Title Shaken, Stirred, Doubled And Twisted In New Orleans
Greetings from the Columns Hotel. Maybe you’ve been here, or possibly you remember it as the brothel in Brooke Shields’ immortal Pretty Baby. I’m relaxing on the veranda, sipping something with Gin and Herbsaint and plenty of ice. It’s 90 degrees out with 90 percent humidity, and I don’t care. The contingent from Campari are sharing their Cohibas and threatening to take me to some sort of bacchanal in Tremé. My Italian is shaky at the best of times, but after three straight days of nonstop drinking, my brain has short-circuited, and although it is thinking Italian, my mouth is spurting Korean. “Neoui ppalgan jeongsin- eun ganghada,” I mutter, which means something like, “Your red spirit is majestic.” They all nod in agreement; like our sexuality, our language comprehension is fluid.
It’s New Orleans. It’s Tales of the Cocktail. It’s Paradise.
For the uninitiated, Tales is the annual tribal gathering of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, distributors, and hardcore spirits enthusiasts—think Coachella for cocktails. Every July for the last 14 years, the best and brightest of the world’s bar scene descend on this beautifully crumbling carnival of a city to show off battle scars, share stories from the foxhole, learn something new, and drink something delicious.
This is serious business, a test of endurance on par with an Ironman competition. There is no place to hide. At every turn there is somebody urging you to sample something. Breakfast martinis? Check. Mid-morning American Whiskey barrel tastings? Check. Has Plymouth Gin taken over Galatoires for a gin bacchanal? Yes, yes they have.
There are lectures, seminars, demonstrations, panel discussions, and even scientific experiments. The good folks at Bacardi tricked out a ballroom in the Monteleone Hotel where you could examine the effect of color, smell, and even sound of the taste of a cocktail. Fascinating stuff. I have learned much about sherry and sake and soju, presentations with levels of detail and enthusiasm that would make an entomologist blush.
When Katrina decimated New Orleans, Feizal Valli was one of the hordes of refugees suddenly made homeless. He washed up in Birmingham, Alabama with only the clothes on his back—oh, and his White Rabbit Plushie Costume. Undaunted, he opened the legendary Atomic Lounge, and this week he made a triumphant return to NOLA courtesy of Marriott. They took a restaurant inside the Ritz Carlton that had remained shuttered after Katrina and transformed it into the Magical Mystery that is the Atomic Lounge. I now refer to my notes to fully capture the majesty of the moment.
The nightmares somehow have become real...what is in this cup? Frozen coffee eyes floating in tears? Is there something in the center? I need a butane torch ASAP. Hot, crowded, why is everyone smiling so much? Am I smiling? Why are there no mirrors—a plot? This drink is called the Legendary Sex Panther. Am I making this up? No, the words are swimming off the page, but I can still read them. Bourbon, Cynar, that’s artichokes, chicory, tattoos...
Less than helpful. Anyway, it was one of the highlights of Tales. One doesn’t think cocktails when you think Marriott, but they dialed this in— amazing people behind the stick, insanely comfortable ambience, and an open door policy that let all my new friends in Omega Psi Phi in for a drink. It was their 80th Grand Conclave and these guys lit up my hotel and all of NOLA. Que Dogs.
Yeah, the parties. Jameson threw a bash at the Contemporary Art Center. I drank a Jameson and watched a cooper build an aging barrel in three minutes. I drank a Jameson and chatted up some Cajun honeys. Then the heavens opened up and I was stuck in a giant tent with a few thousand of my best new friends while about 20 inches of rain fell. Claustrophobia? Treat it with a Jameson. Who is that in the corner? My peeps from Harvard and Stone. Suddenly I am not so alone, they have set up a little replica of Hollywood’s legendary bar and now I can drink with friends. Have a couple of Jamesons and contemplate a move to Mardi Gras World as soon as the rain stops.
Mardi Gras World; turns out you really don’t need acid to appreciate the place. It comes, so to speak, pre-dosed. Hard to imagine what could compete with this terrifying jamboree, but the folks at Grant took care of the deets. Were those three of Mexico City’s finest behind the stick at the Agave bar? Sí. Was that a brand- spanking-new Dump Truck filled with Monkey Shoulder Whisky? Only one way to find out. Did I walk right off the terrace into the Mississippi? No comment.
As good as the organized events were, it was the chance meetings that really define Tales. It goes something like this. Mumm Champagne builds an Ice Pit at the Orpheum Theater for some bubbly chill time. You meet a few new friends who insist you come to Speakeasy later for Mezcal and Oysters. The master distiller from Jameson sits down next to you as you’re receiving your second dozen bivalves and third Delicuente Artisinal, and invites you to a rooftop party at the Ace. In a crowded corner of some suite you meet Rollo. He’s a bartender from Santiago. On his way to NOLA he pit stopped in Tijuana, where he ran across Enmienda 18, a Hibiscus Gin made in my favorite city. As the sun peaks across the horizon he pours you an exquisite pale pink G&T. Then everybody heads home for a shower and a clean shirt before heading to a bookstore that Campari has converted into an Italian Café for a breakfast Negroni. Wait, what time is my flight? And where am I going? And why would I ever leave New Orleans?
Illustrated by Jacob Thomas