Thursday at Tales of the Cocktail involved 12-plus hours of drinking and talk of ice.
[If we were sitting in The Kingpin after Thursday at Tales of the Cocktail, well, I'd be ahead of you. I'd have spent the day drinking little, taster-sized cocktails, but eventually drinks add up. Thursday actually required a spacer coffee. Over a normalizing beer, here's the story I'd tell.]
First Drink: An Absolut Bloody Mary, a little thin by New Orleans' standards and I missed the pickled green beans and okra as garnishes, but there's a lot to be said for freshly grated horseradish.
A Chilling Start: Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta tell the history of the ice trade in North America. They credit Frederick Tudor for developing a market for ice by using tactics drug dealers would later employ for more nefarious ends. He helped create a demand for cold drinks, and wherever he would go, he'd leave behind a pitcher of ice water.
As part of their talk, Heugel and Huerta explained the mystique of the Mint Julep, and how it signified wealth because the host had enough money to give guests a brimming cup of chipped ice - then a luxury item. Heugel acknowledged the class issues connected with cocktails today, and how perfect ice spheres and 10-plus-dollar cocktails are still signifiers of affluence.
Oops: At lunch, Purity Vodka held a blind taste test against Grey Goose because, we were told, Grey Goose claimed to be the best-tasting vodka. Unfortunately, I and the three people I was with all thought Grey Goose tasted better - a softer finish a better mouthfeel. There was a scoreboard to register the Purity vs. Other Vodkas score, but I didn't see our results tallied.
Event of the Day: The "Indie Spirits That Rock" was such a jam-up that friends and I were warned against trying to wade in, and one peeled off after stopping for an excellent rum. The room was frustrating for its crowds and the fact that so few of the spirits had distribution in Louisiana. I'd have chosen Bootlegger Vodka (made in New York with corn by Metairie native and Saints fan Brain Facquet) over Purity and Grey Goose, and Kentucky's Bardstown made me believe that corn whiskey can be more than a novelty and a legend. The Pür Spirits blood orange liqueur and elderflower liqueur got their flavors spot-on in all their complexity and without any undue sweetness. I keep wanting cachaca to ring my bell, and while it hasn't happened yet, cachacas from Avuá and Novo Fogo held my attention. I hoped to be more into Compass Box Whiskey's Peat Monster scotch - all the boggy taste of a peaty single-malt scotch but without the visual murk (it's a pale brown and allows light through easily). Unfortunately, its smokiness toed a little too close to the ashtray for me, but where single malts are concerned, tastes vary wildly. I was pleasantly surprised by everything I had from Western Michigan's New Holland Distilling, including a bourbon aged in the barrels New Holland uses to first age its stout beers. Its 85-proof Knickerbocker Gin would be my gin of choice if it was around to choose. Between the palpable ambition of the exhibitors, the quantity of quality spirits and the overall energy, the room came to feel like a good bar, and I ended up talking about minor league baseball in NYC with a Brooklyn Cyclones fan.
Drink of the Day: From the Indie Spirits room, Clément Rhum's 'Ti Punch - two parts Clément Première Canne, two bar spoons Clément Sirop de Canne, two lime slices. Ice helps.
Doing Business: "I can sell that, I can sell that" a woman says in the Pyrat Rum tasting room. She's pointing to a tiki-inspired rum punch and and a simple mix of the rum with a ginger rhubarb syrup. "I like the earthiness." She dismisses a drink mixed with lemongrass and ginger beer that I had an hour before with vodka as the spirit.
The Beauty of Cocktails: In previous years, I've always grabbed aspirational bottles of pisco from the Tales swag room with the intention of making pisco drinks that never happened, or happened on a rude level that made me believe I liked pisco sours more than I liked pisco. In Thursday's pisco tasting room, I had a number of perfectly fine pisco-based cocktails, and with a proper level of theater, a rep at the Campo de Encanto table poured a taste from a bottle of coca-infused pisco that he kept under the bar. It added a little needed warmth and depth to pisco and for the first time made the spirit palatable to me on its own.
Drinking for Dinner: Thursday concluded with Spirited Dinners - cocktail-paired meals at restaurants around the city. I spent the evening at Salú, where Diplomatico Rum laid out a series of rums instead of cocktails. Chef Dustin Brien worked rum into each of the dishes as well, and the courses paired with Diplomatico Reserva and Reserva Exclusiva were stellar - maple-glazed pork belly and a rum-braised short rib. In each the Reserva was an easy companion to food, aided by a little water judiciously pipetted into the glass.