I was going to recap Tales of the Cocktail day by day. I don’t think I fully understood what I was getting into. The sheer volume of alcohol consumed was just astounding. I slept maybe 5 or 6 hours a night, and was pretty much drinking the entire time in between. So I’ll just give you the highlights.
Anyone who knows me knows I have a hetero-man-crush on Dave Arnold. I’ve been listening to his podcast (where he answers my cooking and cocktailing questions regularly) for a couple years. I got to meet him and talk to him a bit. He gave me the lowdown on the centrifuge he’s mentioned several times recently. I won’t spill the beans but he’s said publicly that it will cost less than $1,000 and be announced in August (so very soon) but suffice it to say I think is going to be a game changer in the culinary/bar world if it works as he described.
I think the best seminar I saw was the first one, about citrates. I’m very interested in batching cocktails and modernist techniques like kegging/carbonating, which you’ll continue to read a lot about here as I take Happy Camper from a dream to reality. (More on that in a bit.)
The seminar talked about a lot of things I’ve done individually (oleo saccharum, using acids like citric and malic, bottling and kegging, carbonating, etc.) but hadn’t put all together. I’d been wondering recently whether I could use either oleo saccharum or lemon hydrosol in combination with citric acid to come close enough to fresh citrus but with added durability. Turns out the answer is yes. In fact as I’ll detail soon, I think I’ve conquered the tyranny of the citrus.
The Bittercube guys had a kegged whiskey sour that was actually pretty good. I’m not going to say it was indistinguishable from a fresh one. It was different. But it was good, in the same way that lime cordial (a good one, not the corn syrup Rose’s crap) won’t be mistaken for fresh lime but has it’s own distinct quality.
When doing batched cocktails in any significant volume, citrus is hard to use. It’s especially painful to use in a carbonated drink. You could clarify the juice then blast chill then force carbonate a keg and shake the bejeesus out of it, all within a few hours of serving time. That’s just more prep at crunch time though.
So I’m going to experiment a lot in the near future with batching cocktails without fresh citrus. I’m going instead to try to use other acids, and citrus products like lime cordial.
I attended a handful of other seminars that were mostly disappointing. They were really just advertisements for liquor companies. Too bad. One exception though was Dale Degroff’s on Manhattans. You got five perfect Manhattans pre-made, all identical but without the bitters, and five little sample cups of different bitters. It was neat to taste the bitters individually, then mix in and taste with the Manhattan. Dale Degroff was hilarious and educational at the same time.
I also met pretty much everyone I’ve ever heard of in the bar world. They’re bartenders, so even if they’re sort of celebrities in that situation, in the real world most of them just serve drinks all day or at least used to, so they’re approachable by nature. Some friends I made saw Dave Wondrich and told them he was their hero. I asked him if he ever expected to hear that when he started bartending and he laughed and said no.
I met up with a few /r/cocktails users too while I was there. I love that subreddit because it’s like a bar. There aren’t many trolls or arguments. For the most part it’s just a bunch of casual drinkers looking to trade info and it makes us all better. The one exception, as u/everydaydrinkers pointed out, is when someone comes on and asks something like “I just got a bottle of DeKuyper Apple Pucker, what cocktails can I make with it?” and gets suggested various forms of enema. To be fair, that’s like going into a chef’s subreddit and asking “what can I do with this Velveeta” but I can see how they’d be misled by the subreddit’s title.
I do have a handful of tips for future attendees, beyond the obvious ones like drinking lots of water.
1. Seriously consider whether you want to stay in the heart of it all at the Sonesta or Monteleone. I stayed at Monteleone. It’s a nice hotel, and the upside to it is I could wake up and shower and get to my morning seminar in 20 minutes. The downside is getting back to the room meant waiting 20 minutes for an elevator. I found a pair that were getting much less use after the first day, but still it was at time brutal. The hotel is simply overtaxed. There’s also a lot of street noise when you’re on or near Bourbon so if you’re a light sleeper (like me) those hotels can be tough. Next time I’ll get a group of friends and stay in an AirBnB.
2. There are all sorts of invite-only after parties. Those are the best events. Try to get your way in. Just make friends with reps from the big companies and you should be ok. I was by myself and unprepared for this but still managed to get into most of them, but it’ll be a lot easier next year with some planning.
3. Book early, and book the dinners.
4. Go easy on the seminars. Like I said, a lot of them just seem to be ads, and you’d be better off at a tasting room.
5. If you don’t like a cocktail, pitch it. I know, we Americans have a huge aversion to pouring alcohol down the drain. It’s a mindset that I think comes from a time when it was much less bountiful than it is now, and you’ve never seen bounty like Tales of the Cocktail. If you try to drink it all you won’t make it.
And surprisingly, many (maybe most) of the cocktails there suck. Some of them are great. But I had so much cloying junk handed to me that I was surprised. A lot of the less good liquor brands are there, and try as you might you can’t make a decent drink with Mig Fuel.
Flor de Cana was passing out rums that were decades old. Save your drinking for that. Pitch the bad mezcal margaritas.