Report: Tales of the Cocktail 2011, New Orleans

Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits

Last week I attended the 5-day cocktail festival/trade show, Tales of the Cocktail, which is held each hot and steamy July in food-and-drink-loving New Orleans. There I sipped and sampled dozens of innovative cocktails, tasted a multitude of new spirits, and scribbled down copious notes about seminars on boozy history, techniques, and trends. Now that I'm home, I'm resting my liver. But I have loads to report.

Here are some of the trends I spotted during the week.

Cloning Lost Spirits
In response to the cocktail community's insatiable thirst for the old and authentic, many "extinct" cocktail ingredients are now being reborn, Jurassic Park style.

  • Bols Genever: Dutch spirits maker Bols recently released their version of this juniper-accented white spirit, a new iteration of an authentic 19th-Century recipe that had been gathering dust for some time. Bols Genever was up front and center at "Tales" this year. After the opening remarks, the festival kicked off with a "little head-butt," or Kopstootje, a mass-slurping of a shot of the genever from a tulip-shaped glass filled up to the very brim - accompanied by a beer chaser (see pic above). Old-World tradition brought to the New.
  • Pierre Ferrand Cognac: Many old-timey whiskey-based cocktails, such as the Sazerac and the Mint Julep were originally made with "three-star" Cognac (a category one step down from VS). In consultation with cocktail historian David Wondrich, distiller Pierre Ferrand created a modern reincarnation of this mixable 19th-C. classic. It will be rolling out into markets nationwide later this summer.

Liquor Stores Will Need to Add Another Shelf
Once relegated to a dusty corner of the liquor store, these previously underrepresented spirit categories are expanding - and expanding some more.

  • White Whiskey (a.k.a. "Moonshine"): Many small American distillers are trying their hand at "white" whiskey. This particular style of whiskey is made by skipping the barrel-aging, so the spirit comes out clear, colorless and "young" tasting (though a lot smoother than its illicit, DIY cousin, true moonshine). White whiskies were well-represented at Tales last year, and are holding steady in 2011 with offerings from Midnight Moon, Catdaddy, Death's Door, and others.
  • Pisco: Peru's national spirit is making a big splash this year. A rapidly growing number of brands of the venerable grape-based brandy are now trickling into the U.S. market. And they're good for more than just Pisco Sours. I sampled a few of them neat at the "Pisco Pavillion" and was especially taken with notable newcomber Pisco Portón and the sophisticated Campo de Encanto.

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Jasmine
Maybe I'm just inclined to notice it because I love the delicate scent of this flower so much, but here and there, I was catching a whiff of jasmine around the festival.

  • The official cocktail of Tales this year was something called the Rangoon Fizz, a prize-winning riff on that old New Orleans classic, the Ramos Gin Fizz, accented with a few drops of fragrant jasmine water. (I picked up a sample bottle of Fee Brothers Jasmine Water and look forward to experimenting with it.)
  • Venerable French liqueur maker, Marie Brizzard, unveiled its new "Essence" line, a collection of botanical flavors, including Rosemary, Violet, and, yes, Jasmine (pictured above, left).
  • Jasmine was turning up in fizzy mixers too, such as the unfiltered Jasmine Green Tea Ginger Ale produced by Bruce Cost.

Fancy Techniques
All kinds of advanced - and inspiring - drink-making techniques were on display:

  • Barrel-Aged Cocktails: Cocktail classics such as the Manhattan and Negroni take on an extra mellow dimension when the ingredients are pre-mixed and then aged a few months in wood.
  • Spherical Ice: A number of highly skilled bartenders were hand-carving crystal-clear blocks ice on the spot. (See the pic above, right)
  • Boozy Sorbets: Who knew that spirits could make such a delicious snack? All kinds of frozen varieties were on display at the festival. Oxley Gin served up an elegantly flavorful sorbet made with gin, Sauvignon Blanc, and a host of other ingredients (the list includes chili, mint, grapefruit, and elderflower and nettle cordial). Meanwhile, the Leblon Cachaça truck was making the rounds of the streets of the French Quarter with little cups of mango-chili sorbet, served up with a splash of the spirit. A welcome treat in summer heat.

Nora Maynard is a longtime home mixologist and an occasional instructor at NYC’s Astor Center. She is a contributor to The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and is the recipient of the American Egg Board Fellowship in culinary writing at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. She previously covered food and drink in film at The Kitchn in her weekly column, The Celluloid Pantry.

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(Images: Nora Maynard)