Ellis and the Social Mixology crew threw what they dubbed a “Fancy Pants Party” on Tuesday evening to welcome us all to town. While everyone thought the fact that Team Ellis wouldn’t divulge the exact address of the party, ever, was really quite intriguing (think night-time Easter egg hunt in the dark streets of the French quarter), it was the fact that they insisted on everyone wearing some form of “fancy” pants to the party, which sent hopeful revelers scrambling to find some long-forgotten pair of Coca-Cola jeans from the 60’s in the back of their closets to bring with them to Tales. Not being able to find mine, I settled for a very well-tailored (read: fancy) pair of canary yellow dress slacks to attend in. Yet when I showed up, I was unceremoniously rejected at the door by a big bouncer who barely even looked at my slacks, and was wearing some, I must admit, rather un-fancy (which in turn called into question whether he had the experience necessary to judge my fashion sense) cargo shorts! Arguing with him about his inability to see the fanciness in my pants fell on deaf ears (or maybe it was the lighting), and so, while other invitees were able to pass through the ropes wearing nothing more than decidedly unfancy, pedestrian-at-best jeans adorned with cheap bumper stickers touting things like “My wife gives me sound advice: 99% sound, 1% advice,” which they had obviously purchased up the street in a tee shirt store while on the way there, I was left to slink off to find another (hopefully better) party. Which I did.

Though we’re FBFs, having never actually met Mr. Ellis (who I’ve been assured is a very nice person), I can’t be mad at him… unless, of course, he does it again.

Most Touching Personal Moment: There were two really. The first was at the Tuesday night Grey Goose Welcome Party (www.greygoose.com) at Latrobe’s (www.latrobesonroyal.com) when, while I was explaining to Tony Abou Gamin that the reason he hadn’t seen my wife Melanie Young for awhile, was because she had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer in late 2009, and had spent the last year undergoing (I may happily say, successful ) treatment, (and out of which she has started a very moving blog, www.gettingthingsoffmychest.com), his eyes welled-up with tears and he became so visibly emotional that he had to walk away and compose himself. Knowing that Tony’s mentor, Helen David of the Brass Rail in Port Huron, Ohio (the TOTC Lifetime Achievement Award is named in her honor) succumbed to this very disease, only made the moment that much more poignant.

Tony, I’m sorry I made you cry, you know how much I love you.

The second was on Saturday night at the Plymouth Gin Bartenders Breakfast (www.plymouthgin.com), when Tony and Melanie finally ran into each other on the walkway. That hug seemed to last for hours…

Most spirited Spirited Dinner: EVER! When I was invited to attend the Russian Standard Vodka (www.russianstandardvodka.com) dinner hosted by Employees Only’s (www.employeesonlynyc.com) incomparable Dushan Zaric (most certainly a Rocks Star now that he’s won the 2011 World’s Best Cocktail Bar award from Tales) and Marquee’s (Dallas, TX) Jason Kosmas, I knew I was in for a treat. What I got was most certainly that, but not for the reasons I would have expected. What Dushan and Jason decided to do, was hold a “Cocktail Free” spirited dinner, something I had been yearning to see for years at Tales, but nobody had had the foresight to do, until now. The spirits, all white, un-aged versions of vodka, gin, whisky and tequila, and Pisco, were expertly chilled and paired with the culinary creations of the Eiffel Society (www.eiffelsociety.com), a beautifully designed private club on St. Charles Avenue. What I loved about it was the simplicity of the way the spirits were shown, and the extraordinary attention that was paid to make sure the food pairings complimented them to the highest degree possible. And they certainly did. Hats-off to Dushan and crew, and to Russian Standard for allowing them to think outside the box.

Most exciting relationship moment: Cocktail legend Audrey Saunders’ (NYC’s Pegu Club – www.peguclub.com) very public nuptials to longtime beau Robert Hess at the Plymouth Gin Bartenders Breakfast. After a Second Line band playing “What a Wonderful World” escorted them into the room, Audrey and Robert said their vows in front of a madding (cocktail-fueled) crowd of revelers, while industry luminaries such as Dale & Jill DeGroff, David Wondrich, Julie Reiner, and Lu Brow stood in waiting. Maid of honor duties fell to Pernod Ricard’s Shawn Kelley, and the co-officiating was done by none other than Beefeater’s Desmond Payne and Plymouth’s Sean Harrison. Having proposed to my wife Melanie onstage at the James Beard Awards in 2006 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOvi3zQjuaw ), I could certainly identify with this most public display of affection.

Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography

A special mention needs to go to my colleague David Wondrich for having the nerve to wear his high school jean jacket (sleeves cut-off, of course) for the 70’s themed ceremony. Dave, our late-night conversation about Frank Zappa (whose likeness adorns my own high school jean jacket) at the bar, cemented our own relationship…

Honorable Mentions (not necessarily runners-up):
There were so many other events and experiences this year, that made Tales of the Cocktail special, like the ZU (Bison Grass flavored Vodka from Poland – www.zubrowka.com) Bison Riding Block Party held at midnight in a roped off section of Bourbon Street (I wonder how they were able to ever get that approved…) right front of the Old Absinthe House (of course making it easy to stop by for that last drink of the evening)

Photo by Gabi Porter/Courtesy of Zu Bison Grass Vodka

The Campari Negroni Pre-Awards Toast (any excuse for a mass gathering to share a classic drink works for me – www.campari.com)

And Josh Harris and the Bon Vivants’ Second Annual Pig & Punch in the Park on Saturday afternoon, a free pig roast for charity, quite expanded this year with 5 donated pigs and lots of other goodies (and of course, rows of garbage cans full of many different punches). I continue to love the energy these guys have.

Of course there were others, I could go on for pages and pages… However, the best thing is to just go there and experience it yourself. In 2012, Tales of the Cocktail will take place July 25-29, and it will be the tenth anniversary of this great program. If I know Ann and Paul, it will be the best one yet. Cheers!