Among the panels at Tales of the Cocktail this year were stories from Bourbon Street, London, and Ian Fleming.
When I drank a Vesper Thursday, it occurred to me that I’d never been served more deliberately mediocre drinks than I was at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Largely, it was the luck of my panel choices. I knew what I’d get when I attended a talk on Bourbon Street cocktails, but the Vesper—gin, vodka, Lillet, and lemon peel—was an unexpected byproduct of Phil Greene and Simon Ford's discussion of the drinking of Ian Fleming and his greatest creation, James Bond. Fleming created the drink and wrote it into Casino Royale, where another character called it “a drink to be proud of.” Later in an interview, Fleming disowned his cocktail, calling it “unpalatable.”
Such drinks are the exception not the norm at Tales of the Cocktail, which continued through the weekend. During a panel on gin’s transformation in British culture from the equivalent of crack in the 1800s to the symbol of refinement, the panelists served a delicious, ginger-heavy drink that was a based on a snake oil remedy called Stone’s Ginger Wine, which had a slogan—“Stay up with Stone’s”—that had nothing to do with being awake. I suspect that those who chose other paths at this year’s Tales had more experiences like that than mine with Vespers.
Tales can be what you want it to be, within reason. Running a bar? There are panels for that. Bartende… er, mixologist? There are panels for that too. Want to know what’s new? Tasting rooms lay out cocktails that show off new flavors and new products.
My interests run toward cocktail history, and in a panel on Cuba’s Floridita, the home of the daiquiri, historian David Wondrich revealed that at one point, famed sheriff Wyatt Earp and boxer Gentlemen Jim Corbett considered going in together to open a saloon in Havana, and how in the 1800s Cuban cocktails were lightly alcoholic but grew stiffer over the years to suit the tastes of Americans that came to visit. Wondrich was giving the talk with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a Tales of the Cocktail regular and tiki drink enthusiast. He’s a reliable storyteller, but this year I consciously chose to walk away from Tales knowing about more than another Tiki guy or venue. I traded The Floridita for London and the story of gin’s rehabilitation, which was significantly helped by the creations of gin palaces—opulent, beautifully appointed buildings that catered to those with style, money and taste.
Later that day, Phil Greene and Simon Ford analyzed the drinking habits of James Bond, best known for demanding his martini to be “shaken, not stirred.”
“Never fucking shake a Martini!” Ford said pointedly, dressed in a Bond-like white dinner jacket, white shirt and black bow-tie. From there, he and Greene combed through Ian Fleming’s books to see just how much Bond drank, how many different beverages he consumed, and what impact he and Bond had on modern drinking culture. As much as attention is focused on “shaken not stirred”—instructions that didn’t show up until Fleming’s fourth Bond novel, Diamonds are Forever—it’s often forgotten that the Martini Bond referred to was a vodka Martini, and the popularity of the books helped that drink flourish. Bond’s concerns about dryness helped feed a similarly growing fascination with increasingly dry Martinis.
The panel was strong on Bond lore—Fleming’s model for Bond was musician Hoagy Carmichael—and ironies, including how hard guests had to lobby for drinks at Goldeneye, Fleming’s home in Jamaica. Greene and Ford calculated that Bond had a drink every six to seven pages, and even though fans were outraged when Daniel Craig conspicuously drank a Heineken in the remake of Casino Royale, in the books Bond was a beer drinker as well.
Last week, I previewed the panel on Bourbon Street favorites The Hurricane, The Hand Grenade and The Shark Attack. For the panel, Tulane historian traced the development of street drinking, and how the development of “window-hawking”—selling drinks to Bourbon Street passersby instead of requiring them to come into the venue for a cocktail. That shift led clubs away from craft cocktails and toward cheap, easily made drinks. Cocktail writer Wayne Curtis told the story of The Hurricane, “a rogue tiki drink,” he called it. “It went feral.” He dated the drink back to 1941, but it wasn’t clear if the Ronrico Rum drink recipe book he found it in got the recipe from Pat O’Brien’s or if Pat O’s found the recipe as a palatable way to use a lot of cheap rum that was less desired than whiskey. Writer Rien Fertel told the story of The Hand Grenade, focusing more on the Tropical Isle’s founder Earl Bernhardt than on the drink, which is no more palatable when made as a craft cocktail equivalent—“The Bomb,” it was called at Tales of the Cocktail because The Hand Grenade is famously trademarked, and Bernhardt defends the trademark. Bernhardt invited attendees of the panel to come to the Tropical Isle and have official Hand Grenades, but I passed.
And there was more. Dinners paired with cocktails. Parties and tastings. One afternoon, bartenders and media were bussed to the Country Club in the Bywater for a pool party and Jamaican-inspired lunch courtesy of Appleton Estate Rum. Later that afternoon, another beverage organized a version of the electric slide by retrro-clad dancers with liquor bottles on Royal Street in front of the Hotel Monteleone. It’s a lot to take in and gets a little woozy, whether you're drinking or not. I didn’t wouldn’t go so far as to spit out my drinks into provided pails to keep from getting loaded, but I deliberately didn’t finish any drinks either. Still, 20 minutes in a room full of Texans making new tiki drinks was a lot, particularly when someone figured out how to make a good tiki drink that had as a component Glenfiddich single malt scotch. Attendees from around the world aren’t getting hammered early and often, but Tales of the Cocktail may be the only place where, as Nola.com’s Chris Waddington observed, you could drink a Hurricane, a Shark Attack and a Hand Grenade before noon.