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Tales of the Cocktail Industry

Tales of the Cocktail Industry

Hello friends, I hope that you all have been enjoying my coverage of this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. As you all know by now, I had a great time at and subsequently had much to say about the event. I’m stoked that I was able to spend so much time participating in the festivities. This was my second year in a row having a media pass, and I love being able to experience the event from that vantage point. One of the advantages of having a media pass is that I’m allowed to RSVP to four seminars, which are the educational backbone of the nearly week long event.

While in one of these seminars last week, I realized something that I’d sort of seen last year but really hit home this year: I’m an outsider at Tales of the Cocktail (hereon referred to as Tales). Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I didn’t belong there. I have worked hard over the years to earn the media credentials that have allowed me to witness this different side of Tales. What I am saying is that once you get beyond the tasting rooms and the public events, once you get into the seminars and the more “behind the scenes” stuff, it becomes evident that it’s a different world, and that Tales has a deeper meaning to many of its attendees beyond the obvious partying and drinking.

Sure, Tales of the Cocktail has a wide range and appeal. In essence, they’ve got something for anyone who’s interested in cocktails. While thousands of people attended well over 100 official events, Tales caters primarily to those who work professionally in the spirits and cocktail industries. Some events seem to be geared toward and cater to the “cocktail enthusiast” crowd, but by and large, this is an industry event.

To some of you this might not actually be news or a big revelation. And frankly, just this week as I was doing research for this piece, I found that Tales specifically states the following on their website in the FAQ’s section in response to the question “Who attends Tales of the Cocktail?”

Tales of the Cocktail is for bartenders and people in the hospitality industry. We welcome the cocktail enthusiast but Tales of the Cocktail primarily focuses it’s education on all levels of the bartending trade. Therefore, seminar and event submissions should be geared towards this audience.

If you already knew this about Tales, then you’re probably one of those people that the event is officially geared toward. The average person likely doesn’t realize that this is primarily a bartender and cocktail industry focused event. It sure hasn’t seemed like it to me in all the tasting rooms and at the more “free-for-all” evening parties that I’ve had the great pleasure of attending.

Tales of the Cocktail Industry

To me, it seems that for those in the professional cocktail world (bartenders, distillers, distributors, beverage companies, PR people), Tales is the equivalent of a glorious four day “sleep away camp” replete with booze, dinners, networking, and other tantalizing French Quarter delights. It’s likely the one time of year that this many cocktail industry professionals are able to gather and commune in such large numbers. Make no mistake, while it may be a good time, for many professionals, this is a part of work.

It’s a part of work that doesn’t happen often: Bartenders typically work nights and weekends, because that’s when most people drink cocktails. It’s difficult for them to take off because many bars run with minimal staff, and also, if they take weekends off, they’re hurting their earnings potential. I imagine many of them would just as soon work than take off and be spending money instead of making money. This makes it hard for distillers and distributors to talk directly to bartenders. Tales is the common meeting ground for all of these people.

And I wanted to meet some of them, I wanted to talk to bartenders and other cocktail professionals to get their take on why they attend Tales. This turned out to be a great idea. Not only did I get to meet lots of new and interesting people, I also got what I was looking for – to find out why exactly these cocktail professionals come to Tales and find it so valuable. For a natural introvert like me, this was a great way for me to get out of my shell and talk to more people. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed my fact finding mission and all the conversations I had because of it.

In my quest to find bartenders to talk to, I spoke to two gentlemen who were attending as cocktail enthusiasts, visiting New Orleans from out of town. They’d both worked in the industry before but were not current and practicing bartenders. They were visiting New Orleans to enjoy Tales as enthusiasts and fans of liquor and cocktails. I can’t blame them. This is a great place for those people to visit and mingle as well. This was a contingent I hadn’t even considered: the out of town enthusiast. While the event isn’t specifically designed for them, they’re able to attend and enjoy and get quite a bit out of the experience.

Lo and behold, on Friday morning in the breakfast line at the Absolut Bloody Mary bar tasting room, I spoke briefly with Mhairi Voelsgen, a distiller and the Co-founder and CEO of Brovo Spirits. We discussed the fact that Tales is a great place not only for bartenders to commune but also for distillers like her who spend most of their time working in and on their businesses. She confirmed that Tales is a great place for people involved in cocktails on all levels to meet, network and catch up and talk shop.

Tales of the Cocktail Industry

On Saturday afternoon, I also spoke with Mike Huggins, owner of the Arvada Tavern in Arvada, Colorado, who attended Tales this year with several of his bartender employees in tow. Last year he attended with one of his bartenders, but this year, he felt it worth his while to invest in bring more people along. I asked Mike what it was about the event made him feel this way. He told me that he could see the significant impact that Tales had on the one bartender he brought last year. Because of that, he figured that bringing more of his bartending staff could only increase this effect. Mike told me, “I am a big proponent of Tales and I look forward to my long future of involvement.”

Throughout all of my conversations, I had a hard time finding an actual bartender who came in from out of town to attend this event. I know that might sound shocking, but all the bartenders I came across were either working or busy, typically. Also, I don’t attend any of the bartender-heavy late night events so that’s likely how I missed most of them. Running around at Tales at 10am, I’ve learned, is NOT the way to run into bartenders.

Thankfully, via the kindness of Mhairi Voelsgen and the magic of email, I was able to connect with bartender Micah Melton who works at The Aviary in Chicago. He told me that he comes to Tales for a variety of reasons including seeing the latest trends, networking, trying new products (or just things he’s never had before), and attending the seminars and events. When I asked Melton how significant this event was for him professionally, he responded, “Pretty important, especially in expanding friendships to places around the world: London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Norway. [They’re] places I can’t visit but want to meet the faces behind [bars] like the Artisian in London at the Langham.”

Melton sounds to me like the ideal target market for this event: someone who’s in the industry, looking to network, wanting to attend events and try new things to further his education. I’m sure there are many like him who attend Tales. And for every person like him, there’s at least one cocktail enthusiast learning a little more about cocktails at these events, perhaps experiencing brands or different types of spirits for the first time.

In the end, this is the beauty of Tales: it manages to be effective and successful with the professional and enthusiast crowds alike. This success is the culmination of years of planning and soliciting feedback and refinement of the event’s implementation by Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales, and her tireless and dedicated staff. So when you decide to come to Tales, take advantage of the tremendous store of talent and creativity that walks the halls of the Monteleone and the Royal Sonesta. Talk to the people serving drinks and talk to the people drinking them. Odds are there’s something you can learn about what you are here to enjoy. Odds are you too can hear some Tales of the Cocktail.


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