New Orleans has always had a place on the map for cocktail connoisseurs. Tales of the Cocktail gave this connection a spot on the calendar too, right when it's needed most.

The annual spirits industry conference and celebration rolls again this week (July 17-22), promising its usual mid-July boost to the local hospitality business before the city's deep summer doldrums set in.

But this year is anything but business as usual for Tales of the Cocktail.

It is a new start, with a different format as a nonprofit, the debut of a grants program to fund innovative ideas in the hospitality sector and new leaders at the helm.

"The biggest change is why we participate. It's not necessarily what we do when we're here, but why we're here," said Gary Solomon Jr., co-chairman of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, the event's parent organization.

"When people come here, they're not just paying for education to develop their own careers. They're contributing to something that's going back to other people across the community and this industry, to ideas that need investment."

Solomon, founder of the Solomon Group production company, partnered with local bar proprietor Neal Bodenheimer to take over Tales of the Cocktail earlier this year. Solomon's family, which is prominent in local civic and philanthropic circles, supported the move.

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Neal Bodenheimer (center), behind the bar at Cane & Table, with Gary Solomon Jr. and Caroline Rosen from Tales of the Cocktail.

It affirmed Tales of the Cocktail's future in New Orleans after a shakeup led to its founder's departure last year. It also recast the event as a fundraiser to support causes within the hospitality industry. To begin, this year the foundation has awarded $250,000 in community grants for programs around the country that take aim at issues like diversity, abuse and sustainability in the business.

"I think what you're seeing now is the spirits community coming together in a new way," said Caroline Rosen, the foundation's executive director. "Our mission is to support, educate and advance this industry, and we want to do that not just once a year at Tales, but many times throughout the year through the foundation."

New tone between the toasts

Through the years, Tales of the Cocktail has become an important place for people in the spirits and hospitality business to network with the movers and shakers in their field. Sponsors come to promote brands and launch products. Bartenders and bar owners, brand reps and distillers from around the world come to learn at seminars, and to party in between.

Since taking over, the event's new leaders have stressed that they want to make sure Tales of the Cocktails continues to provide what it always has to its attendees and sponsors.

But there's no doubt that the tone of the conversation has shifted.

The new foundation is positioning itself in a different kind of leadership role at a time when questions of social responsibility and health are getting more attention in the service industry.

Tales of the Cocktail is taking on these issues within own programs this week. Attendees will still visit brand-sponsored tasting rooms and hear talks on the roots of rum, trends in gin or the terrior of American whiskey. But this year's Tales of the Cocktail schedule also has seminars titled "Straight up with a Twist on Mental Health," "Harassment and Hospitality Don't Mix," "Dollars of Diversity" and "Using Our Power for Good."

How the Tales of the Cocktail crowd responds to the new focus remains to the seen, but some sponsors have taken up the theme too.

For instance, one annual highlight of the conference, a party from distiller William Grant & Sons, will be dry this year, showcasing its booze brands but not pouring any. The company explained in a release the change is intended to give visiting bartenders an event where "the pressure to imbibe is lifted and meaningful conversations and relationships are forged."

This year's Tales of the Cocktail has a slate of other events dubbed "Beyond the Bar" that focus on health and wellness issues for an industry better known to live for the day (or night). Events in this category are free and open to the public.

"I think the hospitality world is growing up," said Rosen. "Tales in New Orleans can still be the place to network and market but it can also be a place where we share best practices about issues we're all talking about every day now."

The next round

Tales of the Cocktail was created in 2002 by Ann Tuennerman, who turned a walking tour of local bars into a conference for cocktail enthusiasts centered at the Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar. It grew into an international draw at a time when a cocktail renaissance was taking root.

Along the way it moved New Orleans to the forefront of an evolving drinks industry. The Tales of the Cocktail name and experiences in New Orleans racked up from it are common threads of conversation around the bar business. 

By drawing a free-spending crowd of hospitality pros to the city in the middle of summer, it provided a value that some say is hard to overstate.

"What Ann created is an event in the third week of July that had an $18 million impact last year," said Bodenheimer, co-founder of the cocktail bars Cure and Cane & Table. "That's irreplaceable, no one else is coming in to fill that. She gave this industry a gift. Our job as the new Tales is to not mess that gift up and make sure it's here for years to come."

Last year, however, outcry over a racially charged social media post forced Tuennerman and her husband Paul Tuennerman to step down. They ultimately put the brand on the market.

News that Solomon and Bodenheimer acquired it was met with relief by tourism industry leaders, praising the money and industry stature the event brings.

Now, though, Tales of the Cocktail itself is already looking ahead to where the new foundation structure and charitable focus will take it.

Solomon believes there's the potential for New Orleans, long famous for its drinking culture, to emerge as a thought leader for the hospitality industry's next generation.

"We are going to be global force in change initiatives, and with New Orleans as our home base, that means New Orleans is the mecca," Solomon said. "It's where new ideas are first implemented and tested, where New Orleans has access to it all."


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.