DMV bartenders, writers and distillers dish on their favorite parts—and what surprised them—at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail.
By Kelly Magyarics, DWS
One thing’s for sure about Tales of the Cocktail: you never quite know exactly what to expect. The world’s largest cocktail conference draws thousands of industry professionals and booze enthusiasts to New Orleans’ French Quarter each July. As always, DC was well-represented last month. Now that everyone has returned from the craziness, we asked some of them for their thoughts on the whirlwind week:
Scott Harris, Co-Founder, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: The coolest thing I did at Tales was visiting Jake Parrot’s “Adult Show-and-Tell”. There were so many cool expressions there, and all the cool people in the business too (like Dave Pickerel, and even Becky!) I enjoyed trying some of Dave’s newest collaborations, including a Bourbon aged in the stifling heat of St. Augustine, Florida.
Something that surprised me: What surprised me at Tales (seriously), was the chance to try the many delicious mezcals in the Mexican tasting room. So much variety, and it knocked my socks off! It was also amusing to see the Donald Trump pinata. Obviously, there’s no love lost between Mr. Trump and our friends south of the border.
Becky Harris, Co-Founder and Distiller, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: I tried to hit a number of tasting rooms during our stay. The things that stuck in my head for tasting were some lovely rums (I wish I’d taken pictures of the labels), a Maine pear brandy that was really lovely, and a lemongrass soju.
Something that surprised me: I was impressed by the lavishness of many of the presentations from the big brands, and we didn’t even hit any of the parties. I was surprised that, despite my best efforts, I missed all the seminars I signed up for because of all the off-the-schedule coolness taking place.
Trevor Frye, Proprietor Wash Line LLC / Co-Founder, Dram & Grain
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: As someone who helped score the seminar submissions and serves as a judge for the Spirited Awards, Tales of the Cocktail has changed for me over the last few years and I feel so lucky to be a part of the process leading up to this incredible week. This year I was lucky enough to work many of the amazing events that brands put on. In one day I bartended a party that Houndmouth played at with Bulleit and then that evening bartended for the Williams Grant & Sons party with Drambuie, out of a massive punch bowl rotating on turntables while a gospel choir sang. To say I have the best job in the world would be an understatement. This was my sixth Tales of the Cocktail and my last before I transition in to my role as a bar owner and I could not have asked for a more amazing time and want to thank all of the amazing folks who put in so much effort to execute such a large scale event, and of course all the CAPS [Cocktail Apprentice Program members] (any time y’all are in town you’re drinks are on me).
Something that surprised me: Did I mention I was chosen to take a bartender tour bus for a week of Bulldog Gin sponsored pop ups down the east coast on the way to TOTC? Yea 10 bartenders on a rock and roll tour bus is as insane and amazing as it sounds.
Lukas Smith, Herbalist & Cocktail Specialist at Cotton & Reed Distillery, Drammatist at Dram & Grain
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: There are parties going on constantly at Tales, so it’s only natural that the brands seek out ways to differentiate themselves and their events. They went farther and weirder than ever this time around, and that marked this year’s Tales more than anything else. Jameson threatened to steal the whole show before it began with their opening night bash. The Hot 8 band is an outstanding example of second line, and they brought the house down in an appropriately local fashion. Their cover of “Sexual Healing” is justly world-famous, and Tuesday’s performance had the crowd in a yearning seethe. Gary Clark Jr. headlined and put on a strong show, but the opening act killed.
Something that surprised me: Macallan offered a luxurious chauffeured ride around the Quarter in bartender’s choice of either a Maserati or a Bentley. We may or may not have been drinking Macallan Rare Cask by the tumbler behind that smoked glass, though if we had been it would have been a memorable experience, and not in a particularly good way. This particular concept, when held in mind alongside Diageo’s recent move to nix the vaunted Master of Whisky program, suggests that the industry money is moving away from education and deeper into the numinous territory of “experience”-driven marketing. To whit, if you want someone to associate Macallan with luxury and class, and the person drinking it can’t taste how luxurious and classy it is, drive them around in a car they’ll never afford and make them drink Macallan — then they’ll KNOW. That Bentley ride was the bottle service section of Tales, and it was at least a bit silly if not totally absurd.
There was a general air of restraint that reigned in a new way this year. I worked the portfolio party for William Grant & Sons, for example, and we were explicitly instructed neither to drink nor to serve shots to our guests. This ethos held across the board, as far as I can tell, and it made a different. After all, if you’re going to engage in experience-driven sales, what good are all the ruses and feints if nobody remembers them?
Jo-Jo Valenzuela, Partner, Behind the Stick Consulting Group / Brand Agent, Absolut Elyx
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: Bartenders Breakfast was the best party this year. They bounced back from last year’s unfortunate power outage that happened midway of the party. The password for this year’s party was “Lights Out,” clearly made a joke of the mishap the year before. Highlight of the night was they shut off all the lights at one point, and when they turned it back on, another door opened to a large room with neon lights, live music, and a bigger bar.
Something that surprised me: “A Little Bird Told Me” pop-up by Simone Caporale and Alex Kratena at the Elyx House. That’s the best 45-minutes only few dozens of people experienced at TOTC 16. They used surface tension in one of their courses. We basically drank liquid that were served in screen spoons. It might be the next big thing and we will probably see more of in the next couple of years. Another phenomenal thing was the cracker they served in one of the courses.
Melanie Asher, Co-Founder, Macchu Pisco
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: Coolest thing was having the Peruvian government official introduce me as a titan of the pisco industry at the Pisco Spirited Dinner. It gave me shivers seeing Peru transplanted to TOTC at the Catahoula Hotel which boasts a complete pisco-themed bar with Peruvian paraphernalia including a train bond from the 1800’s from Ica to the port of Pisco, accompanied by two other master distillers and a Peruvian chef cooking up his delicacies.
Something that surprised me: What surprised me most was the overwhelming positive reaction we got from men to our Macchu Pisco Princess tank-tops which we debuted at the Chill out Chilcano Tasting Room!
Jake Emen, Freelance Writer
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: Roughly $10,000 of beautiful Scotch whisky was displayed on a long table in a private dining room at Commander’s Palace, entrancing a crowd of 40 whisky enthusiasts, writers, and ambassadors. A fearsome fivesome of Port Ellen 32 year old, Brora 37 year old, The Cally 40 year old, Dailuaine 34 year old, and Clynelish Select Reserve, led the charge, each paired with a lavish course from chef Tory McPhail. Everyone in that small room knew it — we had won Tales of the Cocktail.
Something that surprised me: A scheduled round table media session with Steven Soderbergh for his Singani 63 turned instead into a lengthy one-on-one interview. He was happy to chat away the day, eventually being hauled off by assistants after being warned on several occasions that he would miss his flight out of town.
M. Carrie Allan, Washington Post Spirits Columnist
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: A highly informative sherry seminar by the Gonzalez Byass crew was enhanced by Stu Hudson, demonstrating the art of “throwing” cocktails, pouring some delicious sherry drinks from a distance as far as one hand can reach from the other, thus increasing aeration and aromas and also achieving the all important “I am a bad ass” factor. Best thing I drank: Some amazing Scotches from the Diageo whisky stable, including a 32 year old Port Ellen that made me feel deeply unworthy.
Something that surprised me: It’s hard to be surprised by much at Tales — at this point, I just assume it will be a festival of wonderful oddness. My first Tales I encountered both a llama and a righteously irritated camel at various Tales events over the course of the week. This conference seemed to be hooved-mammal free. While I was sad not to run into any large ruminants promoting various brands, I suspect the animals themselves were likely the better for being kept away from the boozers. But perhaps a pisco brand will figure out a way to incorporate guinea pigs next year?
Author’s Take: Kelly Magyarics, Freelance Writer
Coolest thing I ate, drank or did: Sipping a flight of Ford’s Gin Martinis while slurping tri-coastal oysters (East, West and Gulf) at the Ford’s Gin Martinis and Oysters event at Seaworthy at the Ace Hotel organized by Simon Ford and Dan Warner was part of an all-around fabulous Friday. Having a reserved table made it sooooo civilized, and it was a great break from the Tales madness. I also highly enjoyed (and was honored to) be asked facilitate a discussion with Martin Miller’s Gin co-founder David Bromige at the Martin Miller’s Gin Explorer’s Lounge. After having gone on a press trip to Iceland in May where I learned about the spirit, it was great to share my love for the brand.
Something that surprised me: How much I enjoyed the portfolio parties this year…they can sometimes be so incredibly crowded. The William Grant & Sons party at the gorgeous Orpheum Theater was fabulous (especially the top floor rare Scotch bars which were blissfully uncrowded as most attendees didn’t even know they were up there). I also liked hanging out in the Airstream at the Diageo Games party, meeting new people, getting to know friends a little better, and drinking Tequila.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.