By Chuck Williams
If the influx of people with suspenders and waxed mustaches walking the streets seemed slightly creepy in the past few days, I wouldn’t worry. It just means that it’s time for Tales of the Cocktail yet again.
For people like me, the alcohol enthusiast, Tales is amazing but also frustrating. There is far too much to learn, see, and drink in too short a time frame. Missed that Bare Knuckle Bar Fight because you thought you could handle just one more snifter of calvados? A likely story. At least you greased up (Ohioian for “putting on sunscreen”) before falling asleep next to the rooftop pool.
But at the same time, too much planning can rob you of, what I consider to be the highlight of Tales: the spontaneous encounters with characters and libations alike. Last year, for example, as I waited outside the sneak peek for Amy Stewart’s new book, The Drunken Botanist, a big redheaded man sat next to me. I looked him up and down, as he fiddled with his messenger bag. He seemed familiar, but I couldn’t draw up a name. I had an inkling to Google “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure All” on my phone. Sure enough, the inkling was correct.
“Hey,” I said to him. He turned his attention my way. “Are you Brad Thomas Parsons?”
His face brightened. “Yes I am!” He said, with cheer in his voice.
I relaxed a bit. Bless Google image and its accuracy.
B.T. Parsons looked at me, then down at my lap, where my phone sat with his picture blown up on the screen, then back to me and asked, “You’re not an assassin are you?”
What followed was nothing short of fanboy-ism. I accosted a person walking by so they would take a picture of us (since I don’t take selfies), Parsons and I traded New Orleans dining tips, and I told him he was awesome. In Amy Stewart’s presentation, we sat on opposite ends of the room and never spoke again. Otherwise, his presence was completely normal, since fame in the cocktail world is a little bit subtler than it is in Hollywood. Mixologists don’t exactly have to hire an assistant to deflect thrown underwear, but in this case, I would have considered it if I’d brought a spare pair.
Soon after that first Tales of the Cocktail experience, I came to realize that this convention brought together people from all walks of life. There are the famous mixologists, casual drinkers, employees of the food industry; the list goes on. Individual goals, accordingly, vary. There are the mixology geeks, like myself, who are all about picking up a technique here and there. There are the foodies, who are more interested in the food and how to pair their favorite flavor profiles with cocktails. There are the educational enthusiasts, who want to learn about the history of a specific liquor. These differences didn’t, and still don’t, matter, because there is always somebody who shares similar goals. For me, if I ever needed to know a particular esoteric fact about the effect prohibition had on the bourbon industry, somebody within the city limits would likely know. The Quarter turns into a repository of knowledge and, if it wasn’t already, drinking
On Tuesday, when I picked up my tickets for Tales, I meant to head straight home, maybe pick up a bowl of pho on the way, and finish some work. Of course that intention was shattered by a series of people seductively shoving alcohol in my face, “You’ve got to try this.”
The first detour happened when I spotted a spicy watermelon mojito on the street in front of the Hotel Monteleone. The second was for a spin on a Gin Rickey. The third, a glass of port in the hotel lobby, because it came with a very delicious looking cookie.
My friends, who absorbed me into their group after catching me trying to slip out of the hotel sober (has this city taught me nothing?), said the best times they’ve had at Tales of the Cocktail in years past are on the upper floors, where the promotional tasting rooms happen. They dragged (I’ll admit, with a feeble effort on my part to escape) me to a large open room on the top floor where I was strapped with a wristband and herded into a room with more mixologists at stations than people drinking. Photographers milled about at the opposite end at a station of two. I saw an unexpected face.
I swatted for my friend in my blindspot and nearly dumped his two drinks on the floor.
“Aaron, that’s Gary Regan.”
Aaron stared at me, “Chuck, I don’t know who that is.”
“He wrote The Joy of Mixology. He’s a legend.” My fanboy-ness bubbled back to the surface.
Aaron took a drink, “That’s pretty cool. You should probably get one of his drinks.”
A perfect idea! Not only would I meet the legend, but also drink one of his creations. I demanded Aaron follow me to take the picture. Because, of course, no selfies
I complimented Regan (who now goes by Gaz instead of Gary) on his book and told him I was a big fan (I would have said groupie, but, again, I found myself without a spare pair of underwear). He responded with a raspy “thank you,” and we assumed the friendly “hands on each other’s shoulder pose” to show that I might even be best pals with this famous person. I asked him for one of his drinks, and studied as he built it, hopefully absorbing a fragment of the decades of knowledge he’d accumulated. At the last step, he looked sheepishly around his station for a cocktail spook to stir, then held up his index finger as if he had an idea and plunged it into the drink, whirring the ice counterclockwise. Surely with that much pomp he must have washed his hands. Right?
I rejoined my friends on the other side of the room. A man in a fedora turned to me and said, “Can you believe it? You’ve got Gary Regan in a room full of people, and hardly anyone is at his bar.”
The room was fairly sparse to begin with, but the guy’s statement wasn’t without merit.
“Well,” I said, “you may as well go try one of his cocktails. When will you get another chance?”
The man in the fedora wandered over. He and Regan exchanged words and Regan began mixing the drink with the same method and attention to detail he had with mine. Right down to the missing bar spoon gag and stirring with his finger. At least mine was first, I suppose.
I have a special fondness for Tales of the Cocktail, because it has an amazing ability to bring people together. Whether it’s for educational, recreational, or philanthropic purposes, the types of people attending, have proven to be some of the most ambitious and kindest folks I’ve ever met. I will be a frequent attendee this coming weekend, and I can only hope to meet more amazing people and imbibe a variety of different libations – within moderation.