By Clair McLafferty
As a bartender, it’s hard to describe Tales of the Cocktail. On the one hand, it’s the world’s largest annual cocktail convention, but the tag doesn’t do it justice.
Like any other professional conference, the six days are filled with educational seminars and the nights with networking events and parties. Every event is sponsored by an industry brand, and many attendees will discover delicious new trends, tricks, and trade secrets to incorporate into their work. Luminaries in the field are available for book signings, and you’re likely to rub elbows with your industry heroes at parties. Fancy, huh?
When the sponsors are liquor companies, it absolutely is. Even most of the educational seminars feature a couple cocktails, but the brands go all out on the parties and tasting rooms. Though it’s a flashy, well-documented part of the Tales experience, it’s only a tiny part of what makes this event so special.
For bartenders, it’s a place to get out from behind the bar, a break from playing our roles as friendly, neighborhood drink slingers, psychologists, and occasional adult babysitters. During one hot, swampy week every July, we network, hang out with our friends, and eat and drink well. We also learn ways to mitigate the physical strain of shaking, stirring, and moving for 10 to 14 hours at a time, we hear advice for opening bars, and we explore the intricacies of the science of the cocktail.
Tales was, arguably, one of the first events to treat crafting cocktails as a profession instead of a diversion. The first time, in 2002, all of the attendees could fit in one bar, and they discussed everything they had dug up about cocktails and spirits. During that time, the craft cocktail revival was starting in earnest on the Internet. This year, an estimated 20,000 people attended events, parties, and dinners scattered all over the city.
It’s far from perfect, to be sure. Tales and The Big Easy are inextricable: The conference relies and thrives on the city’s energy and spirit. But it also means that, instead of drunken college kids hitting Bourbon Street, Tales provides drunken bartenders to take their places. And, unfortunately, due to the scale of many of the parties and events, some of the drinks aren’t too great. Ironic, to be sure.
Harder to accept is that the flaws run deeper than immoderate drinking. Earlier this year, Tales found itself in deep trouble after founder Ann Tuennerman posted a picture of herself on Facebook in blackface before the Zulu Mardi Gras parade where all riders, African-American or caucasian, wear blackface. The caption, a quote from Ann’s husband, read, “Throw a little Black Face on and you lose all your Media Skills.”
Many bartenders were furious, and some planned to boycott Tales. The story made national headlines, and Ann’s husband resigned from the organization. Ann issued an apology of sorts. In addition, Ann participated in a Facebook Live conversation about race with Ashtin Berry, a black bartender from New Orleans.
Unfortunately, one conversation doesn’t undo the barriers that keep many people of color from becoming bartenders or working in front-of-house positions, even though the Tales website published a white paper on the subject. It doesn’t undo a history of branding that almost exclusively focuses on white characters. Starting the conversation is important, but continuing it, even when it challenges privilege and understanding, means as much, if not more.
Even now, I have hope, both for my industry and this event. Though its reputation is tarnished, Tales is special for the types of adventures you can have only there. During my first Tales, my friend and absinthe maker Ted Breaux invited me out for drinks with some of his (most impressive) friends. While we were sipping tiki cocktails, I got an email from my Airbnb host. Another guest, not from Tales, was passed out face down in the main room wearing only his underwear. After a day of classes about whiskey, bitters, and champagne, and attending a dinner and a party, the experience was absurd. After some good sleep 24 hours later, it was hilarious.
Only in New Orleans? Nah. Only at Tales.
Full disclosure: Clair writes for Tales of the Cocktail’s bartender-focused content side.