Tales of the Cocktail routinely poses the question, “How much can you handle?” As a media member, I was handed a large empty bag and shown to a room where I was told to be civilized. Inside were promotional shakers, shot glasses, and airplane-sized bottles of liqueurs, flavored vodkas, designer moonshines, and such novel mixers as dry lemon grass soda and a dandelion and burdock soda. The gold cardboard sleeve contains Stoli-flavored lip balms. Ten minutes later, I had 30-4o pounds of bottles on my shoulder.
The annual celebration of cocktail culture is housed at the Hotel Monteleone, whose maze-like floor plan is perfect for an alcohol-centered event. I’m sure there are people who get lost, never to be heard from again. But Tales is large enough that it now occupies part of the Royal Sonesta, where a tasting session sponsored by Haus Alpenz presented a host of spirits “for the adventurous palate,” including Zucco, an Italian aperitif served with cola, though that suppressed the chocolate flavor that soften its otherwise bold taste. There I tried the well-balanced Smith & Cross rum, and muscular clear whiskey whose name I can’t re-find, and Rothman & Winter Orchard’s cherry liqueur, which one friend celebrated as the first cherry liqueur he’d had that didn’t taste like cough syrup. For me, it tasted like a good cherry life saver – only incremental improvement in my books – but it didn’t have cloying aftertaste I assume he was responding to.
A panel titled “The Bad Bad Boys of Saloons” started promisingly when I was handed at PBR tall-boy and a drink when I walked in the door. Unfortunately, the tall-boy had already been off ice for a while, so it really wasn’t good for more than a few sips. I assume we were drinking Pabst in honor of saloons, which the talk argued were centers of working class and immigrant life in America. While Christine Sismondo made the argument that the prohibition movement was really aimed at saloons to keep their patrons socially and politically marginalized, she presented numerous odd, cool facts, including a photo of a bar with a urinal trough right under the plank so no one had to leave his or her stool to pee. If I followed this correctly, one effort to impede saloons included not letting them have glassware, so beer was served via tubes that customers could suck on, paying three cents for all they could get in one suck. Patrons would pant until they were breathless before taking a pull, and Sismondo suggested that some taught themselves a version of circular breathing to stretch their three cents. We were also served a cocktail that was not historically correct, she said, because she wasn’t allowed to poison us. Shots at certain points were essentially poison – a Mickey Finn, tobacco syrup and gunpowder – or gross – 50/50 whiskey and mescal. We got whiskey and blueberry liqueur with a gummy worm simulating the mescal worm.
Each year, Tales features “Spirited Dinners” – dinners at fine dining establishments paired with themed drinks prepared by a mixologist. I was at MiLa, where Alex Ott prepared a series of drinks with New Amsterdam gin to work with a five-course menu by Allison Vines-Rushing. Before the dinner started, we got a taste of the gin, which is very smooth with clear, gentle citrus notes and lighter-than-usual juniper. In his drinks, Ott chose to highlight the citrus, mixing it with fruit juices. That made for a series of uncomplicated, un-showy drinks, but that too was an aesthetic choice. One of his goals, he said afterward, was to create drinks people could easily make at home with materials they’d have in their kitchens.
The strongest pairing of the night was his “Pepper Shaker” – gin, yellow bell pepper, freshly ground black peppercorns, lemon, agave nectar with a yellow bell pepper garnish – with Vines-Rushing’s grilled escolar on a bed of market peas with a spicy tomato vinaigrette, the vinaigrette made with local grape tomatoes. The humble vegetables had a lot of flavor and supported the meaty escolar, and the pepper mixers highlighted the complexity in the gin in a way that he hadn’t in previous glasses. I walked away liking the cocktails, bummed that they wouldn’t give me a free bottle – the game of acquisition having kicked in – and blown away again by MiLa’s subtlety and elegant simplicity. The seared lamb chop lying on a charred leek, a strip of grilled Japanese eggplant and a drizzle of rosemary jus was unassuming and brilliant.
My Tales ended this morning with a pisco breakfast courtesy of Pisco Porton. Pisco’s this year’s “It Drink,” but having a day of work ahead of me meant one cocktail was enough. As I was leaving the Monteleone, local event person Carl Mack was measuring off a stretch of Royal Street for a bocce court that will be installed this afternoon for games later this afternoon. How much can you handle?
Tales of the Cocktail continues through Sunday.