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.”
In this frenzied climate, where bartenders are called mixologists and its biggest players are the new rock stars of night life, Tales is like the South by Southwest of liquor. Master bartenders can barely stagger four feet through the streets of New Orleans without being flagged down by a friend or fan from Tales.
And for 54 mixology apprentices appointed by Tales from eight countries and 23 states, including places like Upper Arlington, Ohio; Guadalajara; and Mineville, Nova Scotia, Varnish owner Moses and lead mixologist Eric Alperin are two of the convention’s most sought-out advisers. One major liquor company director gushes that Moses is “the Steve Jobs of our industry.” Moses and Alperin, nominated for American bartender of the year, aren’t the only L.A. bar stars. Julian Cox from Playa and Rivera, which was nominated for best restaurant bar, and Neat’s Demarest, who is also the brand ambassador for a vodka called elit by Stoli, were in high demand.
Yet even as the craft cocktail industry goes global, some insiders worry that the mixology movement has jumped the shark.
In L.A., jokes about suspenders and mustaches — once the favored Prohibition-era uniform of the mixologist — run rampant, and grumbling can be heard about the “$15 cocktail.” This year, Tales was clogged at every entrance door with attendees complaining about how hard it was to get into parties and events.
The frustration is captured in a new video by the comedy team Fog and Smog that has more than 73,000 YouTube views and features a rap that pokes fun at the scene with the refrain, “Hey Mr. Mixologist, did you have to go to college for this?” and a plea for a no-frills rum and Coke.
“I think that video is hilarious,” says Moses, who just opened a second location of his popular L.A. whiskey bar Seven Grand in San Diego and plans to open another concept in Austin, Texas, next year. “I think every bartender in that has worked for me. Cocktails shouldn’t be snooty; there should be no attitude.”
“Without a customer base, this is a fad,” says Demarest. “But the customer base is here and it’s a young one.”
Even if the mixology trend turns out to be a fad, it’s one that’s spreading wide.
Birmingham, Ala., is in the midst of a cocktail explosion, says bartender Eric Lee Bennett, who pours in that city at the Italian restaurant Bettola. “There are a few like-minded bartenders at restaurants across the city doing really interesting things. We’re becoming a foodie city with James Beard-winning chefs, so that helps too.”
Bryan Dayton, who last year was crowned the winner of Bombay Sapphire’s most inspired bartender search and owns a cocktail bar and restaurant in Boulder, Colo., called Oak at Fourteenth, says, “The cocktail culture in Boulder is blowing up and the city is kind of a foodie destination now. Everybody’s doing it — from Denver to the whole state. In little ski towns people are getting hungry and going after it.”
Which is exactly where L.A. stood years ago when Moses and the craft cocktail pioneers began to build the scene.
“Seven years ago I came out here and everybody was laughing about the bars in L.A.,” says Moses. “And I said I was going to do great cocktail bars in L.A. The redemption is good.”