Tales of the Cocktail: Not Just Booze

Tales of the Cocktail Founder Ann Tuennerman. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Tales of the Cocktail Founder Ann Tuennerman. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Isn’t the difference between a “cocktail scene” and run-of-the-mill alcoholism simply a matter of whether one is getting drunk while sitting in a circle and chatting, or facing forward at the bar, speaking to no one but an empty glass? Isn’t a “cocktail enthusiast” simply, as The Onion once put it, “like a chocoholic, but for booze?” Ann Tuennerman (pictured), for one, has done her part to make cocktail culture much more than that with her five-day Tales of the Cocktail alcohol industry conference, which this month celebrates its tenth year.

Last year, 21,764 bartenders, liquor reps and other service industry lifers attended Tales. “These are what we mean by real hardcore cocktail enthusiasts,” says Tuennerman. “People who read books by [“mixologists”] David Wondrich and Dale DeGroff. We craft every seminar for the bartenders and we don’t dumb it down.” Tuennerman is aided by her husband Paul, himself a member of the service industry. Ann, who comes from a PR background, was first the inventor of a bar and restaurant walking tour: “I felt nothing told the story of all the famous drinks and spirits invented here in New Orleans,” Tuennerman says. Upon the tour’s first anniversary, Tales of the Cocktail was born, at the time featuring just 10 “mixologists,” including the aforementioned Degroff plus Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller.

Tuennerman has since turned Tales of the Cocktail into a truly global trade conference. This year will feature liquor distributors from the UK and Australia alongside first-time presenters from Russia and India. Tales is not the five-day pub crawl one might expect. Unlike consumer-oriented booze events (i.e. events for drinkers) such as Dallas Cocktail Week or the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Tales focuses on the industry and on original, educational content. “Every year we change all the seminars, we have all new tasting rooms,” says Paul Tuennerman. “In order to present a seminar on Tales, it cannot have been given anywhere else.” This year’s seminar menu includes talks on making your own vermouth, and the way in which your tastebuds change as you age. “All day and night at Tales of the Cocktail you’re talking to people from Bulgaria to Tampa.” Ann recalls, “A bartender told me that even if you’re talking to someone at 2 a.m. at Tales of the Cocktail, you’re learning something about the industry.”
But do you remember it?

Interestingly, Tales of the Cocktail isn’t about New Orleans. “New Orleans is just the perfect backdrop, as so many original cocktails and spirits are from here,” Tuennerman acknowledges. “Everyone loves that it’s here, and we always hire local musicians, local vendors, and we don’t have any events at the Convention Center because we try to bring people to places they might not have gone to otherwise. We show off New Orleans, but it’s a global event.” For instance, this year bartender Dominic Venegas of NoMad Hotel in New York City took top honors for his “Rum Row” Old Fashioned.

Per Tales of the Cocktail’s press sheet, in 2011 Ann Tuennerman’s charming little idea made a $12.7 million economic impact on the city of New Orleans, with 15,748 hotel nights booked, and $885,000 in state and local tax revenue collected (not to mention 1,432 stories written as of last year…). No word on the number of drunken arguments, but despite Tales’ focus on spirits, Tuennerman points out that its attendees are not novices: “Booze is their profession,” she says. “These people know what they’re doing. So I’d like to think we’ve had more hookups than breakups.” She brags, “The event even hosted a wedding last year!” Oh right: there is also food. Not just so that you won’t dry heave later, Tales of the Cocktail this year will host over 30 of its traditional “Spirited Dinners” at locations from staples like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, to new restaurants such as Maurepas in the Bywater. “Different bartenders work with staffs at these different restaurants to create special cocktail-centric menus,” explains Tuennerman. “The host bartender talks to the audience throughout the meal about why they selected each dish and its accompanying cocktail.”

As requested by past attendees, the 2012 Tales will feature more new excursions, contests and events. On Sunday, a “Confederacy of Cruisers” bike tour led by local bartenders will wind through various New Orleans neighborhoods, stopping at some of the city’s famous bars and eateries as well as urban farms. Bacardi hosts its own 150th Anniversary “Hand-Shaken Daiquirí Competition.” Tales of the Cocktail will continue the tradition of “burying” one cocktail forever, this year by holding a jazz funeral for the “Cement Mixer.” “Street Food and Go Cups” closes out Tales at Lafayette Square, hosting ten food trucks from New Orleans and Baton Rouge plus ten spirit trucks with drinks. Also new this year, aged burlesque dancer GiO will host the presentation “How to Strip For Your Man,” because “burlesque and spirits have always gone good together,” says Tuennerman.

Paul Tuennerman has a quick answer ready when asked, with over 600 types of drinks at Tales of the Cocktail, which is the most popular: “Water,” he says, “definitely.”