What happens when a vivacious bevy of spirit professionals and imbibers descend upon the “Big Easy?” You get the world’s premier cocktail festival, Tales of the Cocktail. Founded in 2002, TOTC has blossomed from being an annual walking tour of iconic New Orleans bars to becoming the ultimate glow-up it is today: a week-long celebration of everything the spirit industry embraces.
Each year, TOTC chooses a theme that captures the essence of a facet of the beverage industry they want to highlight most. And this year’s theme, “Vitalize” – defined as to “give strength and energy to” – certainly encapsulated the contagious enthusiasm and vibrant energy the hospitality industry shares as a community.
New Orleans has long been known for its nonstop nightlife, dynamic live music scene, and savory culinary creations. So, it’s no wonder Tales chose this bustling city for its week of seminars, tastings, networking, and fun activations. Ultimately, TOTC is the “it” hub for exchanging fresh ideas and spotlighting exciting booze brands and bartenders – and Essence couldn’t resist being part of it!
Here’s a sip of what I tasted last week during Tales!
I started the week with delicious Cognac-based cocktails at the Martell Vibe Check section. Upon entry, I was welcomed with a flavorful Coconut Old Fashion comprised of Martell Blue Swift, Malibu Rum, and Angostura bitters. Martell’s motto is to “Soar Beyond the Expected,” so I did this through a journey of the mind. I had our brainwaves scanned and mapped to create the ideal cocktail pairing. Ours was a blend of purple and red, which meant I had a “clear head ready for new experiences” accompanied by the Gold Standard, an Old Fashioned riff made of Martell VS, lemon cordial, and verjus (a juice of unripened wine grapes).
Besides the thrilling brand pop-ups, I availed myself of at least one insightful seminar. So, I hit the educational tasting, Cristalino Colección de Mexico Presents: The World of Cristalino and the Newest Expressions in Aged Tequila. The tasting was led by Proximo Spirits’ Head of Advocacy, Jaime Salas, alongside interviews with 2023’s World’s Best Bars winners from Mexico City, Alvaro Garcia Arroyo and Tito Pin-Perez of RAYO and Claudia Cabrera of Kaito. Before engaging with the tasting, I enjoyed the delightful, spirit-forward Pink Maneki made of Jose Cuervo Tradicional Cristalino Tequila, St. Germain, sake, lychee-rhubarb syrup, lemon, and rose water.
I explored six expressions from the creators of the Cristalino tequila category, with one of our favorites being Gran Coramino Cristalino, founded by actor Kevin Hart and Juan Domingo Beckmann, an 11th-generation tequila maker and creator of the first Cristalino. The crystal-clear spirit has a divine aroma of cooked agave, oak, and ripe dark cherry, followed by spicy cacao and mouthwatering berries with a lingering finish on the palate.
Another highlight was Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits’ diverse- and women-owned and led brands showcase aptly called “MAIS YEAH!” – Celebrating the Spirit of Inclusion. “Mais yeah” (pronounced ‘may yeah’) is a phrase that translates to “but yes” or “of course,” which reflects the benevolence of the people of New Orleans – and the openness of the spirits industry. Each brand had a station with cocktails created by Turning Tables bartenders. For context, Turning Tables is a New Orleans nonprofit with the mission to advance equity in the hospitality industry through mentorship, education, and platforms for exposure to promote access to positions and careers in the hospitality industry for Black and Brown bartenders.
I had the privilege of not only experiencing an exceptional martini crafted with Community Spirit Vodka, but I even had the chance to meet the company’s ambassador, Ashley Eldefri (pictured below). She says, “The Community Spirit Vodka elevates the voices of community changemakers. We like to call it ‘community capitalism,’ harnessing every facet of our business for the benefit of the people.”
Next up was a tasting dedicated to the bourbon Old Fashioned. It was wonderful to get a sneak peek of Elijah Craig’s Old Fashioned Week – taking place October 13-22, 2023 – which connects bars and restaurants nationwide each year, offering classic cocktails or riffs on the Old Fashioned to support the hospitality community. Houston-based founder of cocktail bar Julep, Alba Huerta, made us a delicious Cherrybark Old Fashioned made of Elijah Craig Bourbon Barrel Proof, Maison Routin 1883 Vanilla Syrup, Bittercube Cherry Bark and Vanilla Bitters, and garnished with a cherry and lemon zest.
Spoiler alert: I was among a handful of insiders to receive a first look at (and taste of) Chivas Regal’s latest innovation, a 15-year-old Scotch finished in Cognac casks before its American launch this fall. In true Tales’ fashion, the preview was accompanied by more incredible cocktails, specifically the zesty Beez in the Trap. This flavorsome cocktail was created by Beverage Director Roxy Narvaez of New Orleans’ Hotel Chloe. It comprised Chivas XV, lemon juice, lavender honey syrup, and fee foam, garnished with dried lavender.
With all these unique cocktails, I had to grab some delectable eats along my journey. So, I hit The Elysian Bar in a market-style workshop; it was a delight to experience Rabbit Hole’s one-of-a-kind bourbon and rye whiskeys with the perfect pairing of bites created by Bacchanal Catering. From salamis and artisan cheeses to neat pours and cocktails, I had the opportunity to build our charcuterie board and sip one of our favorite drinks of the week: Peach of Mind, created by award-winning cocktail creator Jonathan Gringo. The bright and citrusy cocktail was made with Rabbit Hole Cavehill Four Grain Triple Malt Kentucky Straight Bourbon, lemon, maple, peach puree, and Aperol orange foam.
As the week began to wind down, I was able to luxe it up with Moët Hennessy USA as they introduced their first-ever portfolio-wide TOTC activation coined La Maison by Moët Hennessy USA. I fully indulged in luxury and libations at the historic Latrobe’s on Royal. La Maison showcased a wide range of cocktails with the brand’s roster of spirits, such as Moët & Chandon, Ardbeg, Glenmorangie, Belvedere, Volcan, and Hennessy V.S and V.S.O.P. As I frolicked around Latrobe’s on Royal, I experienced each spirit within MHUSA’s roster through specialty curated cocktails. Our favorite was A Wee Tropical – a mind-blowing fruity cocktail made with *gasp* Scotch. Who knew a Scotch-based beverage could pick up such tropical notes?! The Wee Tropical was made with Arbeg Wee Beastie, lime juice, simple syrup, mango puree, strawberry puree, and a bar spoon of sherry.
We ended our Tales on a jazzy and delicious high note at the famed award-winning Turkey & Wolf restaurant praising the launch of Forbidden Bourbon. Da Truth Brass Band provided the soundtrack before dinner and played while we sipped on Forbidden. Besides the flavorful nuances of Forbidden Bourbon on its own, we enjoyed the whiskey in the Tropical Derby. The bright and boozy cocktail was crafted with Forbidden Bourbon, rum, pineapple, lime, falernum (a nonalcoholic syrup from the Caribbean), and mint.
Overall, it was a blissful yet tiring week full of incredible drinks and equally remarkable people. It was definitely enough to whet our appetite for next year!