Tales of the Cocktail's Ann Tuennerman talks about the festival of fine drinking's growth as it starts its 10th year.

Tales of the Cocktail poster by Saveur.
Courtesy of Saveur.

How do you measure success? By the amount of ice you need? Which, if you're Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC), is 25,000 pounds. French Quarter Ice starts making ice for it in May.

By its impact? This year a bar in Washington, D.C. will close so that its staff can attend the tenth year of the annual celebration of the cocktail and cocktail culture. The event brought Tiki-drink expert Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry to New Orleans as a speaker, and now he lives here.

By its growth? Now there is a road company Tales of the Cocktail that takes place in Vancouver.

By most measures, Tales of the Cocktail is a success. In 2003, it started as walking tour of New Orleans bars and restaurants that told people about the historic sites, drinks and people. TOTC founder Ann Tuennerman--then Ann Rogers--had a background in marketing, and she signed up Southern Comfort as a sponsor. There were no seminars or tasting rooms, but she convinced 10 prominent mixologists to come to town to be a part of the event. The spirited dinner--fine dining with a sponsored liquor making quality drinks to pair with the meal--and the cocktail hour event were a part of the first TOTC, and they have continued and grown every year since. 

Tuennerman attributes the successful growth of Tales of the Cocktail to the way that it grew. The second year happened because the people who attended the first one asked for it. "It evolved with the attendees saying, 'This is what we want,'" she says. Seminars started in year three, and the tasting rooms started five years ago. The tasting rooms were made possible by one of the more painful moments in TOTC's history--when Southern Comfort withdrew its sponsorship in December 2005. Tuennerman was understandably upset, but there was an upside. "I wanted one more year with them, but I wanted to be able to broaden it," she says. "There was a misconception that every cocktail was Southern Comfort at the event." Plymouth Gin was the first brand to come in and use Tales of the Cocktail as an occasion to reach those who like or make quality drinks. 

"From 2007 on, I don't know if I knew we were on to something big, but I knew we were having an impact," she says. TOTC has become one of the central gatherings for people who treat drinks like fine dining, so much so that the industry now times the release of new products to it. Thirty-seven new products will be rolled out this week including a new Absolut product. Marketers are bringing celebrities and celebrity chefs to help rep their brands. DiSaronno will bring Ted Lange, better known as Isaac the Bartender from The Love Boat. Brands are thinking of ingenious ways to draw attention to their product, whether it's a Peru-themed pool party atop the Hotel Monteleone, or a whiskey to accompany a shave for bartenders at Aidan Gill. Pisco and rum will be big. 

Tales of the Cocktail is unquestionably larger than ever, but Tuennerman is cautious. Some have suggested that she move the event to the Convention Center, but she's not interested. "I'm really comfortable at the size we are now," she says. "We don't need to be the next Jazz Fest. It's important to me that the event has the same spirit and feel that it did in the first year. It's sad when you hear those comments that your event abandoned you."

When Tales of the Cocktail started, the idea of a finely made, properly balanced drink that rewards you the way a fine meal does seemed crazy, particularly in city known for drive-through daiquiris, and where a rite of passage was drinking a 1-800-Fuck-Me-Up at Nick's Bar in Mid-City. The cocktail seemed like vestige of a Mad Men yesteryear before Mad Men was on the air, but unlike the similar cigar craze, cocktail culture continues to grow. Fine drinking establishments are growing in number and popularity.

 How do you measure success? "About five years, we did our first T-shirt with Fleurty Girl," Tuennerman says. "At what point are you big enough that people want to wear your T-shirt? 

Tales of the Cocktails starts Tuesday and runs through Saturday. For a schedule of events, go to TalesOfTheCocktail.com.