Behind the Booze
Far beyond an excuse to enjoy a good drink, Tales of the Cocktail continues to have a welcome effect on the New Orleans economy.
Between July 15-19, New Orleans will be inundated with spirits professionals, bartenders and distillers for what has become known as the world’s premier cocktail festival — Tales of the Cocktail.
Founded by Ann Tuennerman in 2002, the first event was small — about 10 well-known mixologists venturing to the Crescent City in September. Today, with five full days encompassing over 200 events — including seminars, networking events and tastings — and attracting over 18,000 attendees from around the globe last year, Tales has morphed into a welcome bonanza for the New Orleans hospitality industry. Last year’s event generated $12.8 million for the New Orleans economy and an additional $1 million in state and local tax revenue.
Tuennerman says it’s also been an invaluable way to spread the word about the city’s famous cocktail culture.
“What do you think about when you come to New Orleans? Dining and drinking. But there wasn’t anything that showcased that,” says Tuennerman. “Tales of the Cocktail was really meant to tell those cocktail stories, the ones nobody really knew at the time. Maybe they had heard of the Sazerac or Ramos Gin Fizz but had no idea about all the spirits, the cocktails, things like the brandy crossed over, the first use of citrus in a cocktail — all these great stories. That’s why I think New Orleans is the perfect backdrop for an event like Tales of the Cocktail.”
How the Alcohol Industry Benefits
The timing of the event — a month when high temperatures tend to create a lull in tourism and visitor spending — was a deliberate move, Tuennerman says, to bring some extra cash to the city when it’s most needed. In drawing thousands of industry professionals to the city, local bars and restaurants naturally see a bump in revenue, as do suppliers and retailers.
The event also benefits local bartenders, who might be tempted to leave the city during the slow summer months. Tuennerman explains that alcohol brands from outside the state or country commonly hire New Orleans bartenders to work at their events.
Angie Koehlar, co-owner of the bar Erin Rose, is among the local businesspeople that looks forward to and is grateful to,Tales for the business it drives each year.
“Tales is one of the best weeks of the year for us, almost bigger than Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras is huge,” she says. “It gets us through a lot, for example, if we have repairs to make or we have to get through a really rough summer. It means everything to us.”
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
Neal Bodenheimer, founder and partner of Cure Collective (the group behind local cocktail bars Cure and Bellocq and cocktail bar/restaurant combo Cane & Table) says the event benefits not just individual businesses, but the New Orleans alcohol industry as a whole.
“If you think of any business that deals with beverages, Tales has not just a business effect, it has a cultural effect,” says. “For one week a year, we are the epicenter of cocktail culture thanks to the foremost cocktail culture event in the world. You can’t even quantify the impact that that’s had on the beverage culture of New Orleans.”
Part of the major impact Tales has on the local alcohol industry is the networking opportunities the events provide. It is here where Bodenheimer says his partnership, Cure Collective, was formed, at a “Spirited Dinner” at the now defunct Stella!.
“You can end up meeting or working with someone that you really wouldn’t get the opportunity to otherwise,” says Bodenheimer. “Ann [Tuennerman]’s done a nice job of keeping an eye on that. Maybe Tales is scaled up and there’s not the intimacy that there once was, but you create these intimate environments and events.”
In addition to partnerships, alcohol industry suppliers can find themselves with a new source of leads for sales thanks to various events and services at Tales each year.
“What I tell bitters makers is, yes, we want to sell your bitters as much as possible, but what Tales affords you here is the opportunity to interact with thousands of mixologists and professional people from all over the world,” says James Wilson, bookseller at Octavia Books, among the venues hosting Tales events. “That’s what the idea is. It’s not that I’m going to sell cases and cases of your bitters during Tales, but people can sample all these bitters. I have bartenders that come in and buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of bitters, and they take them home and play around with them to see which ones they like for their recipes.”
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
This year, seminars include topics such as, “Cocktail Photography 101,” “Discovering the Flavors of Cognac,”“How to Go Broke: Opening a Bar” and “Building and Apprenticing Your Team.” From dissecting individual cocktails to how to break into the U.S. liquor market — every aspect of the industry gets its fair shake.
Other events, like “Spirited Dinners,” challenge restaurants and bartenders to work together to pair cocktails with dishes from local restaurants. For “Dynamic Duos,” local and out-of-town bartenders are coupled to create an evening of uniquely blended menus and bartending skills. While Tales has typically included a “Restaurant Week,” (when various local restaurants serve fixed-price menus and the cocktails that complement them) new for this year is the “Breakfast Club,” more intimate gatherings of alcohol industry experts held at the Hotel Monteleone’s Criollo Restaurant.
For local businesses, particularly in the alcohol industry, the effects of Tales can stretch long past the last cocktail.
“What’s amazing at Tales is, the amount of people you get in front of that you can capture a sale from down the road,” says Emily Marquis Vanlandingham, CEO of Locally Preserved. Vandlandingham, whose company creates locally sourced jams, jellies and preserves, along with syrups that can be used for cocktails, says the event has definitely bumped sales.
“We see the trickle effect throughout the year,” she says. “We hear and we see sales based on people saying, ‘Oh, I tasted this’ or ‘I learned about this at Tales.’ They might come here for the event and then go home, and then they might come back and order a syrup online with a note that says, ‘Had you at Tales, thanks so much.’”
Tuennerman says the same benefit applies to event venues.
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
“We really try to have events at places that I want people to see that maybe they haven’t thought of,” she says. “These might be places people aren’t going to go to on their own, but if you lead them there, they’re completely blown away by the event and the venue, which brings business to the venues as well, present and future.”
New Orleans-centric products —such as those made with locally sourced ingredients or themed after local dishes — tend to do well.
“Tales is a huge international event, so [attendees] really get to experience the flavors,” says Scot Mattox, founder and CEO of local bitters crafter, El Guapo Bitters. “They get to take them home and share that in some kind of a form, whether it be a martini or something else where people in their home market may have never been here or tasted how amazing it is.”
Beyond the Cocktail
Just as a local music festival does more than bolster the New Orleans music scene, Tales has a positive impact on industries beyond bars and cocktail purveyors. This even includes local shops, such as for Tales’ list of “Shop Local” vendors this year, which will offer discounts to conference attendees.
“It goes to the entire community,” Mattox says. “There are thousands and thousands of people who come in from out of town, so it’s a huge event for the city as a whole.”
“The Tales crew, they’re very passionate about New Orleans,” says Koehlar. “They’re passionate about what New Orleans has to offer — the bars, the food, the music, the people. They interact on all levels, and it is phenomenal. Tales brings forth an appreciation for all things New Orleans. It sets a standard, and if all of us are able to put forth the hard work to keep up those standards within our own businesses, it will translate into success beyond our measure.”
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
Jeff Berry, co-owner of Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, a tiki-style bar and restaurant, says Tales is bringing New Orleans recognition that is long overdue.
“People take the city seriously as a world-class cocktail destination now,” he says. “And the irony is New Orleans has always had its own indigenous cocktails it’s been making for 100, 150 years. It’s amazing that the city never really got its due respect. But now that the 21st century craft cocktail world has descended on the city, to see not only the classic indigenous drinks but also how we’re doing world-class modern cocktails now, it’s got to be good for tourism, for local purveyors and the whole hospitality scene.”
A closer look at some of the local businesses participating in this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, July 15-19.
Founded as Feed Me Eat Pretty five years ago, Locally Preserved is an all-natural food-manufacturing firm in New Orleans and maker of fruit syrups, simple syrups, seedless jams, jellies and other preserves, including the popular Strawberry Lavender and Spicy Peach varieties. Currently, Locally Preserved sources seasonal ingredients from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama only.
This year for Tales of the Cocktail, Locally Preserved is collaborating with local
producers for a non-alcoholic tasting room, which will feature everything that can be used to make cocktails sourced locally. The company will also offer a special Tales-flavored syrup for sale in the Octavia Books store along with four additional flavors.
Keife and Co.
Wine, spirits and specialty foods retailer Keife and Co. is a downtown spirits industry institution carrying the specialty spirits, wine, accessories and cocktail accoutrement brands and bartenders need during Tales each year. This year is the company’s fifth as a “Preferred Vendor” for the event. Keife and Co. often takes care of locals and third parties who are looking for specialty, harder-to-find items, such as certain bitters and syrups, to either use at their events or take home.
Outside of the holiday season, Keife and Co. sees its best business of the year during Tales. According to owner John Keife, “We’re always excited when July comes around.”
Cocktail & Sons
Launched in January after a successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2014, Cocktail and Sons creates all-natural handcrafted syrups for classic cocktails and sodas. Cocktail and Sons will make its Tales debut this year by participating in a variety of events and tastings at different stores in the CBD/French Quarter area, including a “Meet the Makers” time slot on opening day. At the same time, founder Max Messier can also be found toting his medicine bag full of syrups, such as Honeysuckle & Peppercorn and Mint & Lemon Verbena, to drum up business for the young but fast-growing company.
“Tales is going to be huge,” says Messier.
El Guapo Bitters
Founder and CEO Scot Mattox was a bartender making the bitters recipes for the bar where he worked until Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, encouraged him to pursue a business and debut his products at the event. After three years, El Guapo Bitters is best known for the innovative flavors that represent New Orleans in specialty cocktails.
Two of the company’s most popular flavors are the “Gumbo” bitters, which joins together “the trinity,” with the flavors of mirlitons, lemon, thyme. Mattox says it is particularly popular for use in a simple gin or vodka martini. The “Crawfish Boil” bitters, on the other hand, is ideally suited for a Sazerac. It was reverse-engineered from the distinct, secret crawfish boil recipe from J&J Seafood on the Westbank.
This year, El Guapo is introducing an exclusive Louisiana bitters pack for Tales that will include the Gumbo and Crawfish Boil bitters as well as the highly popular Chicory Pecan and Summer Berry varieties. Thanks to Tales, Mattox says his company generally does double the business in July that it does during June and August.
Under the umbrella of Cure Collective are local bars Cure, Bellocq and Cane & Table. Founder and partner Neal Bodenheimer says all three of his businesses enjoy their busiest week of the year during Tales.
“Not only do we see an increase in volume of interested guests coming through,” he says, “but they’re our exact demographic — people into craft cocktails and boutique spirits. So, from that perspective, it’s amazing for us.”
Every year, the bars put together special menus for each party they host, but this year they’ll be merging their specialty menus with traditional offerings available year-round.
Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29
One of the newest additions to the New Orleans bar industry scene, the French Quarter tiki bar Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 was directly inspired by Tales of the Cocktail. It was during a “Spirited Dinner” at the event in 2005, that cocktail book author and tiki drink expert Jeff Berry, co-owner with his wife Annene Kaye, fell in love with New Orleans and decided to open the bar/restaurant.
“Our first six months being open in this town have been amazing,” Berry says. “The local press has been great, and Esquire just called us one of the best bars in the country. It really is because of Tales. I don’t know that we would have ever moved here, that we would have ever opened this place.”
This year, Tales attendees will be invited to enjoy Berry’s TOTC Swizzle, a cocktail tailor-made for the event. Instead of hosting events at the bar, Berry will be fielding an influx of bar patrons, signing his latest book at the Octavia Books store and participating in two seminars, “Drinks of World War II and “Rum in the 21st Century.”
During Tales of the Cocktail, local bookseller Octavia Books runs a “Bookstore & Bitters Market” out of the former bag room just off the Hotel Monteleone lobby — the heart of the Tales of the Cocktail events. The store carries a multitude of cocktail and hospitality-related books, as well as a selection of bitters that this year will include 300 varieties from approximately 35 different local and international vendors. The store has been selling bitters for about four years, and they now comprise about one-third of the store’s business during the event.
Every hour on the hour, Octavia Books hosts “Shots of Inspiration,” where authors and bitters makers are featured at a table outside the store. Attendees have the chance to talk to the masters about their books and products for that hour. If they want to taste the bitters, a tasting area is set up in the back.
Located 25 feet off Bourbon St, Erin Rose is an Irish pub-style bar that is all New Orleans with a distinctly Irish lineage. Each year at Tales, the bar hosts “The Final Shot” — held on the last day of the conference, the event serves as a wrap party, offering attendees the chance to enjoy one last drink before they head home.
Instead of sporting the specialty cocktail menu like many other bars during Tales, Erin Rose takes a more laidback approach to what it offers attendees.
“When they’re done for the day, they’re done, and they just need something to settle them down and not have to process what they’re drinking or how they created it differently or if they need to go create something,” says Angie Koehlar, co-owner of Erin Rose with her husband Troy. “With us, they can just ‘be.’”