There’s a week in July when the Earth’s bartenders disappear … and then reappear, descending upon the French Quarter of New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail. A modest gathering of industry insiders when it began in 2002, the festival has scaled the industry firewall to become an all-out beverage frenzy where liquor brands vie for both bartender and consumer attention. Still, at its core, Tales is about education, networking and honoring the industry’s best.
Here, seminars on Spanish brandy, peat smoke, house-made vermouth and the “myth of precision” sit alongside events (read: parties) ranging from pop-up bars and cafés to pool takeovers and impromptu nightclubs. And as always, Las Vegas was present and accounted for in NOLA, representing with style and class, even bringing home some hardware.
Herbs & Rye owner Nectaly Mendoza wasted no time, winning Best Cocktail at the annual Mandarine Napoléon Imperial Battle of the Sexes on July 15. In the team competition, the ladies won a trip to Europe and the men a check for a New Orleans charity, but Mendoza’s Napoleon Got Deported (an insanely refreshing Bloody Mary slushy garnished with a pork crackling) was the judges’ overall pick, earning Mendoza a trip to Miami.
Golden Tiki bartender April Simms bookended the week with her win at the Broker’s Bowler Cup on July 17. After conquering an open call for recipes using this small batch London dry gin, Simms was invited to represent the Western region at the semifinals in Los Angeles before being invited to the finals at Tales, where Simms’ savory Dill Me Baby cocktail was selected by more than 400 guests in the Broker’s tasting room.
Honorable mention also goes to Southern Wine & Spirits’ Jair Bustillos and Hakkasan’s Tim Weigel for being two of the eight finalists in the nationwide Shake the Vine wine cocktail competition put on by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Las Vegas’ Back Bar USA.
But theirs weren’t the only familiar faces at Tales. At Defining the Ultimate Pisco Punch, Las Vegas-based author, cocktail luminary and barware designer Tony Abou-Ganim (a.k.a. “the Modern Mixologist”) and Southern Wine & Spirits’ executive director of mixology and spirits education Francesco Lafranconi held court, doling out the punch. Wirtz beverage development specialist Andrew Pollard and Cocktail Roadshow co-founder Chris Hopkins helped the worthy obtain their Fernet-Branca Challenge Coins. And behind the scenes, Delmonico Steakhouse lead mixologist Juyoung Kang represented Nevada as the state’s sole CAP (Cocktail Apprentice Program participant). The CAPs are the rank and file of Tales (as well as its lifeblood), cutting mountains of garnishes, processing troughs of juice and doing way too many laybacks. They also have a tradition of getting a tattoo to commemorate the experience—perhaps the only moment of the week that isn’t a blur. Past Las Vegas CAPs have included Bar 25 lead bartender Tim Rita and Michael Doyle.
In fact, I’m glad I ran into Doyle on the steps of Hotel Monteleone, or I’d have missed out on the To Batch or Not To Batch seminar. Formerly of Las Vegas, Doyle is now a nomad with the mobile outfit Road Soda, bringing batched cocktails to events all over America with an Airstream trailer. I also fought my way into the Audacity of Sourced Whiskey seminar, a surprisingly calm panel discussion about the shockingly common industry practice of buying whiskey, bottling it and selling it as one’s own. Well, calm until the end anyway. Author and whiskey expert Fred Minnick (who has contributed to Vegas Seven) refereed that seminar.
When the seminars conclude, the over-the-top parties begin: William Grant & Sons, Pernod Ricard, The 86 Co., Diageo, Bacardi … But the party of all parties is the Spirited Awards—the Oscars of the beverage industry—held on the final night of the weeklong festival. The event names the best bars and beverage professionals in the country and the world according to the industry’s own. This year’s event saw Abou-Ganim and Lafranconi handing out awards, plus Lafranconi being once again nominated for Best Mentor (and deservedly so; see Page 52). In an unexpected twist, Bound by Salvatore Calabrese in the Cromwell was the first physical bar to sponsor the awards, represented by property mixologist Rodger Gillespie and his team. Many remarked that their Spicy Fifty cocktail was the best drink of the night.
Despite the number of regulars taking a year off from the event, Tales of the Cocktail continues to grow, not only in Louisiana with winter’s Tales of the Toddy, but in other hemispheres with Tales on Tour in Buenos Aires and Mexico. But the French Quarter will (hopefully) always be this Las Vegan’s home away from home. New Orleans is kith and kin to Las Vegas, a sister city (or if it isn’t officially, it should be). Both are definitive tourist destinations and gaming-friendly with loose liquor laws, intriguing histories, inspired chefs and flourishing mixology scenes.
That said, theirs is a wet heat.
Dill Me Baby, by April Simms
2 ounces Broker’s Gin
¾ ounce Lemon juice
¾ ounce Sweet pepper syrup (equal parts bell pepper juice and sugar)
½ ounce Velvet Falernum
2 dashes Bittermen’s celery shrub
Sprig of dill
Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with dill sprig and edible flower.
Napoleon Got Deported, by Nectaly Mendoza
1½ ounces Tequila Ocho
¾ ounce Mandarine Napoleon
½ ounce Boiron Blood Orage Puree
½ ounce Boiron Blood Peach Puree
½ ounce Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix
Pork crackling garnish
Combine all liquid ingredients in a slushy machine and serve when frozen. Pour into a tulip beer glass rimmed with tajin and garnish with a pork crackling.
Troubador, by Tim Weigel
2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
3 ounces Red Diamond Temperamental Red Blend
1 ounce Cherry Heering
½ ounce Glenmorangie
Quinta Ruman Port Finish Scotch
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
A New Chateau, by Jair Bustillos
2 ounces Anew Riesling
½ ounce Torres Orange Liqueur
1 ounce Azzurre vodka
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ simple syrup
2-3 honeydew melon cubes
2 mint sprigs
Melon balls for garnish
Dry muddle the Honeydew melon and the kumquats. Add the mint and other ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Cover and shake hard. Serve over fresh crushed ice and garnish with melon balls and a mint sprig infused with green Chartreuse. Set the mint on fire.