NEW ORLEANS -- I was face-deep in a plate of fried chicken at Dooky Chase, the iconic restaurant best known for its Creole-soul lunch buffet and stunning collection of African-American art. A friend of mine from San Francisco had just piled on a second helping of collard greens and red beans and rice. We were geeking out about the finer points of climate control in a whisky warehouse in Scotland versus a bourbon warehouse in Kentucky. Did you know that there can be up to a 70-degree temperature difference between the ground and ninth floors of the Maker's Mark warehouse?
Conversations like this are part of the magic of Tales of the Cocktail.
Tales of the Cocktail is part conference, part trade show, and the spirits fanboy/fangirl equivalent of Comic-Con. That's why 20,000 bartenders, liquor companies and cocktail enthusiasts annually embrace the steam room that is New Orleans in late July.
Daytime seminars, even those that were serious ("Global Warming: Spirits and Climate Change") or feelings-forward ("How To Build a Family Instead of Hiring Staff"), featured lovingly prepared cocktails served in wee plastic cups. Tasting rooms popped up everywhere at every hour; one afternoon it was time to "Meet the Craft Distillers," and during another we were encouraged to put on carnival masks and sample Italian aperitivo.
Lest this sound like too much of a party to be taken seriously, even with the high waxed-mustache ratio, Tales of the Cocktail is the keystone event on the liquor industry's calendar. "It might look like all we're doing is having fun, but this still is work," said Rob Hirst, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.
Four trends stood out to me in particular this year:
I was especially impressed with bar consultant Andrew Bohrer and pastry chef Neil Robertson's seminar "A Cook Walks Into A Bar." The modern bartender is yet to achieve the same level of respect given to a chef. Perhaps it's because most people imagine that their bartender actually has another career in mind -- actor, artist or musician -- or maybe it's simply that nobody has come up with a good name for a bartender that looks to "The Flavor Bible" for inspiration. Calling oneself a "bar chef" or even "mixologist" sounds terribly pretentious.
Plus, as Mr. Robertson pointed out, "Nobody needs a pastry or a cocktail. They have no nutritional value. They are purely for pleasure."
Yet bartenders are increasingly taking a culinary-focused approach that moves the menu beyond classic cocktails. Today's top bartenders create well-rounded drinks with flavors that inspire and enhance the palate.
Mr. Bohrer recommended creating cocktails with dynamic flavor profiles that will keep customers thinking. For example, playing with different acidic elements -- lactic acid in yogurt or buttermilk and acetic acid in vinegar -- is a way to introduce guests to unexpected flavors while keeping the palate stimulated. A little bit of focus is helpful, too. Instead of a bar filled with every obscure spice and bottle-after-bottle of elixir, keep a tight list and be deliberate.
Of course, a cocktail is only as good as what goes into it. To that end, be on the lookout for two categories of spirits because you're soon to see more of them on the liquor store shelf: vermouths and mezcals.
Vermouth, a fortified wine traditionally produced in Italy and France, long has been considered a secondary, or modifying, spirit. Now, a number of American and Australian winemakers are producing something they're calling "New Vermouth." These botanical-forward versions of the classic are designed to stand on their own, yet they're also a valuable addition to a cocktail. California's Vya pioneered the category, and now it looks set for a large expansion. After sampling quite a few brands at the New Vermouth tasting room, I found the "bittersweet" vermouth from Imbue to be a particular standout. The herbaceous and citrus notes resonated in owner/winemaker Derek Einberger's Oregon blend.
Mezcal already has niche popularity with industry insiders, but now tequila's kicked-to-the-curb cousin looks poised for a mainstream breakthrough. What I especially enjoy about smoky, spicy mezcal is that the flavors of each bottle are specific to geography. The agave plant's characteristics vary from region to region, distillation methods vary, and wild yeasts are essential to the fermentation process. The result is a terrific expression of flavor. This was especially evident while tasting the Del Maguey line. The brand, one of the first to import mezcal to the United States, produces a line of mezcal focused on specific villages in Oaxaca, Mexico. I also really enjoyed another Oaxacan brand, Mezcales de Leyenda; its triptych of mezcal expressed vegetal, tropical and woodsy flavors.
Finally, although I wouldn't quite call it a trend yet, farm-to-bottle spirits are something to keep an eye on. Although Wisconsin's Death's Door Spirits and Tuthilltown Spirits in New York's Hudson Valley are the "big" names in this artisan movement, we can look closer to home to see how farm-to-bottle will develop; the distillers at Pittsburgh's Wigle Whiskey purchase their rye and wheat from local farmers.
"Bartenders tend to work in ill-defined areas. And in the dark," said Mr. Bohrer during his seminar. And while dark bars (happily) will always remain part of our drinking culture, Tales of the Cocktail and other events like it -- Pittsburgh's inaugural Cocktail Week is set to kick off in September -- will push cocktail culture forward and introduce drinkers to a world of less-known spirits.
Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and writes for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets: email@example.com. First Published August 1, 2013 4:00 AM