A rather well known bartender told me he had his first ever panic attack on the plane home from Tales last year.
This is not a character you would expect to have panic attacks, no shy retiring violet is he.
But when you think about Tales, how it gathers God knows how many bartenders together in one place and plies them with booze for FIVE DAYS, in a city that bakes you into humid submission, it’s not surprising that mind, body and soul may be stretched a little thin by the time your departure gate is called.
I don’t know what my mental image of Tales of the Cocktail was before I went. I suppose I had a vague notion of it being a bit like a huge trade show, with the Hotel Monteleone as the venue. But it’s not like that at all.
The hotel is the epicenter to be sure, with most of the seminars and tasting sessions taking place there, but it is much larger and looser than a trade show.
In fact a large chunk of New Orleans’ French Quarter seemed taken over by Tales, to the extent it was impossible to walk from one place to another without running into someone you knew, from countries all over the World.
And this is where you realise there are two sides to Tales – the events and the people.
I’ll be brutally honest about the former – I was often too hungover to get to the morning sessions, and of the afternoon ones I attended, it was often something I had seen before at one of the trade shows.
There were exceptions of course. Stanlislav Vardna’s session on the Swizzle was weird and entertaining (a full report of this will follow), the Sailor Jerry party at NOLA’s World War 2 museum was brilliant, Jason Crawley’s ‘From Persia to Ponies’ (Gulab to Julep, really?) seminar was great and the Spirited Awards were fun (if unrewarding for BarLifeUK).
But, I came to the conclusion that New Orleans is a long way to go for a few entertaining seminars and the occasional brand-sponsored party.
The real reason to go is the people, to see that the bar industry really is a bar community, and that its members really do give a shit about each other.
This was illustrated in mind blowing and, dare I say, life changing scale, during the Second Line parade far Ray Deter.
Ray’s is a name you might recognise. He owned D.B.A bars in New Orleans and New York. Shortly before Tales, he was tragically killed in a bike accident at the age of 53. Friends and family arranged for a Second Line parade to be held for him during Tales and I’ve never seen anything like it.
At around 7pm, people began to congregate outside D.B.A on Frenchman street. In no time at all, a crowd of at least 1000 people were filling the street and a jazz band began to play. The band then marched down the street and the crowd followed.
Motorcycle cops on CHiPS Harleys raced ahead of the crowd to close off side streets and bottles of rum and beer were being passed back and forth within the crowd, which was to a person dancing and singing.
After a halfway stop, the procession headed back to D.B.A as the sun was setting. Everyone involved was dripping with sweat and the band stepped up the intensity of their playing, with back beat drums and dirty horns whipping the dancing crowd up into a frenzy.
It’s difficult to describe the energy in the air at that point – it was a proper ‘hairs on the back of your neck’ moment, and without doubt the most fitting way I can think of to say goodbye to a clearly much-loved bartender.
Obviously this sort of thing is a New Orleans tradition, but so many international bartenders who had never met Ray came along to pay their respects and soak up the experience that it says a lot about solidarity within the bar community.
As the days went on, I realised that my favourite moments were coming away from the organised events, when we would run into old friends and bar hop, or grab some food, or find a jazz band to listen to.
The great thing about Tales is spending a week in a bar industry bubble. It’s a bit like living in a town where there are no strangers. Everywhere you look, there is a friendly face to have a drink and a laugh with. It felt strange to come home and walk to the corner shop without bumping into a bartender and I have to say, I missed it.
At the Sailor Jerry party at the World War 2 museum, I read a plaque that listed the unofficial motto of the US Marines. It said: “Never run when you can walk, never walk when you can sit, never sit when you can sleep and never pass up a supply of drinking water”.
It’s good advice for the travelling bartender too, especially at Tales and you should follow it next year, if you go and spend a week inside the bar industry bubble.
Huge thanks must go to Buffalo Trace for flying us to the USA… An account of our visit to their distillery is coming soon.