From July 25-29, the drinks world descended on New Orleans to partake in Tales of the Cocktail, an annual conference devoted to mixed drinks — and the spirits and bartenders behind their creation. This year’s gathering held extra gravitas, and not just because it was celebrating its 20th anniversary. It was the first in-person gathering since 2019 thanks to the pandemic. Its return would be overseen by a relatively fresh group that produced its first Tales in 2018, the year a controversy forced the resignation of the event’s co-founders. Like a “Doctor Who” Time Lord, it was regenerating — a familiar event in new packaging.
No matter how Tales of the Cocktail takes shape, however, everyone who attends comes back with at least one story to share. Here’s mine.
It’s the last day of Tales, it’s noon, and I’m nursing the day’s first drink at Dovetail Bar just outside New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s just the bartender and me — a far cry from evenings here, when industry locals belly up en masse to its horseshoe-shaped bar. However, I’m about eight hours removed from leaving the packed late-night event Cutty Sark hosted at the dive bar around the corner from my hotel. The respite’s welcome. The rapidly encroaching gray skies visible from the venue’s retractable glass panel wall are also a welcome sight, as the daily punch of hefty rain it carries will likely provide a brief shock of relief from the air’s sticky warmth. My afternoon’s appointed drinking buddy isn’t quite here yet — he’s likely wrangling the boxes of tequila he needs to present at the upcoming Meet the Distillers event — but that’s fine. I’m having fun talking to the bartender about Tales’ return to the city after a two-year pause. The conversation turns toward the previous night’s Spirited Awards — the Tales ceremony that acts as the industry’s equivalent to the Oscars — and the bartender drops some remarkable second-hand intel: Chris Hannah, several hours after winning Bartender of the Year and other awards for his New Orleans bar/restaurant Jewel of the South, was found in his venue by himself, mopping the floor. It’s a fantastic story of service and dedication that would seem far-fetched in most industries, but not in bartending.
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“Yeah, it happened,” Hannah confirms. “I went back to celebrate with the staff, and they cleaned up enough to go home. But obviously there were so many people still there, I couldn’t say we were closed, and I also couldn’t keep the staff there. So, they went out and I just cleaned up after everyone finally left.”
This is just one of many stories spun from my Tales experience, which are any combination of meaningful, cool, and weird. (Chancing upon a heavy metal bar complete with a caged-up mosh pit and running into a bartender from my stomping grounds might qualify as weirdly cool). Every attendee returns home with stories filling these slots, which is why so many accounts of Tales wind up being several anecdotes in search of a narrative. Yet a narrative exists, and Tales’ emphasis on making the industry a better place for brands and bartenders alike is crucial to ensuring the stories are positive ones.
How this narrative would be told — and how many people would be around to receive it — was a different element to consider. Due to the long pandemic-induced layoff, it was only natural to speculate about post-Covid attendance and event quality. There would be joyful, aggressive hugs among people that haven’t seen each other since the world shut down, but that was the only guarantee. Everything else would be revealed in real time. By the time Tales wrapped up, such speculation transformed into positive affirmation.
A Triumphant Return
It was never a question of whether industry types would return to Tales once the pandemic waned. The real mystery was the number of people who would make the trek to the Big Easy. Event organizers anticipated a smaller crowd due to lingering Covid trepidation and responded in kind — they rolled out just four full days of events instead of the usual five. For the months leading up to the fete, it looked like their evaluation was spot-on. Then, the event equivalent of last call happened. “The projections on attendance looked good, but there was a huge groundswell of people that bought tickets and wristbands for events two weeks before Tales started,” explains Tales of the Cocktail CEO Eileen Wayner. “When everything shook out, we were at 2018 levels of attendance. It was incredible — the industry showed up in a big way.”
What awaited the crowd posed another riddle of sorts, because there were some variables in play. A truncated schedule meant itineraries that landed between packed and overstuffed. A new hotel served as the event’s home base. Plus, there was the whole “we haven’t done this event in-person for two years” issue to deal with, even though New Orleans is seemingly uniquely prepared to throw a proper party at a moment’s notice. These elements could have resulted in clunkiness, particularly in the eyes of routine Tales-goers. Thankfully, the buzz throughout the event during the week increasingly verified a smooth return to the status quo.
“From what I saw, it looked like Tales was back, if not stronger than ever,” says Paul Hletko, founder and distiller of FEW Spirits. “It was a big, grand event with so many ‘Tales’ things going on — big events, small events, condo pop-ups — but it was also a well-run event. It felt really open and free.”
The most noticeable change for a lot of people seemed to be the event’s anchoring venue, with the Ritz-Carlton assuming hosting duties from the Hotel Montelone. The new hotel’s layout took some getting used to, but it was far from being a deal breaker. “It was weird not hanging around the Monteleone’s lobby, but that didn’t make things bad,” Hletko says. “It was just different.”
A few people fully embraced the new digs as an improved environment. “The change of venue was a very pleasant surprise,” says Kate Jerkens, chief business officer for Uncle Nearest. “They did a great job of separating the event space from the hotel’s living space. It was nice to be in the hotel and not be constantly hit in the face with everything all at once.”
New Blood, New Emphasis
An Uber driver swings by and picks me up from the rain-soaked Hendrick’s House of Wonders event on Thursday afternoon, roughly a mile away from the French Quarter. “What’s going on in there?” he asks as we roll away. I provide a hasty, truncated explanation of Tales. “Ah,” the driver says, then pauses. “Everybody’s getting f*cked up this week, right?”
This assumption turned out to be wrong-headed. While there were elaborate parties, bar takeovers, and intimate sessions at every turn, there seemed to be a collective conscious effort among most attendees to make sure Tales’ unique mix of business and pleasure didn’t swing too far into the latter element. Tales encouraged this type of mentality — the event featured a low-ABV bar for the first time ever — but the utter lack of chatter concerning hangovers, impromptu bathroom visits, and other late-night drunken misadventures throughout the week indicated such a mentality was already in place. This was a rather impressive feat considering the sheer number of Tales rookies in attendance. According to Wayner, 53 percent of those who showed up this year were first-timers.
These controlled behaviors created a mellower, more professional environment in the eyes of Tales veterans, particularly compared to the vibe the event carried under its previous organizers before they stepped aside in 2017. It was an ambiance the organization helped fuel through its own programming. Organizers placed a greater focus on spirits and spirit brands, including some tasting events that emphasized labels from the craft and small-batch sector. A sizable chunk of their sessions focused on the industry’s broader, non-drinkable aspects, such as promoting equality and building better work environments. Wayner notes these types of sessions are demonstrative of the current direction the industry and those in it are going. “I think the industry itself has shifted its focus toward mindfulness, health, and wellness,” she says. “People treat these topics seriously, and it’s allowed us to be very intentional with our sessions.”
How people responded to the programming depends on perspective. Ticket sales were robust on paper — Wayner reported 97 percent of seats purchased for sessions. However, this wasn’t necessarily reflected in actual attendance. “The sessions I attended were about half full,” Jerkens says. “I felt bad, but not for the brands. I felt bad for the people that got tickets but didn’t attend. They missed some terrific content.”
The Post-Pandemic Return
Reminders of the pandemic in its current, somewhat reduced state were scant — but there were hints. A small smattering of people in masks roamed the Ritz-Carlton floor during the week. Word of people missing Tales due to positive tests also manifested. The virus ended up being a crummy post-Tales souvenir for some — no fault of Tales, it’s just the nature of the beast at this point.
Discussions about the virus itself were rare. This included talks about the virtual sessions Tales held during the pandemic. When they were brought up, they were discussed in near- philosophical terms: Did those virtual sessions count as a Tales excursion? Should they be included in the number of Tales a person attended?
While the pandemic didn’t affect the concept of Tales, the layoff did influence how a few people in the business attended the event. Rather than going to the larger shindigs or staying out until the wee small hours, some chose to retreat and withdraw after the daytime events came to a close. The rationale behind their decisions ranged from having a sharper focus on morning activities to simply lacking the energy to keep up with the industry’s young bucks. Those who did venture out were greeted with big brands bearing budget-bulging blowouts reminiscent of the past. “The top brand partners were definitely ready for Tales,” Wayner says. “The budgets and spends we saw were close to 2019’s numbers.”
Indeed, the industry’s heavyweights like Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and William Grant & Sons weren’t shy about throwing down the big bucks. Interspersed between the behemoths were the craft brands, which were present in various forms. Owners and distillers of smaller brands roamed to explore the space, gauging if and when it would be appropriate to sink funds down the road. Brands with a foothold in the market were nimble in their spending, opting to use their modest budgets on smaller presentations and events like the interactive trade show-style Meet the Distillers session to get in front of bartenders and larger portfolios eager to encounter the next big thing in spirits. According to Hletko — the former president of the American Craft Spirits Association whose distillery was part of this year’s Samson & Surrey/Heaven Hill acquisition — investing in Tales carries value for craft brands, provided they go about things wisely. “What you get out of it depends on what you put into it,” he explains. “You only have so much time and liver power, so you have to be strategic and plan appropriately. But that’s the way it is in every Tales.”
The Ritz-Carlton’s main floor looked desolate the day after Tales. Every hint of the mini community that dominated the space the previous week was gone, whisked away like a boozy rapture. The only thing left to do was to catch a plane — after a frozen Irish coffee at Erin Rose, natch.
The end of Tales’ 20th anniversary event also meant the countdown clock to its 21st annual gathering. While it’s a year away, Wayner already has a blueprint for what the event may look like: even more opportunities for education. Finding ways to further uphold the bartending profession as a bona fide career path. Adding a little more breathing room to the schedule. These ideas may require some level of change, but one thing that will remain constant is a commitment to ensure Tales exemplifies the fun and camaraderie that makes gathering at a bar and enjoying a drink so worthwhile. “We may strive to be professional,” Wayner says, “but we’re never going to be like a physicians’ conference.”
It will be interesting to see what next year brings, when Tales is legally old enough to have a cocktail of its own. Those who attended this year have their own stories to share until then.