Tales of the Cocktail: A crafty business

30th July, 2012 by Tom Sandham

Tales of the Cocktail is breaking me. True story. Last night came to a sweaty end at the bar Alibi, which is a dirty, dangerous place for reprobates and rascals. The bar’s name is laced in irony, since only bad things happen here.

Cuba Gooding Jr and Tom Sandham at Tales of the Cocktail

Is that Cuba Gooding Jr standing behind Tom Sandham?

If you make it out to Tales next year, Alibi is likely to become familiar to you between the hours of midnight and, well, whenever, since they close up when the last person leaves – I think that was 9.30am this morning. I wasn’t there at that time, thank Christ. Although I’ll be back, I think I’ve left something there, my dignity at the very least.

Either way, it seems the entire bar industry ends up in Alibi at some point. As does Cuba Gooding Jr. There was a debate about whether it was really him, stood behind us, harmlessly chatting up ladies, but it was him, for sure. An Academy Award winner in a nasty little dive bar in New Orleans. Stranger things happen.

But before the wheels came off, around 3am, the day at Tales had been about discernment and craft, because as well as random acts of misbehaviour in Alibi, this festival is about learning new stuff and there’s an overwhelming amount of content when it comes to the seminars. I enjoyed back-to-back sessions for most of the day and still feel I didn’t touch the sides of what’s happening.

Artisan spirit

A couple of highlights included a talk with the massively likeable Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits. The distiller really values his fruit, a fact that became apparent during his talk on spirits made from, er, fruits. It was a fascinating insight into the work of a flavour specialist and in an age when efficiency so often demands shortcuts, it was refreshing to hear from an artisanal producer using carefully sourced produce. Rupf’s approach is indicative of the American craft distilling movement, which is growing in stature. This was emphasised by the team at Tuthilltown Spirits of New York State who make Hudson whiskeys.

Gable Erenzo runs the company with his father Ralph and spoke during his seminar on the challenges of setting up a micro distillery. The event was sold out with plenty of bar professionals obviously keen to learn how they might get started.

The company has broken plenty of boundaries by reviving whiskey production in New York State and free from the ties of Scottish whisky conventions they’re experimenting with everything from mash bills to wood selection. They even play music to the barrels, deep bass to vibrate them and move the spirit. It’s an approach that typifies the craft movement in the States, innovative, resilient and keen to get things done.

“There was a law about not being able to sell our spirits on the site where we made them,” says Gable “We lobbied to change that law and eventually reversed it so we can now have a tasting room and shop at the distillery. It has massively changed the finances of our business.”

Global presence

There are similar stories of dedication around the city this week, with distillers coming in from all over the world and while the likes of Pernod Ricard, William Grant and Diageo are ever present, it feels like there’s a sea change in America.

Beer got a craft ball rolling here in the 70s and 80s and it’s only in the more recent years that the fruits of that labour have been realised, so perhaps craft distillation will take some time to make a mark.But the fact there were around 40,000 stills operating before prohibition indicates this is a country that enjoys a drink so next year is certain to see new faces on the panels of these seminars.

As an aside to the craft distilling the number of British-based faces out here is incredible. My evening ended surrounded by familiar faces. Jake Burger of the Portobello Star and Portobello Gin (which actually brings us back to craft spirits) was scaling a wall to leave my business card on a painting near the ceiling, while I talked to Stuart Ekins and Richard Herbert about Cask Marketing’s plans and Hobo Beer, which I’ve helped them source with partner in drinking endeavours, Ben McFarland.

And as we discussed strange happenings in a Memphis crack house, an entourage of Pernod Ricard UK’s finest wandered in, as did bartending greats such as Ryan Chetiyawardana and James Wynn-Williams.

Bartending elite

But it’s not just the Brits: Diageo held an event at the old US Mint and it was wall to wall with international drinks industry legends, some of them actually mixing drinks. Jim Meehan stood at a station next to Tony Abou Gamin, a bar around the corner from them sported Erik Lorinz and the newly crowned World Class winner Tim Philips.

Safe to say the drinks there were fairly special. Event drinks can ruin your mouth, but these were different gravy. I spent a good while in the company of the affable Tom Nichol while I was there, the genius behind Tanqueray 10. I say affable, but one of the best things about Tom is his cutting and comical commentary of his surroundings. A hilarious man who happens to be a rather excellent distiller and he reminded me how Tanqueray 10 is truly one of the world’s great gins, born out of a similar innovation that’s at the heart of the craft distilling movement.

From Diageo’s party it was on to French 75, via Coop’s (see below). Chris Hannah runs French 75 and deserves a round of applause for his efforts in distributing drinks to the masses. Then it was supposed to be on to New York’s Employees Only pop up – one of the world’s finest bars had bought its team to town. I’d tell you all about it, except I couldn’t get in, even with a ticket.

Bar of choice:

811 Iberville Street  New Orleans
It’s a dive bar. I need write no more, but should you make it to Tales next year, you will go here.

Coop’s Place
1109 Decatur Street, French Quarter

It’s not a bar; it’s a restaurant. But the fried chicken, gumbo and jambalaya are proper good and if you’re planning to line your stomach it’s worth queuing for. While there with Ali Dedianko of Belvedere and gins ambassador for Pernod Ricard Nick van Tiel we also discovered some photographs of Daisy Lowe that changed our lives and learned that it’s ok for two girls to take a bath together

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