The 2008 edition of Tales of the Cocktail was held in New Orleans from July 15–20. Several writers from THE TASTING PANEL joined the festivities to get the scoop on the latest mixed drink trends. Here’s what they found.
American regional cocktails incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Coast vs. Coast
Regional trends in American cocktails
by Camper English
I had the pleasure of co-moderating a panel (along with Jeffery Lindenmuth, a Pennsylvania writer) on “Regional Trends in American Cocktails” at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Our panelists were Sonja Kassebaum, a Chicago-based cocktail blogger and distillery owner; Karen Foley, the Portland, Oregon–based publisher of Imbibe magazine; and Paul Tanguay, a New York cocktail consultant and half of The Tippling Brothers.
To get things started properly, bartender Scott Beattie served a drink he makes at his home base—Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California—representing San Francisco–style “market-driven mixology.” The drink is made with citrus from restaurant neighbors’ trees, organic raspberries and locally-distilled vodka and rum. This vibrant concoction introduced West Coast–style mixology with its emphasis on freshness.
In New York, on the other hand, as my co-moderator pointed out, most drink ingredients come from bottles rather than orchards; bartenders there use exacting quantities of complex spirits, rare liqueurs and hand-cracked ice, enabling them to mix precise and consistent drinks each time. In cocktails as in cuisine, it seems, the West Coast is ingredient-driven, the East Coast technique-driven.
Our panelists also found that consumer palates differ across the nation. Consumers in markets like Miami, Los Angeles and Aspen prefer fruit-forward cocktails made with white spirits; dark spirits and bitter flavors seem to be preferred in D.C., Boston and the Pacific Northwest. (Bar owners and retailers, take note and stock accordingly.)
Some trends we found to be consistent throughout the country, regardless of local style preferences in drinks. For one thing, top-tier mixologists everywhere are using seasonal, local ingredients like apples from New York state and berries from Oregon, as well as supporting locally-made spirits from microdistillers.
Panelists Camper English, Paul Tanguay, Jeffrey Lindenmuth, Sonja Kassebaum and Karen Foley examine regional trends.
We also found cocktail-and-food pairings—taking up where wine-and-food pairings left off a decade ago—to be popular draws these days in bars and restaurants nationwide. In addition, there’s a hot demand for educational programs—a need being met in several ways: by on-premise cocktail classes; by drink menus detailing the flavor profiles and history of the libations offered; and by vertical and horizontal tasting flights that allow consumers to get their taste buds around the differences between similar spirits.
During this session—and at Tales of the Cocktail generally, with all the best cocktail makers, promoters and writers gathered in one place, swizzle-sticks in hand—we took the pulse of mixology throughout the country and, increasingly, the world. We discovered what each of us is doing differently and, beyond that, what we all have in common.
Paul Pacult explains how to taste rare whiskies
by Danny Ronen
Back after almost 100 years, the Chivas Regal 25 Year Old pays tribute to Chivas’ first blended scotch whisky. Presenter and educator Paul Pacult guesses this blend includes quite a bit of single malt because it’s slightly drier and has the aroma of dust and newly-tanned leather.
Any whisky-lover looking at the listing of seminars for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail most likely stopped and stared at the seminar entitled “The Whiskies You’ve Never Tasted Before,” with F. Paul Pacult as presenter. After reading the promise that “Attendees will be among a select few to taste the rare, unparalleled whiskey expressions” of some of the finest top-end whiskies—including bourbon, Irish whiskey and single malt and blended scotch—stares turned to drools.
At the seminar, the group tasted Midleton Very Rare, Jameson Rare Vintage Reserve, The Glenlivet XXV and Nádurra, Chivas 25, Wild Turkey American Spirit and a cognac ringer—Martell Création Grand Extra—while Paul walked everyone through the different flavors and aromas, constantly asking attendees what they themselves were pulling from the pours.The very engaging F. Paul Pacult, whose Spirit Journal newsletter is a trusted source for unbiased spirit ratings, is also a great presenter.
While scotch snobs may believe that “blended equals bad,” Pacult asserted that is very much not true, particularly in the case of such incredibly skilled Master Distillers like Colin Scott of Chivas Regal and Barry Crockett of Midleton.
“When you’re working with small lots, there can be a lot of idiosyncrasies,” Pacult said, explaining the sometimes quirky nature of rare whiskies. Strangely, no complaints from anyone at the seminar.
The stars of the show.
Midleton Very Rare (80 proof) Aroma of orchard fruit, taste of peaches and a fantastic woodiness; nice acid.
Jameson Rare Vintage Reserve (92 proof) You can immediately smell the port from the wood aging in ruby port barrels.
Martell Création (80 proof) Through the alcohol-intense (but smooth) nose, there are hints of almonds and vanilla, followed by the light flavor of butterscotch and cinnamon.
Paul always educates on proper tasting techniques during his seminars, encouraging attendees to keep the lips parted while smelling the spirit, take a taste, hold it without aerating and spit it out, then take a second taste. This technique ensures there are no lingering flavors in the mouth, allowing the taster to experience the spirit's authentic essence. Tasting bottles of whisky ranging from $90 to $299, seminar attendees follow instructions very carefully.
The Three Amigos
Mixologists get to the root of the cocktail
by Jenny Adams
Left to right: Debating mixologists Phil Ward, Simon Ford, Wayne Collins and Jason Crawley.
It’s not enough anymore for bartenders simply to know how to mix a drink. Increasingly, they are becoming heralds of history in a glass; knowing a drink’s ancestry is once again part of serving it properly and with due panache. This phenomenon was felt throughout Tales of the Cocktail, across many seminars.
One session in particular devoted serious attention to deconstructing the cocktail’s skeletal history: “The Three Amigos: The Three Most Important Drinks You Need to Know and Why,” led by internationally-recognized mixologists Wayne Collins, Jason Crawley and Simon Ford, with a quirky add-on of Phil Ward, Head Bartender at Death & Company in New York City, as the fourth amigo.
From Punch to Sling to Cocktail
“Long before the word cocktail came to define all mixed drinks, the world was mainly drinking punches and slings,” explained Simon Ford, International Ambassador for Plymouth Gin. “If it were not for the cocktail becoming popular in the early 19th century, we would have punch or sling bars and menus today instead of cocktail bars and menus,” he elaborated. “All three contain a spirit base mixed with sugar and water—the basis for the sling; the addition of citrus juice creates a punch, while aromatic bitters are added to create a cocktail.”
The three-part theory was conceived by Wayne Collins, head of the bartender training program for Maxxium Worldwide, as a way to teach practical bartending while avoiding memorization of recipes.
Mixing In the Magnificent Seven
Collins also developed the Magnificent Seven, compiling a list of more than 20 mainstay drinks at any bar and classing each of them as a descendant of one of the big seven: the punch, the milk punch, the sling, the cocktail, the sour, the cobbler and the highball.
“From the original three—the punch, the sling and the cocktail—you can make the family tree,” Collins explained. “When someone orders a Vodka Rickey, you can say, ‘That’s the same as a Tom Collins, but using lime instead of lemon.’”
Like chemists armed with the periodic table of the elements, bartenders using the Three Amigos and the Magnificent Seven can visualize the building blocks of almost every cocktail imaginable.
Every good theory needs an opponent, and Phil Ward was asked to participate expressly to challenge this one. “Phil is a very knowledgeable and talented bartender and highly respected in the industry,” explains Ford. “He also isn’t afraid of a good cocktail debate, so I was glad when he said yes. Interestingly, he called out the Pink Gin, which is one of the only drinks that we haven’t been able to place into a drinks family. The Pink Gin is composed of spirits, water and bitters; there is no sugar, which means it’s neither a sling nor a cocktail.”
The session brought home the importance not just of learning bartending, but of learning the art of tending bar. If you missed it this year, the Three Amigos will make a return in 2009.
Developing aroma in cocktails
by Danny Ronen
At a seminar called “The Scented Trail,” presenters Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club, NYC) and Tony Conigliaro (Roka, Shochu Lounge and Zuma, London), two cocktailing pioneers in their own right, told attendees why cocktail aroma is just as important as cocktail taste. The used perfume as an example: Perfume itself starts with smaller volatiles like citrus and florals; after a few hours, the body’s skin and sweat enzymes break down the molecules and bring out the larger volatiles. This led to a discussion of levels of aroma.
Aromatic distinctions can be made between “top notes,” “bass notes” and those in-between. Jasmine, considered a top note, is fleeting and bows out before other scents; cedar leaf and wood from South America are both middle notes; palo santo wood (deeper and rounder on palate, like butterscotch, because of its natural oils) and black copal (a frankincense-like resin) are both bass notes, which loiter—but it’s the good kind of loitering.
The seminar’s “water tasting”— five glasses of water infused with different aromas—was an opportunity to see how much impact an aroma can have on its own. But when diluted by a neutral spirit (Tony contends that one ounce of material per cup of Everclear works best, while Audrey claims that an 80-proof vodka does the trick), the aroma can be transported via a hydrosol (mister) or pre-dipped garnish, allowing mixologists not only to use unusual flavors, but also to augment their own cocktail recipes without adding more ingredients to an already-balanced cocktail.
The Museum of the American Cocktail finds a home in New Orleans
by Danny RonenTed Haigh, aka “Dr.Cocktail,” surveys his domain just before the museum’s ribbon-cutting. Author of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Haigh is curator of the museum and one of the foremost authorities on the history of cocktails in America.
Having gone through several iterations and a few moves because of floods, lack of space and hotel renovations, the Museum of the American Cocktail finally found its permanent home within the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at Riverwalk Marketplace in New Orleans, opening on July 21, the day after Tales of the Cocktail closed.
Placards in the painstakingly-created exhibits are filled with quotes and factoids about the artifacts, as in this stall that includes retired Herbsaint bottles and old recipes.
Dedicated to honoring the heritage of the cocktail and those who have crafted them since the 19th century, the museum is a mecca for any bartender or mixologist, and also for members of the imbibing (or even teetotaling) public who want to see how it all began. The museum’s displays are filled with a plethora of cocktail paraphernalia—a collection of antique shakers, bottles of long-lost spirits and bitters and even a tabletop moonshine still.
Artifacts came from private collections as well as from spirit companies themselves, who felt that donating pieces of their own history, such as a match-striker donated by Plymouth gin, might shed light on the history of cocktails, as can be seen on the museum’s website at museumoftheamericancocktail.org.
Museum President Dale DeGroff points to the labor of love that he and the other museum founders and advisors have been waiting for—a permanent home for the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
During Tales of the Cocktail, there was quite a buzz about the museum; those able to brave another day in this cocktail town were privy to an historical treat. What better city to host a museum that pays homage to the cocktail than New Orleans, where the classic Sazerac was invented?