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How I Survived Tales of the Cocktail

For years my colleagues and friends in the booze business have been flocking to the largest cocktail conference in the country, Tales of the Cocktail. This was my first year attending this legendary festival.

So how did I prep? I emailed a laundry list of other professional imbibers to see if they could meet up, made a calendar of events, packed up some energizing snacks to keep in my bag  and stocked up on milk thistle to aid my liver function. But nothing could have prepared me for five days of booze, seminars, parties, permissive open container laws and debauchery in New Orleans.

With Twitter, text messages and Foursquare feeds, I’ve managed to piece together some of what happened next.

Wednesday, July 20th

11:15 p.m.: Check into the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. I do a shot of Five Hour Energy, and thirty minutes later, head out the door to the William Grant party at the National World War II Museum.

12:15 a.m.: I have my first cocktail in hand, made with Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur. While trying to find some familiar faces, I wander outside to find a live dairy cow being periodically milked by mixologists. They were using the fresh milk to make Ramos Gin Fizzes, and apparently, I had missed live egg-laying chickens that had been utilized earlier.

2:00 a.m.: I grab a taxi back to the French Quarter and end up in a bar with a mechanical bull – the beer is cold, cheap and there’s no line. Distillers and brand ambassadors are scattered on the street outside with bottles to pour. I get some Tuthilltown Whiskey.

4:30 a.m.: Bedtime.

Thursday, July 21st

9:30 a.m.: I have breakfast at Café Beignet, and then go in search of familiar faces. It didn’t take long to find my friend Karl who walked me into the Ladies Choice: Women Behind Bars seminar. The panelists took us on an historic journey of women instrumental to the evolution of bars and cocktails. We tasted Hanky Pankys and Gin-Gin Mules while learning about pee troughs (a long-abandoned relic of bars only catering to men), mustache rags (for dabbing facial hair after drinking, hung on the bar where women hang their purses now) and fantastic drink-slinging women such as Ada Coleman, Texas “Hello Suckers” Guinan and Dirty Helen.

3:00 p.m.: I wander into another seminar: Swizzling Around the World, Here and Now, led by Stanislav Vadrna. Once the audience is seated, Vadrna passes around a roll of toilet paper and tells us all to take a square. He talks for 20 minutes about how natural it is to wipe your bottom. He eventually reveals that making a cocktail should be just as effortless.

Stanislav explains that his bartending motto is “be in the now,” and then shows us a custom watch he wears every day.

Stanislav has extensive knowledge of swizzle rituals around the world, and reveals that he is on a mission to get 151 people simultaneously swizzling at Tales. He then explains his philosophy of Aloha and Ichigo Ichie, meaning “treasure every encounter with another person,” by ordering us to turn to those sitting next to us, touch foreheads, and say aloha. I refuse to breathe on the stranger I touch foreheads with.

6:00 p.m.: After a Negroni party, my palate is fatigued and my stomach grumbling. I head out to meet a group at d.b.a. but stop first for a quick slice of pizza and another bottle of water.

7:15 p.m.: A crowd begins to form outside of d.b.a. with a marching band, gathering to celebrate the life of recently deceased owner Ray Deter. Music playing, we march from d.b.a. to Mimi’s and back again while dancing in the streets and sipping on Dark & Stormy cocktails. The procession is known as a “second line,” a Jazz funeral without the body.

11:45 p.m.: I’m back in the French Quarter at the Hotel Monteleone. In the Carousel Bar, famous for its 360 degree rotation every 15 minutes, the slow movements start to make me sleepy. But I run into some other cocktail people on the way out, drink more beer, smoke a stranger’s cigar and get into a block party for Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka. Having to scream over the noise, I tell many, many people about Lot18.

3:00 a.m. At Copper Monkey Bar & Grill, the Lifesaving Early Morning Quesadilla is born.

4:30 a.m.: Bedtime.

Friday: July 22nd, 2011

10:30 a.m.: I realize that from all that telling people about Lot18, I’ve totally lost my voice.

1:00 p.m.: A private tasting of Charbay barrel samples with the distiller in his hotel room. Awesome.

2:30 p.m.: My heart-shaped flask full of a rye beer distillate, I head over to the Anchor Steam Tasting Room followed by the Meet the Craft Distiller Tasting Room. I strain my voice further talking about Lot18 to the different distillers and trade associations.

5:30 p.m.: I arrive at the Domaine Select Summer Soiree in their Ritz-Carlton penthouse suite. I’m greeted by beautiful views of the city, lovely cocktails, free cigars and some fun new spirits from Bitter Truth including a pink gin. I also didn’t mind the pour of aged 1993 Rhum J.M. Then it’s a quick cab ride over to the Bacardi Piña Colada Competition where I get to cheer on my dear friend and taste more daiquiris than should be humanly possible. I eventually ask the bartender for a Diet Coke.

10:00 p.m.: I watch the bartender at The Chart Room making a Sazerac cocktail blindfolded! In the picture you can see him feeling for the right bitters.

The night progresses on and before you can say “Abita” we’re back at the Copper Monkey for 3 a.m. quesadilla.

4:30 a.m.: Sleep, finally.

Saturday: July 23rd, 2011

10:00 a.m.: Really tired, I attend a seminar on Vinegar: The Other Acid where I learn about the history of vinegar in drinks. After Friday night, I’m thrilled that I have snacks in my bag. I had promised myself a nap, but instead I’m talked into going to Coop’s on Decateur St. for lunch. Beer and sweet potato fries are food groups, right?

1:00 p.m.: I take a detour through the French Market to look for hats, but wind up with fascinators instead.

2:30 p.m.: I arrive at the Pig N’ Punch fundraiser at Washington Square Park, a non-Tales sanctioned event put on by a group of bartenders from San Francisco called the Bon Vivants. The money raised went to benefit a local school the Bon Vivants helped clean up a few days before the conference started. And what was at this fundraiser, you ask? Garbage cans full of cocktails, and lots and lots of pork.

4:00 p.m.: I head back to Tales central. If I don’t get a nap, I am going to cry – I go straight to my hotel room, and don’t even look to see what I am missing.

6:30 p.m.: I rub the sleep out of my eyes and head over to the Imbibe Magazine Happy Hour where I get to taste the new 81 Proof Wild Turkey.

9:00 p.m.: I’m on a dive bar tour of New Orleans when I try my first Golden Fried Potato Po Boy: a French fry sandwich. If I’m going to eat poorly, I might as well really go for it. I order a Bushmill’s and am served four fingers worth of whiskey. The bartender charges me four dollars. I’m in bargain booze heaven.

11:45 p.m.: I want to attend Plymouth Gin’s Bartender Breakfast, but wait in line for what seems like an eternity. I almost give up to go to the casino, but then a parade of brass instruments and onlookers pass in front of me. They are having a funeral line for the death of a bad cocktail, Sex on the Beach.

3:00 a.m.: We head to the Daiquiris Delite Bar. I play it safe and go with strawberry, while others venture into Hurricanes and one called Ecstasy made up of 151 proof rum, everclear and something blue. It does not taste like ecstasy. Styrofoam cups in hand, we head to the Old Absinthe House where Marko from Charbay Distillery shares some Tahitian Vanilla Rum. It definitely takes my daiquiri to the next level. A man comes up to us and begged for beer money. I made him take the Ecstasy-flavored daiquiri instead.

Many people were staying up all night to catch their early flights out and the streets were flooded with brand ambassadors, bar owners, bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts. Even Ron Jeremy showed up sometime around three.

5:00 a.m.(?):I make it back to my hotel room sometime around dawn, and snooze for about two hours before having to pack and catch the taxi back to the airport.

I am asleep Sunday evening by 10 p.m.

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