Considering the very little lead time that elapsed between December, when a wealthy New Orleans family rescued Tales of the Cocktail from collapse in the face of controversy, and last Tuesday, when the event was opened with a toast, this year’s program was remarkably well organized. Longtime attendees speculated that newcomers probably had no inkling of changes behind the scenes.
In fact, the only quasi-glitch I encountered over three days was at the registration table for William Grant & Sons’ opening night party, this year billed as “A Night You Won’t Forget,” in reference to the spirits giant making its fete booze-free. My name wasn’t on the guest list. It didn’t seem worth a fight, or worse, a dive into dozens of old e-mails, so I walked away. But volunteers called after me as I headed out of Mardi Gras World: “Wait!” they cried. “Come back! Please come back!”
To fully appreciate this exchange, it helps to be familiar with the opening night party that William Grant (its portfolio now includes Glenfiddich, Tullamore Dew, Hendrick’s and Milagro Tequila) threw at the Lakefront Airport in 2014.
William Grant parties never stinted on excess, but that year’s celebration could have doubled as a Roman emperor’s birthday: One of the guests was a camel from Missouri, who was encouraged to drink along with the rest of the crowd. Best as I can recall, there weren’t any bouncers begging people to enter.
But Tales, and the liquor world generally, is now at a crossroads. In the wake of mounting industry deaths attributed to addiction and other illnesses aggravated by the mental and physical toll of tending bar, major players have to figure out how strong a stand they want to take against the substances they peddle. At least according to the murmur mill, William Grant may yet again have gone a little too far.
“We have to remember: We are animals, and we have to continue to do self-destructive things,” Eben Freeman, one of the nation’s most esteemed bartenders, said at a sold-out panel session on non-alcoholic drinks. “It is not for us after their deaths to decide we have to self-correct. We should not feel that we have to be good all the time. ... Once we start promoting drinking less, it’s the beginning of our slow painful deaths.”
Freeman argued that the societal turn away from dangerous drinking habits helped advance contemporary cocktailing: “We’ve all benefited as people stop drinking five vodka sodas,” he said, because then people want drinks that actually taste good. But he noted that “the last golden age of cocktails came right before Prohibition,” which also followed an increased awareness of the rights denied to women.
Fellow panelist Aaron Polsky countered Freeman’s contention that the recent uptick in fancy non-alcoholic drinks is a development limited to boutique bars and favored primarily by hard-to-please customers.
“It’s there for the people who want it,” Polsky said. “It’s serving a population that has been underserved for so long.”
To Freeman, it seems more likely that the genre’s new adherents “feel like there are cool kids in this industry, and (they) want to be part of it.”
Or there might be something more sinister behind the trend, he proposed, in addition to the desire for press attention. Freeman suggested that liquor companies, anticipating the financial threat posed by legal marijuana, are trying to proactively ward off the claim that marijuana is “a plant and healthy, and alcohol is evil.”
“I don’t know if all of this consciousness is really organic,” he said. “Part of me thinks we are foot soldiers for brands; we have to carry this message that they are benevolent.”
As an organization, Tales of the Cocktail Foundation seems inclined to find a middle ground between nearly naked women pouring hard liquor directly down attendees’ gullets, which was once a Tales party staple, and the austere mood of the William Grant event. (Honestly, if its organizers had focused on over-the-top entertainment instead of sobriety, I bet most attendees wouldn’t have even noticed what was missing from their drinks.)
It’s a hard balance to strike, though, especially with the industry so newly woke. At one session I attended, a panelist explained he couldn’t screen a video his company had just produced because “it wasn’t promoting responsible drinking.” In the registration room, an attendee puzzled by the schedule asked a woman in a Tales shirt to explain “Friends of Bill W.,” which is another way of referring to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“Well, you could say Bill W., but we usually call it William Grant,” the confused worker responded.
Still, Tales made tremendous strides toward moderation by carving out space at the New Orleans Athletic Club for sessions devoted to mental and physical health, in addition to the advertised AA meetings. And the organization’s way forward may have been best illustrated by a second line held in honor of John Lermayer, the leading Miami bartender found dead in his home last month.
In keeping with New Orleans tradition, plenty of the marchers brandished alcoholic drinks. But Tales made sure there was water on hand for those who didn’t want to partake (or risk dehydration in the New Orleans heat). The coolers stocked with water bottles weren’t marked in any special way, which, in an industry too often ruled by money, branding and groupthink, was a highly promising sign.