Tales of the Cocktail made hip-hop and mixtapes part of the fine drinking story in 2017.
During the recent Tales of the Cocktail, The New York Times’ Robert Simonson presented a seminar titled “The Cocktail Revolution in 50 Images,” which inadvertently hinted at how the conference/festival/schmooze fest itself has changed. The 50 pictures were largely portraits of people connected to milestones in the cocktail renaissance starting in 1977. One from 1988 showed the man who rehabbed the Cosmopolitan, while another from 2000 showed a drink from the bar Milk & Honey, which was the first to use shaped ice.
T.J. Lynch, the proprietor of Mother’s Ruin, a cocktail bar in New York City, appeared in one of the photos wearing a black T-shirt and jeans while holding a baseball bat with the venue’s name burned into the barrel. Simonson included the photo from 2011 because the year was the year that cocktail bars shook off their high-class airs and became casual, and Mother’s Ruin was one of the venues that ushered in that change. That picture felt resonant this year at Tales of the Cocktail because Tales has moved with the industry it covers. Ann Rogers (now Tuennerman) started Tales as a literary pub crawl through French Quarter bars that came with good stories and good drinks. When Tales became an actual gathering, the focus on cocktail culture presented the bartender/mixologist as akin to a chef and drinking cocktails as the natural sidecar to fine dining. At the time, the unasked question was whether anybody outside of the Hotel Monteleone—Tales’ home venue—actually wanted to drink like that. In a drive-thru daiquiri city, were craft cocktails really a future, or another way draw lines between Us and Them?
As Tales’ reputation grew, so did the number of bartenders and bar owners who wanted to feel camaraderie with others who keep eggs behind the bar in case they have to make a flip. Where they gathered, so did spirits merchants eager to show off their wares. Tasting rooms became a major part of the Tales experience. This year, the most unusual thing I drank was the 1908 Empress Gin, which is “infused with the vibrantly tinted butterfly pea blossom”—according to its website—to produce a very attractive indigo gin that tastes like gin. When mixed, the drink became lavender, which was treated as startling though I’m not sure why.
This year, the Tales of the Cocktail that I experienced was more casual. One friend in the industry thought that the attendees now included a substantial number of staffers from Chili’s, Appleby’s, and the like, and that Tales wasn’t the Cool Kids Club that it had been in the past. The informality that Simonson saw in cocktails bars in 2011 probably began to creep into Tales soon after, but this year it was unmistakable. Spirited Dinners typically presented themselves as dinner parties that paired good food with fine cocktails that showcased a given liquor. This year, I attended one for High West Distillery that was a house party with buffet-style dining, bars scattered throughout the Cellar Door, and a jazz band upstairs.
Music that swings had once been the soundtrack to Tales, but aside from that dinner and the live band at a burlesque show presented by Aspen’s Woody Creek Vodka (“That’s real vodka!” one dancer gasped after taking a big swig from what she assumed was a prop bottle), the soundtrack was more modern and more hip-hop. Snoop Dogg presided over one night time party at the CAC, while Major Lazer’s Jillionaire—himself a cocktail enthusiast and a Tales panelist in 2016—played another.
D’usse Cognac has been shouted out by Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and the St. Louis rapper Smino, who recently released “Netflix & Dusse,” and at a D’usse-sponsored event, producer 9th Wonder and Bacardi portfolio ambassador Chris Hopkins talked about remixing at Esplanade Studios. 9th remixed Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” with a gospel sample in the control room, then Hopkins applied similar principles to classic cocktails on the studio floor.
At a daily wake-up session, Deep Eddy Vodka served such music-themed cocktails as the “Welcome to the Jungle Juice” and the “Ch Ch Ch Cherry Bomb Pop” while hits from the ‘90s played. Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” is a tough way to start your day, but It was nice to hear “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals and “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai. Among the merch strewn around the Monteleone’s Carousel Bar were two mix CDs, neither of which were as down the middle as the music in the room. Both were the products of DJs, one from Vinyl Ranch, the Houston-based “classic country lifestyle brand and DJ collective,” the other from Houston funk DJ Hiram.
The music made this year’s Tales of the Cocktail feel less like the firewall against modernity than it has in the past. The retro vibe that was replaced by the Better Living Through Craft sensibility of recent years gave way to a more conventional urbanity, one that is simultaneously eclectic and common, private and public. When Simonson updates his photo essay on the cocktail renaissance, will he find the picture for this moment on Instagram?