This week, Tales of the Cocktail returned to New Orleans, and it’s always an event I’ve been a little suspicious of. Its celebration of cocktail culture has always seemed like a slightly odd fit in a city where the most popular drink is the drive-thru daiquiri, rivalled closely by Miller Lite in a go-cup, a spicy bloody mary, a hurricane and anything poured freehand. Tales’ focus on carefully poured, balanced concoctions typified by its championing of the Sazerac felt to me as being of a piece with Jackie Clarkson’s efforts to preserve a French Quarter that only exists in her mind, one that had artists and urbane Bohemians but none of the louts, drunks, addicts, thugs and ne’er-do-wells. I worried it was a celebration of what we’d like to think we are, as opposed to what we are.
And in a sense, it is, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I remember a friend from out of town who was embarrassed when she took her stiff Jack and Coke back to the bartender and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t drink this.” More hooch for the dollar might be good value, but I’d like to think we want something more out of a drink than something that’ll get you there, and that we’re not quite the slackjaws we’re often thought to be. And we’re not. I know people who actually factor flavor into their drink selections. I know many who just want something inoffensive or blandly pleasant that they can knock down all night long, but there are people for whom the drink, not the drunk, is the sought-after experience.
Besides, in my experience, conferences and get-togethers like Tales are more about what you want things to be like, not what they are. When I taught, teachers conferences weren’t about maintaining the status quo; they were about trying to improve education. People who come to conferences want things to be better – in this case, people to think about cocktails in the same way they think about food, and it’s a noble goal. I suspect if we compared the percentage of the population interested in fine drinking, we’re probably on par with other cities or just slightly below, more a result of the party associations people make with New Orleans than a lack of taste.
And, to Tales’ credit, it’s a national event; New Orleans is just its site. I heard last year’s Tales drew 12,000 attendees, and a quick eyeball makes me think there are probably more here this year. The conference/meeting of the shake-and-muddle tribe is also a larger part of the life of the Quarter and CBD than ever before. It might not quite reflect its home city, but I doubt it really reflects any city better.