Craft cocktail scene spills onto a wider stage

JESSICA GELT
Los Angeles Times
Modified: August 15, 2012 at 4:30 pm •  Published: August 15, 2012
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photo - A crowd hangs out front of One Eyed Jacks, a bar and live-music venue in the French Quarter that hosted a number of events during the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. (Jessica Gelt/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
A crowd hangs out front of One Eyed Jacks, a bar and live-music venue in the French Quarter that hosted a number of events during the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. (Jessica Gelt/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

NEW ORLEANS — Los Angeles bar designer Ricki Kline stands on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street at 3 a.m. holding a Sazerac in a plastic to-go cup while bartenders from across the country shout greetings, shake hands and swig from unlabeled bottles of boutique booze they barrel-aged themselves. It’s the spillover from Tales of the Cocktail, the world’s largest annual gathering of bartenders and liquor professionals, with more than 21,000 attendees eager to soak up trade secrets of the craft cocktail movement that has spread from New York and Los Angeles to unexpected towns in America’s heartland and beyond.

As carefully concocted drinks inspired by the pre-Prohibition era become big business on an international level, the apple martini is going the way of the VCR. Craft cocktails are now the hallmark of many fine dining programs, with as much attention being placed on the garnish in the glass as to what’s on the plate.

“Craft cocktails are everywhere now, and they’re not going away,” Kline says. “It’s like the foodie revolution of the ‘80s.”

A cabdriver dropping off a Tales attendee has his own take on the scene: “Y’all have all sorts of alcoholic meetings, right?”

That would be one way to sum up the late-July event’s more than 50 educational seminars, free-flowing liquor tasting rooms, and alcohol-themed dinners, parties and sodden brunches that keep participants busy from the wee hours until they pass out — sometimes in their own hotel rooms, and sometimes not.

“I’ve never seen such a high-end event for such a bunch of lowlifes,” jokes Cedd Moses, who owns nine flourishing craft cocktail bars in downtown Los Angeles — including the Varnish, which last week won a spirited award at Tales for best American cocktail bar and was also nominated for world’s best cocktail bar.

“Entire bars shut down and send their people here,” says Tales founder Ann Tuennerman, who started the festival 10 years ago with just 50 people in the Carousel bar at the historic Hotel Monteleone. “Then they go back to their communities and spread more knowledge. We’re just happy they can all trace their bloodline back to us.”

Tuennerman says that Tales attendance has increased rapidly in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Two years after the storm, attendance doubled from 6,000 to 12,000. By 2010 it had exceeded 18,000 and injected more than $11 million into the New Orleans economy. Today that number hovers near $13 million.

The advent of serious mixology, which traffics in handsome drinks made with farmers-market-fresh ingredients, as well as house-made syrups, bitters and even artisanal ice, is changing the way we eat — and the way chefs write menus. One night during Tales, with 30 spirited dinners taking place, “Top Chef All-Stars” winner Richard Blais pairs his three-course menu with Benedictine liqueur cocktails at the Museum of the American Cocktail.

High-volume corporate restaurants, cruise ships and casinos are getting in on the mixology game too. Last year Ruth’s Chris Steak House sent 12 of its bartenders to Tales. The chain’s cocktail menu now boasts crafty ingredients such as house-made strawberry puree and lemon sour.

This year Carnival Cruise Lines hosted a floating Tales luncheon to discuss its new Fun Ship 2.0 plan, which features an Alchemy Bar and an array of custom drinks that defy the usual cocktail umbrella-topped Long Island iced tea.

It’s a trend that crosses demographic lines; a Tucson mixologist named Aaron DeFeo started the first tribal bartending academy at the Pascua Yaqui-run Casino del Sol, where he has also launched a comprehensive craft cocktail program.

“I was at the airport in Denver and I had a barrel-aged cocktail,” says L.A. mixologist Aidan Demarest, standing in the tony living room of director Francis Ford Coppola’s French Quarter estate during a Krug Champagne tasting. “The guy next to me had an absinthe. That’s when you know the scene has arrived.”

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