Tales of the times

Liza Weisstuch heads out to New Orleans to see what's mixing at the moment
By Liza Weisstuch
If you want to be in the presence of countless world class athletes, you work your connections and book yourself a ticket to the Olympic Games. If you want to be surrounded by the film industry’s glitterati, you show up in Cannes in May, or scoot to Utah in January for Sundance. Art hounds can make a sport of spotting the Next Big Thing by globetrotting from Venice Biennale to Art Basels around the world.

If, however, you want to be amid the planet’s preeminent mixologists, master distillers, bar owners, and the cocktail cognoscenti who love them, you head to New Orleans for five sweltering summer days.

At the seventh annual Tales of the Cocktail this past July, you only had to take a saunter through the Carousel Bar (yes, it actually spins – albeit at a snail’s pace) at the Hotel Monteleone, the event’s headquarters, to hear impromptu conversations about long-lost gin styles that are making a comeback, debates over what sweetener works best when making vermouth, or heated discussions that break down the merits of different shaking techniques. And those are just the casual encounters.

The five days are jam-packed with seminars and tasting rooms where attendees can try products old and soon-to-come, often poured by the distillers. And you can forget what’s been famously said about New York, New Orleans is actually the city that doesn’t sleep, which affords lengthy stretches of spirit-soaked time to catch up with mixologists from around the world.

Several sessions this year focused on the whisky industry. The ever-engaging Simon Brooking, ambassador for Ardmore and Laphroaig, went tete-a-tete with Jim Beam’s notorious Whiskey Professor Bernie Lubbers and Canadian Club ambassador Dan Tulio in the well-travelled “Great Whisky Debate”which, fittingly enough, took place at the Bourbon House. This battle of wits, moderated by Whiskey Professor Steve Cole, had guests worked up into a low-grade frenzy.

And still no winner prevails.

Serious insider insight was brought into stark relief when Fred Noe, great-grandson of the iconic Jim Beam and seventh-generation distiller; Maker’s Mark president Bill Samuels, Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlan Wheatley, and Tom Bulleit of Bulleit Bourbon took their places at an appropriately elevated table for the “Whiskey Legends” seminar. Writer and spirits expert Paul Pacult moderated the talk, which tackled industry issues amid a dynamic landscape where consumers’ interests, innovation and the informal rules of the marketplace are in perpetual flux.

"You can forget what’s been famously said about New York, New Orleans doesn’t sleep"

Pacult broached the topic of how American malts, having long been given the brush-off, especially by loyal Scotch drinkers, have quickly risen to a status of unassailable distinction. To what do the all-star panelists attribute that turnaround? Tom Bulleit jumped right in with, “In that regard, American bourbons are single malts.”

Although the American whiskey category is barely adolescent in that context, the distillers agreed that innovation and flexible thought is the way to ensure the long-term popularity.

“The trick is to stay ahead of the curve,” said Wheatley, noting that with all the web forums and chat rooms which engage audiences globally, consumers are educating people at the plant these days. “We get a few calls every week from people suggesting experiments we should try. We have a list of 100 things and we say ‘We’ll put that on it.’ We can’t do them all, but there are different ideas.”

As producers aim to stay ahead of the curve, bartenders around the world engage in a delicate balancing act: to provide a solid foundation of drinks that showcase whiskey in traditional ways as they stay ahead of the zeitgeist in their own right, creating new platforms to display a whiskey in its full character. Of course, many international bars are increasing their whisk(e)y selection simply because they can, given the increased distribution of what were once small brands, like Buffalo Trace.

Henry Besant of London is not just a prime exemplar of someone who’s been able to brandish his cocktail expertise with a broader range of American whiskies, he’s played a key role in making sure those wares are available. Having worked with Rockwell Restaurant in the Trafalger Square Hilton, where he introduced bourbon, it now carries 120 American whiskies. He also opened All Star Lanes, the American retro-styled bowling alley/bar which opened its first venue in Bloomsbury five years ago. Now with three locations, each carries a wide range of American malts.

For him, this crusade started about nine years ago when he went to Bourbon Fest.

Bourbon got off to a sluggish start in London, Besant said, but that didn’t last long. “It was hampered by the mainstream devotion to Scotch. The generation that has created the new wave of cocktail bars has taken bourbon into its heart. That richness gives it a phenomenal platform to work off of. Scotch suffers from a bit of a fuddy-duddy image. But companies are innovative with aging to communicate with bartending community.”

"Bourbon got off to a sluggish start in London but that didn’t last long"

And what about the cradle of the cocktail, the host city New Orleans? While there’s no shortage of Sazeracs, a tipple that originated in the Big Easy and is distinctive for its absinthe rinse and liberal base of rye, several bartenders at bars longstanding and new are proving New Orleans to be a forward-thinking city liquids-wise. At the sepia-toned safari-themed French 75 Bar, a recent addition to Arnaud’s, an age-old dining landmark, the jaunty head barman Chris Hannah puts a local spin on avant garde mixology. Taking cues from fat-washing, a laborious technique that adventurous bartenders are using to infuse whiskey with bacon, he permeates his bourbon with praline, a native confection of sugar, cream, butter and indigenous pecans. Using that, he mixes his variation of the classic Rock and Rye, originally served with rock candy. He developed the drink specifically for Tales, noting his bar goes through more liquor that week than during Mardi Gras.

“When I was new to the cocktail scene, I decided to learn to branch out on classics. More historic cocktails than New Orleans ones, so I try to pick up new and old,” he said. “A lot of people are doing bacon wash bourbon, doing a fun New Orleans take on that by praline-washing the rye. It takes about three days of keeping it in fridge and skimming butter fat, heavy cream and pecans that come to the top. Alcohol stays at the bottom. Eventually you filter it through coffee filters. You end up with the praline sweetness, but also the whiskey’s heat.”

And as is evident from experts around the world, whiskey is certainly hot.