Industry Insiders: Ann Tuennerman, Cocktail Storyteller

Every day, in bars, lounges, and pubs around the world, people swap stories with friends and strangers while sipping cocktails. But the cocktails have stories of their own to tell, if only we’d listen. Fortunately, Ann Tuennerman is paying attention. Her annual industry event, Tales of the Cocktail, makes cocktails the center of attention, highlighting their rich history and bringing together experienced bartenders to come up with new recipes, techniques, and ideas. With this summer’s 10th anniversary event kicking off in New Orleans on July 25, we figured we’d better chat with Tuennerman before things get too hectic. She shared her thoughts on how Tales first came together, what to expect this year, and some of the best bars in New Orleans to get a fantastic cocktail. 

Where are you from?
I grew up in New Orleans, I’ve only not lived in New Orleans a few months out of my life, which was post-Katrina.
What kind of things were you into growing up that led you to what you’re doing now? Most kids aren’t into cocktails, I would hope, but were you into art, sports, or cooking?
I was everything from a Girl Scout to a baton twirler, but nothing that was going to be a career path for me. Neither of my parents are originally from New Orleans. But when you get to New Orleans, you either instantly get it, and you love it, or you don’t.  They both got to New Orleans and fell in love with it, and they instilled the city and its culture in my sister and me from an early age. As kids we were exposed to the culture of the city in so many ways. So Tales of the Cocktail started out with a love of New Orleans dining and drinking history, and evolved into something bigger.
When you talk about New Orleans culture, you mean the music and cuisine and attitude toward life?
Yes, the whole joie de vivre that we have. Tales of the Cocktail started out as a walking tour of New Orleans bars and restaurants. To celebrate the first anniversary of the cocktail tour, we came up with the idea of Tales of the Cocktail as an event. There wasn’t really anything at the time that told our dining and drinking story, and there was somewhat of a misconception about it. I wanted to let people know about all of the famous spirits embedded here and the famous cocktails embedded here. I wanted to take people behind the scenes.
Where did you come up with the idea of the walking tour, the genesis of the Tales of the Cocktail experience?
I was inspired by a book called Obituary Cocktail: The Great Saloons of New Orleans. I really loved that book.
You’re celebrating the 10th anniversary this year. What do you have planned for the event?
Every year we change all the content of the events so it’s all original, new content. We have all new seminars, all new tasting rooms, all new spirited dinners. This year, we’ll have a new series of seminars that is hands-on, so they’re even more active than the other seminars. You’ll be making your own bitters, making your own vermouth, those types of things. We’re also starting a series of seminars for bar owners and people who want to be bar owners, which I’m really excited about. In the years since we’ve started this event, people have become a lot more educated, and some people want to own their own bars, so we’ll have a lot that will be specifically for them. It’s not just about making good cocktails; it’s about all the other things that go along with it.
The 10 year anniversary is quite a milestone. To what do you attribute the success of Tales of the Cocktail? 
I really contribute the success to the industry. My husband always says it’s the industry’s event and we just organize it, and that really is how we look at it. From the very first year, when we had about a hundred people and two events, the feedback was great and people told us we should do it again, so it grew organically with the input of the bartending community. The program we create is just for the craft of the bartenders, just for the professional bartender, so I think that’s why it’s done well, because every year we do a lot of listening, we sit and talk to people, we do a lot of research and the event evolves with their input.
So this event is primarily for people involved in bars and bartenders, or is it open to the public as well?
It is open to what I call the cocktail enthusiast, but you definitely need to be the hardcore enthusiast. It’s mainly for the bartender who’s coming from New Zealand, who’s coming from India, from Tampa, Florida, to learn from others about their craft.
New Orleans is just one of a handful of cities that seem suited for this event, given its history of drinks and cuisine.
We have a great dining and drinking culture, we have a great welcoming sense to people from all around the world. The other great thing about New Orleans, and the reason we’ve hosted more Super Bowls than any other city, is that everything is in such close proximity, everything is very walkable. You really are intimately involved with the people at the event.
Are you the bartender in the family? Do you fancy mixing up a few choice cocktails at home?
Definitely not. Since I’ve gotten into this, to have more perspective on our presenters’ viewpoints, I’ve taken a lot of classes and programs, but no, I prefer to frequent bars rather than making cocktails at home. I support bartenders.
What drink do you like to order when you support these bartenders? What’s your go-to cocktail?
I really don’t have a go-to cocktail. It depends on where I am, who I’m with, what the weather is, and what I’m in the mood for. I’m pretty agreeable to all of them, but the Sazerac occupies a special spot for me, because we were the ones that lobbied for that to be the official cocktail of the city of New Orleans. By way of Senate Bill Number 6 we were able to get that, and we were the first city to have an official cocktail. Other cities have followed.
How do you feel about the state of the cocktail today?
I think it’s doing really well. One of the biggest changes over the last ten years is that it’s become ok to be a bartender. It has evolved to where the bartender is looked upon as a craftsman again, similar to a chef.
Do you see any trends emerging for this year? Any new spirits, ingredients, or techniques?
There’s always so much happening. Last year we had 13 different products launch at Tales of the Cocktail, and we have some new products launching this year as well, so the industry is constantly evolving. Some of these new products are products that were available before that had gone away, and now are being brought back by various mixologists and brands. Again, we are the umbrella organization. We let the bartenders be the stars.
What do you enjoy most about running Tales of the Cocktail?
It gives me satisfaction in a lot of ways. We have a big economic impact on the city of New Orleans, so what used to be a slow time during the summer is now busy for people in the hospitality industry. Last year we had about a $12 million impact, and that’s something we’re very proud of. We’re very proud of the bloodline back to Tales of the Cocktail. Also, the connections are important. A lot of people have met other people, gotten distribution deals, gotten jobs, gotten married, a lot of things happen when people get together, that are really positive face-to-face meetings, even for ten minutes, that can’t be replaced by social networking. It’s also great to be able to show off and promote New Orleans.
What are some of your favorite New Orleans cocktail bars, and what do you like to order there?
French 75 is a great place for a classic cocktail like the Sazerac, and the Brandy Crusta there is amazing. Sylvain is a restaurant, but their bar makes a good Mezcal Old Fashioned and Dark and Stormy. Bellocq specializes in cobblers. The Lillet Cobbler, the Sherry Cobbler, they’re all wonderful. And I love Cure, everything there is amazing. 
What do you have planned for the future?
Two years ago we took the show on the road and started an event in Vancouver, so we’ll continue that. That’s a smaller version of Tales of the Cocktail known as Tales of the Cocktail on Tour. This Summer we plan to announce the next global city we’ll be going to, so we’ll be adding another city in 2013.
What do you do to relax when you have some free time?
That doesn’t happen too often. My husband lives on a boat in Dallas, so we kind of commute back and forth. I like to visit him and relax and take a little sail on the lake when I can.

Boozy Dispatches from Tales of the Cocktail

From the outside, it looks like a fancy moustache convention. Many of the world’s best craft bartenders (and their wide array of fancy facial hair and clever tattoos) descend each year on New Orleans, Louisiana, for the week-long gathering of drinking, lecturing, networking, partying, and drinking some more known as Tales of the Cocktail. Most of the major spirit brands also attend the event in what ultimately becomes a Lolllapalooza of Booze.

No human being can manage to catch all of the events that surround this libation fest, and concurrent parties lure bartenders with bigger and more outrageous events. It’s sort of like watching Mumford and Sons only to find out that Arcade Fire is playing on the main stage. Here’s a roundup of what went down in NOLA—what we remember of it, anyway.

image Girl in A Ball at Beefeater’s Opening Party This year, the biggest and most outrageous parties were sponsored by Pernod Ricard, whose dueling gins (Beefeater and Plymouth) bookended the week with parties so jam-packed, you simply couldn’t see it all. The Beefeater party was a lavish masquerade ball complete with masks and ballerinas dancing inside bubbles. Along with the pomp and circumstance came some heavy-hitting bar tending. Audrey Saunders, owner of the Pegu Club in New York City, hit it out of the park with her Fir & Gin Fizz (Beefeater 24, fresh lime juice, ginger, simple syrup, club soda and Douglas Fir Eau De Vie). Saunders was joined by Eric Castro, who was the bar manager at Rickhouse in San Francisco before he became a brand ambassador for Beefeater, as well as a host of over 20 other bartenders each making their own drink.

image William Grant transforms the National WWII Museum into party central William Grant & Sons (the folks behind such brands such as Hendricks Gin and Sailor Jerry) blew the doors off the The National WWII Museum with a party that filled the mammoth museum with level after level of bars and drinks. In one of the most absurd moves we’ve ever seen in the business, the William Grant party had cows staged outside which were milked to make the famed New Orleans Ramous Gin Fizz.

image Andrew Bohrer chainsaws a monster block of ice in The Chainsaw Shift Like any great summer camp, Tales of The Cocktail isn’t just wall to wall partying. Ok, it is, but there’s more to it. Tales hosts a wide array of seminars presented by some of the most notable people in the industry. Want to learn about barrel aged cocktails from the master of barrel aged cocktails? From Jeffrey Morgenthaler (who bartends at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon) you can. How about learning to use lab equipment like rotovapors and centrifuges to make cocktails? Tony Conigliaro, owner of 69 Colebrooke Row in London, England, will teach you how.

Perhaps the coolest (quite literally) of the seminars was Andrew Bohrer’s The Chainsaw Shift. Bohrer, who owned the Nagal Lounge in Bellevue, Washington, and has managed the bar at the famed Mistral Kitchen in Seattle, is a pioneer in the field of booze and ice. Bohrer demonstrated how, with a Home Depot chainsaw, you can transform a three hundred pound block of ice into hand cut cubes that fill your glass and make your cocktail sing. Or was that us singing after too many cocktails? Hard to say, as every seminar had a cocktail or two attached. The one at The Chainsaw Shift was a Maker’s Mark Sazerac, with a great chunk of hand cut ice.

image Look out Patron. Don Julio has you in its sights Tales of the Cocktail is also a place where spirit companies introduce their new products to the bartenders, press, cocktail enthusiasts, and everyone in between. Don Julio showed off their new Don Julio 70, the first ever “Anejo Claro,” which is a clear aged tequila. The Don clearly has Patron in his sights, as the tequila is a lot sharper and spicier than their traditional Blanco, with a pepper kick Patron drinkers will love.

image Brooklyn Bitters leaves its mark William Grant & Sons showed off their superb Reyka Vodka, with bitters, made exclusively for them by buzz-worthy Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. Jason Rowan, a frequent contributor with the New York Times, Out magazine, and writer of Embury Cocktails, runs the bitters company, which had a super-secret launch tasting at the event. Brooklyn Bitters has some out of this world flavors, including Rhubarb, Meyer Lemon, Black Mission Fig and Sriracha (yup, cock sauce bitters!). Although the bitters company kept things on the down low, it was one of the more impressive launches of the festival.

image Russian Standard Dinner at the Eiffel Society Booze wasn’t the only focus at Tales of The Cocktail. After gorging on po’ boys at Johnny’s, jambalaya at Coops, or fried chicken at Mother’s, festival goers could chose from over twenty Spirited Dinners, featuring copious amounts of food and cocktails. While most of the dinners featured cocktails, the Russian Standard Dinner at the Eiffel Society took a contrarian view, and poured straight spirits to accompany caviar, foie gras, and flatiron steak seasoned with $300 whiskey. Tough life, we know.

image Drew Levinson and Aisha Sharpe crash Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Bridget Albert’s dinner As highbrow as the spirited dinners sound, Tales is still a grouping of some of the greatest partiers in the world, typified by Aiesha Sharpe and Drew Levinson’s 3rd Annual Spirited Dinner Crawl. Aiesha Sharpe (founder of Contemporary Cocktails Inc. in New York) and Drew Levinson (mixologist at Wirtz Beverage in Las Vegas) buzzed around New Orleans in a bright green Leblon Cachaca van crashing seven of the twenty spirited dinners at Tales and kidnapping diners (along with this journalist) to join them. It’s this kind of spontaneous revelry that defines Tales.

image A rare bartending session with David Wondrich Tales of the Cocktail attracts a lot of luminaries to the event and provides a rare chance to catch a drink and a story. Notable bartenders behind the stick at Tales included: author and cocktail historian David Wondrich; King Cocktail and one of the legendary bartenders at the Rainbow Room in New York, Dale DeGroff; Steve Olson, owner of Aka Wine Geek in New York; Misty Kalkofen, owner of Drink in Boston, Massachusetts; Jason Littrell from Death & Co. in New York; Jim Romdall from Vessel in Seattle; and, Tommy Klus from Kask in Portland. Diageo seized on the opportunity and threw a happy hour party with forty of these mixologists and forty cocktails.

image The liquid equivalent of 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G. You can’t get this many bartenders together with this much ego and not have a competition, and the Bar Room Brawl was the centerpiece of all that bravado, pitting six bars against each other in a winner-take-all-or-at-least-get-us-all-drunk competition. The contenders were: Eastern Standard from Boston, Little Branch in New York, Sable in Chicago, The Roger Room in Los Angeles, and Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon. It was an East Coast/West Coast brawl that was the liquid equivalent of 2Pac vs. The Notorious B.I.G. Teardrop Lounge and The Roger Room tied for fan favorite, and Eastern Standard picked up the judges award (although our cards had Teardrop with a TKO in the last round).

image R.I.P. Long Island Ice Tea Tales of the Cocktail begins with over-the-top parties, and it ends with a funeral. Each year, festival organizers and key bartenders decide which drink’s time has come and gone. This year, it was the get-trashed-in-a-glass Long Island Ice Tea, which was laid to rest, complete with a second line band and a march through the city of New Orleans. The funeral had its own wake in the form of Plymouth Gin’s Bartender’s Breakfast, a closing night party that starts late and goes even later.

Geoffrey Kleinman is the founder and author of Drink Spirits