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

Industry Insiders: Damian Windsor, In the Mix

Drinking on the job, listening to good music — “a lot of ’50s and ’60s soul”— and enjoying the down-to-earth vibe of The Roger Room is how Damian Windsor spends his nights as chief mixologist at the LA hot spot. A native of Australia, Damian’s cocktail-making career took off soon after he graduated from high school, when he took a job bartending at one of the most prestigious hotels in Sydney. This quickly led to managing two bars simultaneously, and eventually an offer to move to New York. “I was knocked off my ass and humbled,” he says of New York cocktail culture. Despite his love for NYC (particularly Cobble Hill, Brooklyn), Damian eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he started For Medicinal Purposes, a cocktail consulting firm that’s “basically the middle man between the spirits business and the consumer.” But the real goal, and one that is currently in the works, is to open his own bar: “I want it to be a collection of all the best ideas I’ve seen in all the bars that I’ve been to.”

On growing up in Sydney: I lived in Sydney until I was six, so my earliest memories mostly involve the good life: swimming and playing with a golden retriever and labrador. My father was in the army, so we started to move around. I moved back to Sydney two years after high school and started to take hospitality seriously. Within two months, I was bartending full time at one of the most prestigious hotels in town, and within two years I would be managing two bars and have an offer to move to New York.

On his start in the biz: I got a start as the cashier in the all-day-dining restaurant at the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra. It was a step up from waiting tables. You were in charge of restocking the buffet items, cashiering, and mixing the drinks. We made a lot of milkshakes, but from there it was mixed drinks and frozen daiquiris. The first cocktail I mixed was a banana daiquiri, I still have a soft spot for them.

Out of Sydney, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, what’s your favorite city? I had a great time in all of those cities, but my situation was different in each. Sydney was great and I had a lot of fun bartending and met some great friends. Toronto was different due to the fact that I was waiting for visa processing. I learned a lot of patience. New York was awesome, anything you need, any time of day. I was there as the resurgence was burgeoning, craft cocktails were hush hush but unforgettable. LA has grown on me, because the weather is great. I had a rough time after moving here. I sold shoes and counted inventory for a little while until I got a break behind a bar in a bistro, and within a couple of months I was back on track to making great cocktails.

On Sydney nightlife: I think Sydney nightlife is more comparable to San Diego than LA. Destinations are usually centered around a neighborhood and everything is there, a pub, a cocktail bar and a club, a couple of restaurants. It was usually more about hanging at a pub or dancing at a club.

On his favorite places to hang out in New York and LA: In New York I love Little Branch and the cocktails at Dutch Kills. I cant wait to see Painkiller. I love to eat at Blue Ribbon and Lucky Strike, the Jon-Jon Deragon hot dog at Crif Dogs, tater tots and a cocktail at PDT. Death and Co., the list goes on. In LA I like Cecconi’s, Bar Marmont, Providence, Jones, Tiki Ti, Tonga Hut, Copa D’Oro, but my heart is at El Carmen. It was my local the first four years I lived here, solid food and lots of great tequila – at least 300 bottles. There’s a lot of bars on this list because bar people hang with bar people. Friends in other cities may not be able to get time off of work so we go and see them.

On the Roger Room: It’s like the best of all of the other bars I’ve worked in put together. Sean and Jared did an amazing job on the decor and ambiance, the bar feels much older than a year and a half, and the music selection will have you guessing. By the time you get to the cocktails you are totally immersed in the setting: red and brass, tile and dark wood, mirrored ceiling. It’s kind of like pub meets bistro meets cocktail bar. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we make handcrafted cocktails and we also sling drinks from the well.

On For Medical Purposes, his cocktail consulting company: It’s more than just writing cocktail lists. It’s going to be an event management, coordination, placement, and brand representation company. Basically being the middle man between the spirits business and the consumer.

Favorite cocktail: A Martinez: gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters.

Drink orders that set him off: It’s not one drink in particular. It’s the fact that we went through the trouble to put a cocktail list – actually two lists – together. And somebody couldn’t be bothered looking at it. They’ll say “Just make me something.” It’s a misconception that bartenders are magicians and can just pull anything out of their hats. We need the interaction. You’ve got to give me some idea of what you like. Otherwise I’ll just make you a cocktail that I like and maybe you won’t.

But if you had to say just one? Jägerbomb.

Do you drink on the job? Of course we taste the cocktails. It’s not like the bartenders are partying with the guests, but we’re really comfortable, really relaxed. The guys I work for are amazing. They make everyone feel like we’re a family. And that extends to the guests.

Do you want to open up your own bar one day? Of course. I’m actually in the process now. I have a real estate agent looking for properties now. A lot of people have to sign off on this, but it’s going to happen.

What will it be like? A welcoming place, and not pretentious. In the last ten years there have been so many bars and I want it to be a collection of all the best ideas I’ve seen in all the bars that I’ve been to.

If President Obama took a seat at the bar of the Roger Room, what drink would you make him? Well I have no idea. I don’t really think about American Politics. I’m Australian. Why don’t we try an Old Fashioned? Simple and elegant.

Your 2010-11 Los Angeles Nightlife Roundup

Last year, it felt like everyone in Los Angeles finally realized the dream of opening their own bar. But nightlife being the fickle beast that it is, not all of them will last. The bars that made the most noise in 2010 will likely survive to see 2012 and beyond, but they’re not necessarily the best of the bunch. Brent Bolthouse and Guy Starkman’s Trousdale (pictured above) had a very successful year and recently paid back all its investors (a coup in under 12 months). Across the street from Trousdale on the Sunset Strip, Soho House had an equally successful 2010.

On the other side of town, Echo Park and Silver Lake saw the opening of a few new bars that made a bit of buzz, albeit of the low-key variety. The truck-stop chic of Stinkers gave way to the whiskey-soaked sophistication of The Thirsty Crow in Silver Lake, while Echo Park gained a great new cozy drinking den in 1642 bar. Los Feliz got a new wine bar, Bar Covell, which was a hit with first-daters the second it opened.

Downtown saw an explosion of new finds in 2010, the best being the simplest: Spring St. bar. Cedd Moses’ Las Perlas tempted tequila fiends while ex-Lava Lounge owner Michelle Marini opened up a smallish haunt called The Falls nearby.

Drai’s, Supperclub, Colony, and Premiere all douched up Hollywood, yet all three seem to still be doing well. Hemingway’s did better than all three of the aforementioned spots, at least in terms of drawing a fairly diverse crowd.

So what’s in store this year?

Tonight in Hollywood, The Spare Room at the Roosevelt officially debuts after hosting private holiday parties last month. The cocktail lounge features a gaming parlor and two vintage bowling lanes. Friday, David Judaken’s revamp of Opera debuts, dubbed Eden.

Beyond Hollywood, look for the Houston brothers to make noise once again with several new bars. The two had a huge hit in 2010 with the smart Havana-aping La Descarga, and the brothers will revamp the Stone Bar near Los Feliz this spring with a dive bar for those who are too hip for dive bars. Similarly, Roger Room overlords Jared Meisler and Sean MacPherson are set to make a bit of low key noise with their revamp of the classic Coach & Horses on Sunset Blvd, which recently closed.

Midnight Mixologists: Damian Windsor’s Toplist

This Australian-born spirit master knows how to shake things up. Damian Windsor is swiftly becoming the go-to guy for the freshest and most unique cocktails, serving up one-of-a-kind drinks at the hottest spots in town. Currently, you can find him concocting his creations at West Hollywood speakeasy The Roger Room, where he consistently puts his spin on classic cocktails. Not only is Windsor making a name for himself behind the bar, but he is also the co-founder of For Medical Purposes, a consulting company that helps restaurants and bars improve their mixology. Windsor is pouring himself to the top, one drink at a time. Check out Damian’s Windsor’s favorite spots to grab a cocktail in L.A.

The Roger RoomEl CarmenJones HollywoodThe VarnishProvidenceTiki TiBuffalo ClubThe Rainbow Bar & GrillTonga Hut

See more Midnight Mixologists toplists here.

Midnight Mixologists: Damian Windsor

This Australian-born spirit master knows how to shake things up. Damian Windsor is swiftly becoming the go-to guy for the freshest and most unique cocktails, serving up one-of-a-kind drinks at the hottest spots in town. Currently, you can find him concocting his creations at West Hollywood speakeasy The Roger Room, where he consistently puts his unique spin on classic cocktails. Not only is Windsor making a name for himself behind the bar, he’s also the co-founder of For Medical Purposes, a consulting company that helps restaurants and bars improve their mixology. Windsor is pouring himself to the top, one drink at a time.

How did you get into mixology? I kind of fell into it. I had been bartending for a long time, and it was a progression of the cocktail bartending I had been doing. Fresh fruit here, specific spirit there, and it came together. The guys I worked with had a lot to do with it too. We were bartending for fun, and we started making US dollars when the Aussie dollar was weak.

What’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist? ‘Mixologist’ is a much maligned and overused term. It was revived by Dale Degroff to separate and elevate his program at the Four Seasons, and the Windows on the World. In the late 1800’s when it was coined, it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek slur.

What’s your favorite part of the job? Most annoying part? Making the drinks, and then cleaning up.

How do you name the drinks you create? It’s a well-known fact that I am absolutely terrible at names. I was once put on the spot to create a drink and name it over the phone, and the first thing that I could blurt out was ‘Cranberry Delicious.’

How is your approach to mixology different from everybody else’s? In the past, I’ve taken a culinary approach to mixing by matching flavors and then adding spirits. When I’m on to something that works, I’ll try it with absolutely every spirit I can find until I hit the combination that works best.

What was your inspiration for the cocktail you created for Stoli? It’s the best memory I have of a cocktail my wife had in London. I’m sure it had ginger and jalapeno, and I went from there.

What does it take to be a great mixologist? Is it a god-given gift, or something you can learn? It’s a combination of practice and idiot savant.

How do you know when a customer has ordered and received exactly the right cocktail? They leave a big fat tip!

How does someone know they’re drinking a cocktail you—and you alone—made? Sit in front of me at the bar and find out.

What’s your favorite go-to ingredient and why? Good ice. Everyone seems to forget that ice and the diluted water is a part of your drink.

What’s the most important lesson about mixology you’ve learned in your years on the job? Balance is the key. The five elements of punch need to be applied sweet and sour, spice, strong and weak.

Read more Midnight Mixologists interviews here.

Midnight Mixologists: Nadia Underwood’s Toplist

If STK in West Hollywood broke traditional steakhouse barriers by losing its overly masculine vibe, then Nadia Underwood, the peppy gal behind STK’s see-and-be-seen bar, is doing the same for the brooding mixologist stereotype. Underwood is like your favorite neighborhood bartender, only with a serious education in mixing alcohol. The easygoing Chicago native (and die-hard Bears fan) is all smiles behind the bar, as long as thirsty customers keep their cool. These things take time, after all. Check out her favorite places to grab a cocktail in L.A.

The Roger RoomThe Tasting KitchenThe Bazaar at SLSThe Edison The Living Room at W HollywoodSTK

See more Midnight Mixologists toplists here.