Where the Lectures Weren't Dry

Absolut New Orleans makes its public debut at the cocktail conference.
Absolut New Orleans makes its public debut at the cocktail conference. (By Danny Bourque)
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

NEW ORLEANS I'm generally not a fan of scholarly and professional conferences. I've dozed through my share of rambling panel discussions, droning lectures and monotonous treatises. At most conferences, the only handout you get is a photocopied packet of the speaker's PowerPoint presentation. That was not the case at the fifth annual Tales of the Cocktail conference here last week.

At Tales of the Cocktail, here's what I received: two martinis, a brandy daisy and a variation on a gin fizz. And that was just at Thursday morning's sessions.

Cocktail and scholar are two words that don't usually appear together, and when they do it usually suggests someone holding forth at the end of the bar. But don't tell that to the several hundred bartenders, spirits industry types and cocktail enthusiasts who convened in New Orleans. Panels included: "On the Rocks: The Importance of Ice"; "Aromatics and Their Uses in Cocktails"; and "Tiki Drinks -- From A to Zombie."

"It used to be that you could just make up any old story about a cocktail," says Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails." "Now, people want to know your sources."

I witnessed an esoteric debate on whether cocktails made with fortified wine could be categorized "in the Manhattan or Sangaree family." I learned that in the 1870s, the gin fizz "swept the nation like mojitos have today." And I now know that the Napoleon House tavern goes through 25 pounds of cucumbers a day to make its Pimm's Cup cocktail.

I also heard the term "molecular mixology" used without irony.

Still, the line between education and marketing was thin. Many of the sessions were sponsored by a liquor company and often hosted by the "brand ambassador." Absolut unveiled a mango-and-pepper vodka called Absolut New Orleans, whose profits are being donated to organizations helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast, with $2 million guaranteed.

At a panel discussion on the history of the cocktail in America, consultant Ryan Magarian declared, "This is the beginning of the platinum era in American bartending." James Meehan, bartender at New York's Gramercy Tavern, delivered a treatise on shooters. "Cocktails have been getting more and more serious lately. It's gotten to a sort of rarefied place," he said. "What shooters bring to mind is the fun that cocktails should be."

One highlight was a panel called "Lost Ingredients: Obtaining (or Making) Rare Ingredients for Even Rarer Cocktails." We all got to taste what presenter Ted Haigh (a.k.a. "Dr. Cocktail") referred to as the "holy trinity" of lost spirits: true absinthe (illegal in the United States until recently), violet-flavored Creme Yvette (out of production for a half-century) and rum-and-allspice-flavored Pimento Dram (found only in the Caribbean). We also tasted falernum, Swedish Punch and Amer Picon. For some people in the room, that tasting clearly was a life-changing experience.

But my favorite session might have been "The Martini," presented by Robert Hess, who writes the popular blog Drinkboy.com. To begin, Hess presented us with the original, pre-Prohibition version of the drink. It was made with sweet vermouth, which surprisingly mixed quite well with Plymouth gin (which sponsored the session).

Hess dismissed most of the stories of how the martini got its name, including that it came from a drink called the Martinez, made by a bartender in Martinez, Calif. "I put my money on the name coming from Martini & Rossi," Hess said. "In those days, you would have asked for a vermouth cocktail by name, and you might have said, 'Give me a Martini.' "

The audience asked probing questions: "Can you talk a little bit about garnish?"; "I'd like to know about the move from olives to onions?"; "How and when did the martini glass with an olive become the icon for all cocktails?"

Someone raised the volatile issue of shaken vs. stirred. Hess insisted that one should always stir a martini, and he demonstrated why. He shook the gin and vermouth, then displayed the cloudy libation: "That, to me, looks like swamp water," he said.

One cocktail writer in the crowd shouted in disagreement, "I think that looks gorgeous!" A bar owner said some of her customers "like it that way."

"Some people like McDonald's, too," Hess replied.

Finally, one soul in the crowd dared to ask, "What do you think of apple martinis and watermelon martinis and those sorts of cocktails that are very popular?"

Hess furrowed his brow and said, "Okay, so I see your lips moving, but I'm really not hearing anything that you're saying."

Jason Wilson can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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