Inside the Cocktail Industry's Annual Gala

Every July, the country's most cocktail-minded bartenders gather in the sweltering summer heat of New Orleans for what the English like to call a good, old-fashioned piss-up. Of course, Tales of the Cocktail, which took place last week, is much more than that. It's a boot camp for the spirits industry, with a week-long curriculum of seminars and workshops on everything from "The History of Bar Tools and Barware from the 1800s to Today" to "The Truth (La Verdad) About Mezcal: Its Past and Future." In this era of celebrity chefs and mixologists, this year's event even also featured a series of talks offering practical advice on how to be interviewed by the media, give presentations, and protect your intellectual property (i.e. signature cocktail recipes).

This year, the Sex on the Beach was put to rest with a theatrical eulogy and a big brass band-led procession.

There were also countless tastings and wheelings and dealings. Big booze companies are there as sponsors, hoping to recruit young bartenders and bar owners to be ambassadors for their brands, as well as charm bloggers and other media in attendance. And, while small brands are there, too, trying to get their name out, it's the big boys who sponsor all the most extravagant parties—from Dita Von Teese's live burlesque performance in which she winds up naked and sudsy in a giant martini glass (courtesy of Cointreau) to a lavish party at a 19th-century mansion in the Garden District where the drinks flowed freely and a brass band played out in the gazebo, hosted by Williams Grant & Sons.

Then there were the parties unsanctioned by Tales of the Cocktail, the "off-Tales," if you will. Many say this is where the real magic happens, like at the secret blogger house parties, hosted by a consortium of online cocktail and spirits writers. These booze bloggers managed to wrangle an impressive roster of sponsors of their own to fund their housing and what was described as a "sick" collection of alcohol.


gary j wood/flickr

Yet the main attraction of Tales, an event that is also attended by those unassociated with the industry—just aficionados, or "consumers" as insiders call them—happens in the lobby of The Monteleone Hotel (the event's headquarters), out by the rooftop pool, and in the many storied bars of the French Quarter, where attendees invariably congregate to talk business or just catch up. For bartenders and other liquor professionals, the event is the one time of year to see colleagues from around the country and beyond. Cocktail hour at French 75, the bar at Arnaud's, is an off-campus tradition for Tales attendees, who can be found sipping the place's namesake cocktail on a given day. The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street after 3:00 a.m. is filled with bartenders guzzling beer (the cocktailian's panacea), righting themselves before bedtime.

The event culminates in an awards ceremony, held this year at The Roosevelt Hotel, where winners stagger up to the stage to accept awards for World's Best Cocktail Menu (Death & Co. in New York) or International Bartender of the Year (Agostino Perrone of The Connaught Hotel in London). The theme Saturday night was Mad Men, and guests tried for their best Don Draper and Joan Holloway impressions. The mood at the ceremony is always convivial, if a little self-congratulatory, but the real fun starts afterwards. For the third year in a row, the Spirited Awards were followed up with a funeral for a bad cocktail. This year, the Sex on the Beach was put to rest with a theatrical eulogy (given by an actor playing a preacher) and a big brass band-led procession through the streets. It reached the Bartender's Breakfast at around 11:00 p.m.: the last big bash of the week, sponsored by Plymouth Gin. All the country's best-known bartenders were there, slinging drinks for their colleagues and friends, and dancing until the wee hours when everyone dispersed for various after-parties. Some departed for early flights directly from the bar, while others stumbled back to their respective hotels. At the airport, later on Sunday morning, people bid their farewells without removing their sunglasses, and wished each other a safe and smooth flight home.