Hold The Alcohol, Please

This year’s alcohol-free party at Tales of the Cocktail is indicative of a growing trend.
illustration by Tony Healey

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

Heads turned in the bar world last summer when global liquor brand William Grant & Sons announced its annual opening night Tales of the Cocktail party would be “sans alcohol.”

In the past, the brand giant behind names like Glenfiddich, Hendricks and Drambuie hosted extraordinary extravaganzas. The company’s 2011 party was legendary — held at the National World War II Museum, all 15 brands in their portfolio were featured and the event attracted 1,500 attendees…and a cow. No comment was available from the bovine guest, but the “World’s Freshest Ramos Gin Fizz” that she contributed to was a highlight of the evening.

So why would a major player in the alcohol industry attempt a major event without alcohol? This year has seen a major focus shift at Tales, the industry’s biggest annual event. Neil Bodenheimer and Gary Solomon acquired the 16-year-old cocktail festival from founder Ann Tuennerman in late 2017, transforming it into the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation under the leadership of Caroline Rosen.

“In the hospitality community, we spend all our time taking care of others and not ourselves,” Bodenheimer pointed out. “We intend to offer education in wellness along with the cutting-edge trends we’ve always promoted at Tales.”

Needless to say, Bodenheimer was thrilled when William Grant’s director of brand advocacy, Charlotte Voisey, reached out to him about the new direction of the event.

The independent, family-owned company had long been a Tales supporter, a relationship that had proved quite successful for brand promotion. In order to endorse the nonprofit’s new goals while providing thoughtful commentary on the state of the industry, the decision was made to make William Grant & Sons’ annual party alcohol-free.

“It’s important for us to give bartenders – the backbone of the industry – a night before their seminars and social gatherings where the pressure to imbibe is lifted and meaningful conversations and relationships are forged,” said Voisey.

The William Grant company hails from Great Britain, where a new type of cocktail revolution is in full swing. Latest studies reveal that one in five Brits are now teetotalers – the highest number in decades. Worldwide, health-conscious millennials are driving the “mindful drinking” movement, seeking social drinking without the hangover.

Where does New Orleans fit into this picture? Alan Walters, creative director of Loa at the International House Hotel, sees a trend towards sensitivity regarding the power of alcohol. He regards Loa as more of a new-world apothecary with a strong nod to the culinary aspect of drinks. With over 60 different house-made syrups and extracts to choose from, it’s easy for Walters to create a memorable, alcohol-free cocktail.

Tyler Chauvin, bar manager at Treo on Tulane Avenue, believes the bar industry is at a turning point where drinking to excess is just not perceived as “cool” anymore. Instead, the craft cocktail movement has shifted the focus from high proof to high flavor.

“There should be no stigma attached to your choice of drinking alcohol or not,” he said. “When a customer asks for an alcohol-free drink, it’s a pleasure to craft something extra-special just for them.”

But what about that all-important bottom line? Alcohol plays a major role in most restaurants’ profitability, making up on average about 30 percent of revenue, often more.  

In many New Orleans establishments, it’s reasonable to see a restaurant tab that includes $20 in food charges and an equal amount in alcohol. When a diner isn’t drinking alcohol, anything will be better for the restaurant’s bottom line than a glass of water.

Increasingly, interesting liquid libations like kombucha, shrub, coffees, teas and premium mixers like Fevertree are being added to drink menus across town.

Twelve Mile Limit owner T. Cole Newton said he has always made sure to include a big selection of non-alcoholic drinks like ginger beer to accompany the food served at his Mid-City craft cocktail bar, but a majority of his patrons still prefer something a bit stronger.

“While the local drinking scene is beginning to examine their loosey-goosey attitude about alcohol,” he said, “our visitors are likely to continue to flock here for some of the legendary alcohol-laced behavior New Orleans has always been known for.”

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.