The world of drinks arrives in New Orleans each year for Tales of the Cocktail with a glass in one hand and a business card in the other. Aimed primarily at people in the business, the event functions as the cocktail industry’s biggest annual networking conference, trade show and social throwdown all in one.
But this year, a pair of new programs joining the Tales of the Cocktail itinerary are targeted more broadly at general cocktail enthusiasts, and they dial in to some of the fundamentals driving the renewed appreciation for the drinks.
One is the new Tales Restaurant Week, a dining series that’s now underway and continues through Monday at nine restaurants (see list inside, Page 2D). With prix fixe, multicourse menus and suggested drink pairings, the dining series is meant to showcase the close relationship between cuisine and cocktails that has proven such fertile ground for the evolution of the drinking culture.
The second new program this year gets to something a little deeper in the cocktail industry.
Called Dynamic Duos, these events pair some of the best-known bartenders in New Orleans with prominent pros from around the country, including pioneers of the craft cocktail renaissance and other influential leaders in the scene. Beginning tonight and continuing through Saturday, these “duos” will work together for two- or three-hour shifts at restaurants and bars around town, serving their own signature drinks and riffing off each others’ favorites.
The Dynamic Duos events are open to the public, and patrons pay for their drinks as normal.
Along the way, these events should also illuminate the spirit of collaboration and mutual support that many identify as a defining characteristic of the modern professional cocktail scene.
“This is a very social, interactive business,” said Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail. “The best bartenders don’t just have the technical aspect of cocktails, they have to have that social side, too, and see that in the way people work with each other across the industry.”
For instance, SoBou bartender Abigail Gullo will team up for a pair of Dynamic Duos sessions at that French Quarter restaurant this Thursday and Friday with Jim Meehan, a New York-based bar operator, consultant and author who Gullo has long considered a mentor.
“He was extremely open about sharing advice and nurturing a high level of respect across the industry,” she said. “That always impressed me.”
Gullo first met him on the other side of the bar, as a patron at his New York cocktail lounge PDT, and his approach inspired her to leave her job as a schoolteacher and pursue a future in craft cocktails and bartending.
“This career is extremely nontraditional because it’s so new; we’re writing the rules as we go,” she said. “But so much of it still goes back to traditional old-school hospitality and that’s what he showed me from the start.”
The longer arc of this tradition will be on display at a Dynamic Duos event on Friday at the restaurant Kingfish. Chris McMillian, head bartender at Kingfish and resident authority on New Orleans cocktail history, will work with Dale DeGroff, a drinks consultant and author who helped lead the cocktail revival beginning in the 1980s as bartender at New York’s famed Rainbow Room. The two men have deep roots in the business, and a long professional relationship together.
“Dale was the one who inspired me to go down this path,” said McMillian, who was running a landscaping business before starting his bartending career. “He’s the prototype for the modern bartender and decided I like to emulate what Dale DeGroff was doing in New York here.”
McMillian dug deep into the history of cocktails, and today he delights in showing customers the original flavors and recipes behind familiar cocktails they thought they already knew well.
A whiskey sour prepared with fresh ingredients, for instance, is a world away from versions made with the mixes that came later, he said. As the craft cocktail scene has exploded in popularity more recently, he still marvels at the camaraderie and encouragement that prevails among its practitioners.
“I like to compare it to the artist communities of the 19th century, the collaborative communities,” McMillian said. “It’s astounding the generosity of spirit people bring to this.”
Many more such showcases are on the docket this week with 17 Dynamic Duos events scheduled at venues from Patrick’s Bar Vin in the French Quarter to Cure on Uptown’s Freret Street restaurant row. For a schedule, see talesofthecocktail.com.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.