Ann Tuennerman’s tiny Toyota is shrink-wrapped in boiled-shrimp pink plastic that’s been screened with slogans such as “Shake things up.” Given its size, the slogan might almost apply to the car, but, no, Tuennerman is in town to promote Tales of the Cocktail, the colossal, New Orleans-based cocktalian confab that’s now in its ninth year. Stirrers and shakers from around town have gathered at the Esquire Tavern for a preview of coming attractions. And a gin fizz.
It’s not just because there’s another Crescent City classic, the Vieux Carré (rye, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine, bitters) on Esquire’s extensive cocktail menu that the event is being touted here; Jeret Peña, the inveterate educator/organizer who’s the Tavern’s head bar honcho, has done Tales before, as have some of the bar boys from Bohanan’s. They’re both veterans and fans. And, as Tuennerman says, Texas is beginning to develop a real bar culture; all the action is no longer on the other two coasts.
The event itself is held July 20-24 in NOLA, and its five days are literally packed with possibilities — both to learn and to lean. Looking at last year’s program, seminars included topics such as “How to be Interviewed for Print, Television and Radio,” “The History of Bar Tools and Barware from the 1800s to Today,” “Umami in Cocktails,” and “Gin Cocktails: From The Lost and Forgotten Classics to The New Contemporary.” Many of these are tailored to bar professionals, but an equal number might well appeal to the interested amateur. Take “Tiki Now! The New Breed of Tiki Bar.” Note that different topics will likely be on this year’s agenda. But know, too, that whatever the subject matter, it will be presented by the likes of “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff and other industry illuminati. No special talent or background is required to appreciate luncheons such as last year’s “Cognac and Blues,” the competitive “Bar Room Brawl,” and the “Worldwide Cocktail Excursion.” Oh, and there are numerous tasting rooms touting individual alcoholic products. For information and to book packages visit talesofthecocktail.com.
Start your training regimen, preferably by visiting your favorite, local cocktail bar — many of whose bartenders were in New York recently for another tax-deductible booze bash, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Lutfy and Ron from SoHo attended, as did Jake from Bohanan’s. Peña promised to send short blasts on a regular basis to keep me abreast of What’s Happening Now in Cocktails. (On a recent visit, I checked a lot of this out myself at such places as Mayahuel, Little Branch, and Milk & Honey — all worth your imbibing attention if you should happen to be in NYC.) He forgot, so we’ll charitably assume he had a truly great time — while learning a lot, of course.
And in any event, Esquire has a new head bartender to take care of things while Peña is off doing scholarly research. Adrian Sarabia is a local boy who left for NYC and places such as celeb chef Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark. He’s now back, “starting a family,” and shaking up a storm at Esquire. Check him out. You might start by asking him — or anyone behind the bar for that matter — to demo the cool device that turns a large, rough cube of ice into a pristine sphere. Large is good because more mass equals slower melting; the spherical shape simply looks good in the glass.
But be warned: You will want to have ordered a drink that requires ice other than that used during the stirring or shaking process. Best is simply a good scotch. Otherwise, get over the novelty and order a house signature cocktail such as the cheeky Chingoni, a blend of Citadelle gin, Aperol, and Carpano Antica vermouth that’s a variation of the classic Negroni with the Aperol subbing for Campari. It should be served straight up and cold, no extra ice needed. Another possibility is the Sophisticated Sissy, a frothy, egg-white drink with vodka, Lillet, lemon, and saffron. And, if Peña should happen to have just returned from the latest cocktail capital brimming with new ideas, simply abandon yourself to the creative process by putting yourself in his hands. It’s the best way to experience any bar with a corps of well-trained ’tenders.