More than 1,000 people had a drink at Proof on a sweaty Wednesday night earlier this month. By any standard, that would qualify as a big night for the King Street bar. But what made the occasion especially momentous was the backdrop: Proof was one of just two bars temporarily re-created in the outdoor courtyard of New Orleans’ WWII Museum for Tales of the Cocktail, a massive gathering of bartenders, drink writers and spirit makers.
“It’s not just a total drink fest,” clarifies Proof owner Craig Nelson, who shut down his bar for the week so all of his employees could experience the whirl of seminars, tastings and bar visits. Now in its 13th year, Tales draws more than 20,000 cocktail enthusiasts, many of whom were likely turned on to the genre by someone who learned at Tales how to properly use a Boston shaker or make firm pronouncements about bitters.
“It’s really about education and tasting drinks and going, ‘Wow, that’s amazing what you did with a Long Island iced tea,’ ” Nelson says. “It’s really important.”
Tales of the Cocktail has matured to the point of embracing drinks that it once officially mocked with farewell funeral processions through the French Quarter: One of the big trends this year, along with clip-your-own-herb cocktails and bartender topknots, was the vodka martini.
Still, there are plenty of parties. The major liquor companies annually try to outdo one another with outrageous spectacles, such as the live cow that William Grant & Sons hauled into its 2011 party so attendees could have the world’s freshest Ramos gin fizzes. This year, the company chose “2084: Welcome to Yonderyear” as its party theme, which meant the museum grounds were crawling with performers costumed as robots and “Star Wars” characters.
Proof, though, didn’t exactly play along. Because Nelson felt his bar will look just as it does now in 2084, organizers arranged for a meticulous replication.
“We went back and forth, chatting about it, but in the end, we agreed it didn’t fit the theme,” brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey says. “It was almost a respite to go to a bar where you could see the person who was serving you.”
Voisey, a longtime fan of Proof, invited Nelson to Tales after working a guest shift during this year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival. She was eager to share the bar’s new Pink Rabbit, a ginned-up spin on strawberry milk, and its gin-and-tonic, made with Hendrick’s gin, lemon bitters and cucumber. Serving the latter was non-negotiable: Voisey has talked up the cocktail in numerous publications, calling it her favorite drink.
“I often feel like smaller cities don’t get the limelight they deserve at these big national events,” Voisey says. “I knew if given the opportunity, they would take it.”
Event producer Shane Stanfa was tasked with constructing a passable Proof, an assignment complicated by his never having visited the bar. “From what I understand, it’s just a smaller bar in Charleston that’s part of the cocktail movement,” he says. But he received plenty of pointers from Voisey, who wanted to stress the metal racks, horizontal wood paneling and chalkboard menu.
“That was really key for me to get right,” Voisey says. “We were able to go with a more generic wood bar, but with a couple of accents and the guys behind the bar, it looks authentic.”
Struggling to make the menu look exactly the way Voisey remembered it, Stanfa finally consulted Nelson, who explained he’d covered a cabinet door in chalkboard paint. Stanfa’s crew did the same.
“A lot of times with pop-ups, we try to give the bar a little more love,” Stanfa says. “Proof is one of those bars we wanted to make more straightforward.”
When setup for the party began, it was 100 degrees. The temperature dropped to 89 degrees after the sun went down, but with humidity hovering at 80 percent, things got sticky.
“I think our A/C broke,” one of the bartenders joked as they handed out drinks. “The A/C is out.”
Elsewhere at the event, attendees could visit the Tales’ version of Mother’s Ruin, usually found on Spring Street in New York City; pluck citrus cocktails from a tree; order drinks from puppets; and climb onto a cloud. At Proof, in addition to a frozen version of the Pink Rabbit and gin-and-tonics, offerings included the Knuckleball, a bourbon-and-Coke with pickled peanuts, and boiled peanuts by the bagful.
Nelson had shipped 75 pounds of peanuts he’d boiled to New Orleans, much to the bafflement of some Tales-goers. “Why would you boil a peanut?” one woman asked.
Yet many of the drinkers who lined up at faux Proof were familiar with boiled peanuts, Charleston and the bar. As Nelson discovered, “there are a lot of people in the bartending community who’ve already checked it out.” Over the course of the evening, the Proof bartenders shook drinks for legends, old friends and the staff of another Proof, located in Calgary. “They liked our aprons,” Nelson says.
Nelson allows that he may never again repeat the Tales scheme: Even during one of the slowest stretches of summer, it’s hard to shutter for a week. But he’s glad he had the chance to expose his employees to Tales, and to show the cocktail world what’s happening in Charleston.
“It was the most awesome thing,” he says. “We thought it was the coolest thing we’d ever done.”