(Photos courtesy of Jennifer Mitchell Photography.)
Despite drawing massive crowds from around the world, the cocktailing festival known as Tales of the Cocktail has some deeply tangible roots within one particular area: New Orleans, Louisiana. As shown in the previous part of our interview series with Paul Tuennerman, one of the founders of Tales, the history of The Big Easy in the world of cocktailing was one of the driving factors for the creation of the festival.
However, it can be argued that a lot of the continued success of Tales can be attributed to how well it has resonated across the globe. The development of features like The Spirited Awards and Tales on Tour have contributed heavily to its growing international reach.
In the second part of our exclusive interview with Mr. Cocktail himself, we chat more about the local roots of Tales and the creation of The Spirited Awards and Tales on Tour.
How instrumental was the city of New Orleans to the success of Tales? Do you think it would have worked elsewhere?
I think New Orleans makes for the perfect backdrop for Tales. A lot of classic cocktails were created here: the Grasshopper, the French 75, the Brandy Crusta and the Beach Bum, for example. There are some natural ties to the city.
I also think the people in the New Orleans hospitality industry are very gracious and embracing. You think about the timing of the event: It’s the third week of July. In 2006, at that time, the city was empty. Let’s face it—even with air conditioning, it was hot and sticky. A lot of people also got laid off, and a lot of restaurants closed. It was just a dead year for them.
But, as the event grew, so did the businesses of everyone around us. I think they were very appreciative of that, and that they paid that back by making sure they took extraordinary care of our guests. Nowadays, a lot of bars and restaurants are busier during the five days of Tales than they are during the two weeks of Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras. It’s become a big part of their year, so they really step up. One day, the team was driving down the street and the Lucky Dogs hot dog guy flagged us down and said, “Thank you. Tales is my best week of the year, and the people that come to town tip big.”
New Orleans is a large city, but it’s really easy to get around. It’s very casual. I think it’s the perfect place for it. I don’t know if you could do it in New York, San Francisco, Chicago or LA.
Something that has become a huge part of the industry is the Spirited Awards. What was behind the idea of that? How do you feel it differs from other industry awards?
Tales was celebrating its tenth anniversary when we came up with the Spirited Awards. If you go back, there really wasn’t anything at that time that celebrated the success of these people and brands in the industry. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that the James Beard Awards recognized cocktail bars. Nobody was doing it, and we felt like there were some leaders who were helping to push the movement forward who deserved to be recognized.
It’s kind of interesting. We were wondering if this would be important to them. Then you go to London and visit The Connaught Bar. There must be at least eight plates prominently displayed on their backbar. John Lermayer of Sweet Liberty won an award this year and sent us a note to say that he had no idea how financially impactful this was. The mayor of his community also wrote him a really nice letter to congratulate him.
The Spirited Awards can really have an impact on careers. If you look at the guys at Dead Rabbit, you’ll see how the Spirited Awards have launched them on a really nice trajectory of success. So, I think it’s relevant and they do matter. We just feel like we need to celebrate what people are doing.
Another thing you’ve developed is Tales on Tour. Why did you choose Vancouver as the first location to do that? And are there any locations you look forward to going to in the future?
In our travels and discussions, we would find these places that are doing some rather unique and interesting stuff. We just completed our sixth year of doing Tales on Tour. Six years ago, it was really all about New York, LA, San Francisco and Chicago. Those were the only four cities on the planet. I had been going to Vancouver since the early 1990’s, because I like that they have a really robust culinary scene.
So, when we started talking about where to go to do a mini-taste of Tales, we decided to go there. They were doing tremendous stuff. Vancouver has some rather stringent laws around liquor. What that forced them to do was to get far more creative in their approach to cocktails. They spend a lot more time in the kitchen—elbow-to-elbow with the sous chef—than most bartenders do. So, we wanted to celebrate what they were doing there.
We also talk to a lot of the brands to get their opinions on the next market and the next hot scene. That’s how we ended up in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. The impact that it has is incredible. We went to Mexico City two years ago for the first time, and it was a good place to drink. But, this last time when we went, I was blown away by how fast the city came together and how many more really good cocktail programs there were.
In 2017, we’re planning to go to Edinburgh, Scotland, and we’re really excited about that. It’s really meant to be a cultural exchange. When we went to Vancouver, we brought some of the cocktail apprentices. The next year at Tales, we brought the cocktail apprentices from Vancouver to New Orleans so they could bring their insights and skills. We’ve done that with Buenos Aires and Mexico City, as well. I think that helps everybody to get first-hand experience in a unique setting.
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