With its many product launches, publicity events and high-profile speakers, Tales of the Cocktail is closely watched around the bar and booze industry as a preview of the future. As the event begins today, however, one of the more compelling prognostications rests solidly with the past.
The educational heart of Tales of the Cocktail is a roster of some 70 seminars, most of them geared toward professional development for bartenders. Locally sourced and even foraged bar ingredients, Japanese whisky, eau de vie, cognac and pisco brandies, botanical liquors and vintage rums are all on the docket for discussion over the next few days.
But one recurrent theme is history. From the journey of gin through London society to the role of liquor in colonial expansion to a biography of the old fashioned, pitched as “the world’s first classic cocktail,” sessions across the Tales schedule this year plumb the past for back stories and social narratives behind cocktails.
That strikes a chord with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who knows a thing or two about drinks research. The tiki drinks expert behind Latitude 29, a tiki-themed restaurant and bar set to open in the French Quarter this fall, he’s co-hosting a history-minded Tales session tomorrow on the Floridita, a bar in Havana known as the birthplace of the daiquiri.
“You’re seeing more bartenders connect a sense of history to their drinks,” Berry said. “They’ve already deconstructed drinks, people have already learned what goes into them, so now they’re onto the stories. Who made the drink first, and what was going on in the world when they made it? That historical connection is what they’ll pass on during water cooler talk the next day and make them order that drink again. For bartenders a way to engage customers and it makes better theater.”
The search for these stories has led more bartenders back to the history books, Berry pointed out. As they reinvent or resurrect old recipes, they’re building a market for increasingly specialized bar brands, including those for vintage ingredients that may have fallen out of production.
This segues with another beverage trend in the spotlight this year at Tales — more grassroots entrepreneurism, with sessions on opening your own distillery or launching a spirits company. In the drinks world, it seems there’s a promising future in history.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.