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Aspen Times Weekly: Tales of the Cocktail

If I could be anywhere in the wide world of drink today it would surely be at Tales of the Cocktail in the city of New Orleans. Of course, if I were in the Crescent City, on this, the first morning after the first evening of Tales (as those in the know call it), chances are good that I would be nursing a well-earned hangover. That’s just how this event rolls.

 For the uninitiated and under-served, Tales of the Cocktail is the world’s largest annual gathering devoted to all things alcoholic. Founded in 2002 by Ann Tuennerman, who paired her love of the city and its then underappreciated cocktail culture with a relentless entrepreneurial zest, Tales of the Cocktail has grown from a seminar in the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone attended by maybe 200 or so people, into the most significant cocktail event in the world.

 This week, even more than your average week in New Orleans, the town that sits hard by the banks of the muddy Mississippi is awash in fresh fruit daiquiris, chilled glasses filled with potent martinis and cool Tiki cocktail concoctions decorated with umbrellas. Tales of the Cocktail muddles the minds, not to mention the berries and herbs, of those who live to sip in the Big Easy.

Tales is the not only the world’s best cocktail party, it is also an unrivaled jamboree for bartenders, mixologists, marketers of liquid libations, drink writers and the people who love them. The next four days will see as many as 18,500 people descend on the hot and sweaty streets (yes, Bourbon Street actually perspires) for an event that provides an economic boost to New Orleans of upwards of $11 million annually.

 Not bad for an event conceived simply as a celebration of New Orleans and its role in cocktail history. Today through Sunday will see a combination of seminars, tastings, happy hours, pool parties, book signings, interview sessions, press conferences and more. But beyond all that, Tales has evolved to become an event that preaches/teaches the importance of professionalism in the bartending community and turns out thousands of believers who go back to their countries, cities, neighborhoods and bars to spread the word. The result has been a revolution in great drinks and a proliferation in the production of products to make them with.

 In the eleven years since the first 200 people took to the streets and lounges at the first Tales, cocktail culture has changed at the speed of Moore’s law. Cocktail-ing has stars like Dale DeGroff, Tony Abou-Ganim. Papers like the Aspen Times Weekly have pages devoted to drinks. And bartending has become a hip profession. While the seminars at Tales may seem a little geeky to some (The “History of Ice” seminar has a waiting list), it’s not as geeky as the Comic-Con convention that is invading San Diego this week. And at Tales you get to drink.

 If I were in New Orleans this morning you can bet I would be standing in line to see and hear Amy Stewart, my new cocktail hero. Stewart published a book earlier this year called “The Drunken Botanist” that has received much acclaim, all of which is deserved. In “The Drunken Botanist” Amy breaks down all of the botanical components of spirits and shows why we basically drink what we grow. Every element in a typical cocktail is a gift from the garden, be it the vodka which is a product of potatoes, the bitters which are combinations of various herbs, or simple syrups which are flavored mixers made from fresh water, cane sugar and a myriad of herbs, flowers fruit or spices.

 Amy takes the message a step further however and breaks down the history of various cocktails and gives them an historical sense, discussing how and why they became popular with different people at different times in our history. It is a book that likely could not have found a publisher before Tales came along and surely one that would have had a hard time finding an audience.

 One of Amy’s talks will be called “Digging into the Secrets of Tequila,” which coincides with the first chapter in her book which discusses agave. “The agave is better known,” she writes, “for what it is not than for what it is. Some people think it is a kind of cactus: in fact it is a member of the botanical order, Asparagales.”

Who knew?

While pleased to awaken this morning sans hangover, I do wish I had the opportunity to attend this year’s Tales. I guess I will salve myself by heading down to the tasting room at the Woody Creek Distillers for a botanically correct cocktail.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.


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