How Tales of the Cocktail’s Apprentice Program Changes Lives

Once a year, experts and innovators from across the globe descend on the French Quarter for the most buzzed-about event in the beverage business: Tales of the Cocktail.

Organized and produced by the foundation of the same name, Tales of the Cocktail describes its mission as “to act as a catalyst to Educate, Advance, and Support the communities we touch.” This three-part purpose is on full display during the annual festival, taking place this year from July 23 to 28 at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans.

What started as a walking tour showcasing historic New Orleans cocktail bars in 2002 has, over the course of two decades, become the world’s leading cocktail conference, during which industry movers and (literal) shakers meet to exchange ideas, showcase new products and techniques, and enjoy an itinerary featuring tastings, seminars, networking events, and awards programming.

Of course, the education and excitement aren’t limited to the stage or to the festival floor. The real action goes on behind the scenes, where a team of carefully selected professionals from around the globe makes the magic happen. And learns a lot in the process.

The Cocktail Apprentice Program

These individuals are part of the Tales of the Cocktail’s Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP), an exclusive mentorship program and real-world crash course for up-and-coming bartenders that takes place every year over the course of the conference.

Since the program began in 2008, more than 500 thirsty-for-knowledge apprentices have passed through the program, where they each begin as a Red Coat and, in subsequent years, have the opportunity to return to the program and advance to higher levels, with greater responsibilities, all categorized by color: Grey, Black, and, at the very top, White.

“At its core, it is a mentorship program focused heavily on education, teaching, and giving people tools to take back home to their own bars and restaurants so that they can learn to become better managers, better beverage professionals, and help them on that path to whatever goals they might have,” summed up White Coat Alexis Belton, a Chicago-based food and beverage consultant who entered the program in 2016 and claimed it helped her improve her personal management style back home.

“You can’t even put into words what you get to do when you’re part of this team, when you’re part of this group,” says CAP director Trevor Kallies, a Vancouver-based beverage director and White Coat who will be participating in his 17th Tales event this year. “You still are experiencing seminars, you still are learning from the same people in our industry that are teaching, but you get a little bit more of a hands-on, one-on-one experience with those presenters, those industry leaders.”

In other words, while the education element is key, these lessons aren’t being taught in a classroom setting. Rather, the CAP program offers an immersive, hands-on experience. Squads assemble, tasks are assigned, and the real learning happens in the moment and on the go as the group of 70 hustles to throw a week-long party for thousands of people — a job that, as anyone who’s worked in hospitality knows, requires serious work.

The White Coats interviewed all seemed to stress not just the educational nature of Tales but also the intensity of the experience, with each CAP participant contributing a personal cocktail while ensuring that the event runs as smoothly as possible.

“There’s so much that happens from the day you arrive to the day that we finish our jobs and fly out that it’s hard to really look back, and be like, where did the last seven days go?” Kallies says. “Oh, I know, it’s this cut on my finger. It’s the four hours of sleep that I got — or less — every night. The 15,000 steps that I’ve put in walking around and getting lost in the hotel. You know, the emotional roller coaster that many people go through that week, right? It’s intense.”

And worth it. Juyoung Kang, a Las Vegas-based beverage director and White Coat who first entered the program in 2015, says what sticks out is always the feeling of satisfaction and relief after the event is complete.

“The last day, when we all know we finished everything and we did a good job — and even though we made mistakes along the way sometimes, we learned something — you can just see the weight come off everyone’s shoulders. And they’re like, ‘I survived, I did well.’”

An Unforgettable Experience

Tales of the Cocktail CAPS

Long after the on-site portion of the program ends, for example, the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation continues to support the apprentices through scholarships and financial aid, ensuring they have ongoing opportunities to be educated and empowered and grow within the industry.

Long after the week ends, the members keep in touch, providing each other with resources, recommendations, and references. In this matter, CAP functions almost like an alumni network, an ever-growing group whose members can continue to benefit from one another’s individual knowledge and expertise.

“The network, and the connections you make, are just unreal,” says Kallies. “You’re developing this group of people around you that are going to be your friends, your colleagues, your co-workers, and family for the next however many years. I still talk to many of the people from the team in 2011. We’re still connected by this weird cocktail-apprentice bond.”

CAP participants have gone on to move cities, become roommates, and even get married, and if one CAP member is traveling to another’s hometown, the resident member is ready to play host, inviting the visitor into their bar or restaurant and serving up an especially special experience.

​​“We take care of each other,” Kang says. “We take care of our own.”

Shoot Your Shot

While the prestigious program might feel exclusive or intimidating from the outside (40 Red Coats are accepted; hundreds apply), the program is open to all industry professionals: bartenders, bar managers, barbacks, brand ambassadors, educators, distillers, and so on. Belton encouraged those at all levels to apply, emphasizing that it’s worth it to submit an application, explain your perspective, and “shoot your shot.”

When it comes to the essays, the White and Black Coats who judge the submissions said that the key is to be thoughtful — and authentic. After all, each individual brings a unique perspective, and it’s through collaborating with those from different backgrounds, with different ways of working that people can personally grow and the industry can improve.

White Coat Cris Dehlavi, a Columbus-based brand educator for a liquor company, applied to the program in 2010 and later became the program’s first female White Coat in 2015. She described an environment where people from all different cultures and walks of life come together and, over the course of Tales of the Cocktail, become a well-oiled machine, simultaneously teaching and learning from one another.

“Even the Red Coats, they’re teaching us, which is super cool,” Dehlavi says. “I learn from people every year.”

While applications for this year’s event are closed and the CAP Class of 2023 has been announced, you can still purchase a day or week pass to attend Tales of the Cocktail here. (Get a taste of the event via the 2022 recap video.)

Then, keep an eye on the site to find out when to apply for the 2024 program and the one-of-a-kind opportunity to gain new skills, new opportunities, and new friends — plus so much more.

“For so many reasons, I would encourage somebody to do it because it really is life-changing,” Dehlavi says. “And that’s what we hear from everybody, every single year: ‘Wow, this changed my life.’”

This article is sponsored by Tales of the Cocktail.