Every July, for 15 years running, the liquor industry convenes in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail. The annual confab has grown into the biggest single event in the entire booze business, and now it’s even spilling out into the mainstream. This year, for example, the festivities include performances by Snoop Dogg, members of Major Lazer, and an awards ceremony hosted by comedian Michael Ian Black. What started as a series of seminars and trade events aimed at educating bartenders is bordering on full-scale commercial festival. Given the similar evolution of once-independent gatherings such as SXSW, this might seem like an inevitable progression. But its growth is running the risk of betraying its very purpose, alienating the community that built it. Some are already wondering if Tales has jumped the proverbial shark. If so, what does that mean for the future of the spirits industry?
“To a certain extent, Tales is challenged by its own success,” says Jack Summers, CEO and founder of his own spirits brand. “How do you stay bigger, more relevant, a justifiable expense, when you’re clearly the biggest name in the game, but all of the smaller festivals are nipping at your heels? It’s a big question for big and small brands; your marketing dollars are limited and you can’t be everywhere. Who’s got the best return on investment? It’s hard to quantify.”
To the small, independent brands in desperate need of exposure, the barrier to entry at Tales often makes it a non-starter. Hosting an event or seminar promoting your brand can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. But with all the influential eyeballs in New Orleans over that week, missing it altogether can be even costlier. As a result, many producers opt to go “guerrilla,” either arranging non-sanctioned tastings or furtively providing pours in the hallway or lobby of the Hotel Monteleone — the event’s French Quarter epicenter. Festival Founder Ann Tuennerman does not take these transgressions lightly. In the past, when brands strayed from official channels, she has not hesitated, at the very least, to fire off harshly worded emails. Even going so far as to permanently ban offending brands from future participation — this ban is not something unique to Tales; SXSW organizers have also been known to ban bands or labels that host showcases outside of the formal festival.
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But this year, Tuennerman became the subject of her own controversy when she was seen in blackface during a Facebook Live video during Mardi Gras. In proper context, Tuennerman had been invited to ride with the storied Krewe of Zulu, a parade group consisting of riders with diverse ethnic backgrounds who use the makeup as part of their ritual. Regardless, this was hardly a reasonable explanation to many in the community, many of whom took to social media threatening a widespread boycott. For a brief moment, it seemed as if her unshakeable influence within the industry was in serious peril. A contrite Tuennerman issued several mea culpas and promised to convene a council to help promote diversity across an industry in dire need of it.
“This year was tricky,” Summers says of the ordeal. “It spread across social media like wildfire. The pushback was instantaneous and the conversation was vitriolic. Ann had many supporters defending her position, and many people like myself, who were utterly stunned. I consider Ann a friend. I wrote to her personally as well as took a public stance. I tried to make it clear my concern was how this could be viewed, in light of the current political climate.”
As a person of color, Summers is all too familiar with the obstacles facing his success in a predominantly white landscape. Yet he was eventually able to see the incident as a teachable moment. “I was impressed at how Ann addressed this from a public relations standpoint,” he concedes. “Initially I’d still planned on not attending this year. The announcement of a diversity council seemed like a step in the right direction. I was both surprised and honored to be included on the list of those asked to participate in the inaugural version of this council; its members are people of color from all around the country who are weighty and serious.”
“You can’t form policy from the sidelines,” he adds. “It also isn’t lost on me that, of this incredibly impressive list of people, I was the only brand owner. That means, in my mind, we’re still not at the adults table.”
By the time July rolled around, any notions of an organized boycott were entirely nonexistent. The event’s press release speaks of 20,000 “industry luminaries” in attendance, with over $100 million in cumulative revenue injected into the local New Orleans economy.
“Tales is still, for my money, the best networking event of the year, as it brings so many people from so many parts of the business together in a relatively small area,” says Michael Neff of Church Bar in Brooklyn. “New Orleans as a city is perfect for this format, and is a wonderful place to spend time in its own right. The number of people that I know, either personally or by reputation, is pretty incredible, and the opportunity to make new acquaintances that may or may not turn into business opportunities is unmatched at festivals of its kind around the country.”
Yet after seven returns, spread out over nearly a decade, Neff is noticing ways in which Tales is losing its efficacy. “A lot of the format is fundamentally flawed,” he opines. “The flagship events are entirely skippable for me at this point. It’s not that interesting to see yet another big venue with a theme slapped on top of it, with cocktails I don’t want to drink and lines I don’t want to wait in. The cocktails at Tales of the Cocktail often miss the mark, which is ironic considering why we’re all there. In my estimation, if you’ve gathered the absolute cream of the world’s crop to come celebrate the Art of the Cocktail, industrial-scale batching events aren’t the best way to show off the best of what we do.”
Neff’s complaints are surprisingly commonplace among his peers. What makes him unique, however, is his willingness to speak openly about it. Most of the bartenders and brand people contacted for this article were reluctant to go on-record with their controversial views. “It’s not really my jam,” said one Los Angeles-based bartender, “But I keep that to myself, otherwise it would be bad for business.” The widespread caution — bordering on fear — speaks to the pervasive power that Tales of the Cocktail now wields over the industry.
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For now, Tales shows no signs of slowing. And according to Tuennerman, the best is yet to come. “This is truly the industry’s festival and I am excited to collaborate with our industry friends and colleagues to make it better and more relevant each year,” she says. No other event even registers as a close second. Others, such as the now-defunct Manhattan Cocktail Classic, have failed in embarrassing fashion. One promising alternative emerged last year in the form of the Beverage Industry Conference — BevCon. “It feels a lot like Tales did at the beginning,” observes one industry publicist. “It’s intimate and friendly to the smaller, independent producers.” BevCon’s second iteration comes to Charleston, South Carolina in mid-August.
For all its industry dominance, Tales remains surprisingly hidden from the general population. But one way in which its value transcends “inside baseball” is with the Spirited Awards — hosted on the event’s final evening, and viewed as the Oscars of the cocktail world. Winners almost always see a jump in revenue, when they can affix certifiable superlatives to menus and websites, but their subjective nature leaves many scratching their heads. “The awards, what they are, how they are lobbied for, who is nominated, who makes the selections, and who wins them is a process that is sometimes laughably flawed,” Neff points out. It’s a huge job trying to find the best of anything in the world, let alone something one might call the ‘Best Bar’ or anything like it. The fact that there is a paradigm for how to become noticed for these awards, and a path one needs to tread to win one, I think undermines the entire point of the exercise.”
“I think the awards are a double-edged sword,” echoes Josh Suchan, beverage director at Skylight Gardens in Los Angeles, “On one side, they expose bartenders to some bars/authors/brands that are truly fantastic. On the other side, to label something as ‘best’ this or that is short-sighted and may actually hinder creativity in that young bartenders now have a narrow view of what is deemed ‘best.’ I’ve seen people get lost in mimicking ‘best’ rather than developing their own style, which might be amazing and unique. For me, I’d rather be on the fringe, continually competing against myself and developing my game.”
Even to (perhaps especially for) the “jaded old cocktail jockey” set, the reunion aspect of Tales is too alluring to ignore. “I love going because it is an amazing opportunity for me to connect with old friends and colleagues, and meet new people with whom I can form relationships and maybe do business around the country and throughout the year,” adds Neff.
Ultimately, the greatest threat to the identity of Tales is one well beyond the festival’s control: The past few years have marked a period of unprecedented consolidation in the spirits industry. The big transnational entities — names like Diageo, Bacardi, Campari, Pernod-Ricard — are gobbling up smaller brands at breakneck speeds. To them, pouring massive dollars into the country’s largest spirits consortium is a no-brainer. They will continue to do so, and in so doing render the event’s earliest conceptions unrecognizable. For the independent, craft producers and those that seek to support them, Tales is an increasingly inhospitable landscape. They’ll just have to grin and bear it, it seems. Because for now, there’s no other game in town.