Stiring times in the Big Easy

Liza Weisstuch reports from this year's Tales of the Cocktails event
By Liza Weisstuch
There are moments that seem carved out from the steady clip of time, existing for no reason other than to brood over a dram. New Orleans in the middle of July - a thick, humid blur of comings and goings - is host to none of them.

Walk down any street in the French Quarter at any hour, and you encounter taxi drivers huddling on the curb in mid-belly laugh, a voodoo practitioner ready to sell you a glimpse of your future, food fried with such precision that you could keep a beat with the crunch, four dive bars (that's an unscientific estimate) that jangle and howl with snarling, panting, don't-even-dream-ofleaving- soon, brassy funk. It's a setting for gonzo-style ingestion of all sorts.

Amid that backdrop, 25,000 youth of the Lutheran faith, all wearing turquoise T-shirts declaring "I Believe" looked on with bewilderment as 15,000 bartenders, brand ambassadors, distillers, and drink enthusiasts from around the world descended on the Big Easy. The youths' convention was finishing as the liquor industry's Biennale was commencing. Tales of the Cocktail, now in its eighth year, is a noholds- barred geekfest meets bacchinalia meets five day endurance test. Where else can you find bartenders from San Francisco, London, Amsterdam and Washington DC debating the virtues and shortcomings of various brands of bitters - at 4.45AM?

At an event that encompasses all of cocktails, it's possible to tackle the densely packed schedule broadly, or to keep narrowly focused on one spirit. Given the nature of this publication, my decision was made. And given that whisky in all its international guises is a hot commodity, my days, and nights, were quickly filled.

Immediately upon arriving at the gorgeous 19th century Hotel Monteleone, the event's command center, I was whisked away by a friend who works for Suntory to a seminar room. At long tables, nine whisky samples are arranged at each seat: Chita grain, plum, 30 year malt, sherry wood, and so on.

Seiichi Koshimizu, master blender for Yamazaki, was making a rare appearance in the US. Apparently, equally rare are some of the individual samples, all of which go into Hibiki 12. We would blend them to approximate the standard. (Few came close.Koshi was a perfect gentleman about everyone's failures.)

Through the translation of Yuri Kato, author of Japanese Cocktails, Koshi offered what seemed like a vague position statement about how Japanese whisky positions itself, as if to clear up anyone's preconceptions that they're trying to replicate Scotch.

"To compete against Scotch, we have to focus on something unique, so we focus on complexity of each blend. It's not about what's better. Scotland is better. It's about something unique to Japanese whisky."

"Much of the discussion revolved around how Canadian whisky is plagued with an image problem"

But intrigue didn't only linger in the Far East. Whisky enthusiasts' global tour continued in the vast, unexplored expanses of Canada at an illuminating seminar in which Drew Mayville, the Sazerac Company's master blender, discussed the world's first single barrel Canadian whisky, Caribou Crossing, which was released in April 2010. Its small batch brand, Royal Canadian, was unveiled at the same time.The panel, moderated by Canadian writer Stephen Beaumont, also featured Lew Bryson, author of Pennsylvania Breweries.

Much of the discussion revolved around how Canadian whisky is plagued with an image problem: in a culture obsessed with premium expressions, Canadian whisky is stale, unsophisticated and bland, a relic in the pile with transistor radios and vinyl.Sure, there is still sale of volume, but all agree it will be a revelatory moment when it crosses the threshold from "the stuff your parents used to mix with ginger ale" to viable competitor in the premium segment.

One person who certainly had a story of his own to tell was Mark Brown, president and CEO of the Sazerac Company, who led an intimate, invite-only presentation with Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s master distiller. They offered a glimpse of two epic undertakings: Project Holy Grail is a rigorous endeavor that employs laborious, Harvard science lab-caliber research methodology to discover “the world’s best tasting whiskey.” Or so they aim. With a biochemist’s painstaking diligence, they’re carrying out 300 experiments that assess different variables: distillation, atmosphere, aging, barrels, recipe and entry proof. But wait—there’s more! They also revealed the Single Oak Project, the release of 192 barrels for bottling, essentially a grand scale continuation of the Experimental Collection, over the next four years. But as serious and trailblazing of a project as it may be, Brown doesn’t get carried away with the scholastics of it.

“A good example is us being Monty Python-esque about it—running around yelling, ‘Mongolian! Mongolian!’” he said, in reference to the most expensive wood he’s yet to acquire for the project. “We’re excited about what that will allow us and the consuming public to determine about different whiskeys.”

Barry Crockett, Jameson Irish Whiskey’s master distiller, was also excited to share more whiskey with the world. He’s introducing Redbreast 15, and led a seminar that included a sneak peek of that full bodied dram. Its launch is a matter of striking while the iron is hot, given that Irish whiskey is the fastest growing whiskey category in the world. “The market can only give it more and more dimension,” he told me.

Crockett was offered a try of something new to him in exchange. At a “Spirited Dinner,” a Tales tradition in which bartenders work with chefs in restaurants throughout New Orleans on a particular night, Crockett, during a stunning six course dinner, was introduced to the pickle back. This new drinking ritual has crept into high-end drinking circles like some mischievous vixen, winking all the way. It’s a shot of Jameson chased by a shot of pickle brine , and it’s become a cult practice in bars in New York, San Francisco, Portland and elsewhere.

In my coverage of Tales I’ve homed in on running themes. Two years ago, everyone was talking about lost whiskey cocktails and the reawakening of rye. Last year it was the exponentially greater access international bartenders had to American whiskey. In 2010, experimentation has come into vogue.

Take Tony Conigliaro of London’s 69 Colebrooke Row and crafty mad scientist. In one molecularly inclined seminar, he explained a stunt he’s been toying with: mixing cocktails and storing them for months in glass bottles in cool basements. You’d think there’d be no aging effect, since there’s no wood with aldehydes for the spirit to interact with and create esthers, but Conigliaro explained the bitters act as proxy for the barrel because they contain some of the same compounds.

The result? The aged Manhattan we tried was mellow and possibly one of the most integrated drinks I’ve ever tasted, like Galileo had succeeded in drawing his perfectly round circle by hand. A fitting metaphor: an everyday shape, a new way of reaching it.