'Cocktail Geeks' to the Rescue

Sazerac (James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- The sixth annual Tales of the Cocktail, held here last weekend, was a mix of academic conference, trade show and, as one bar owner called it, "Star Trek convention for cocktail geeks."

One hour, you'd be tasting a great new product: say, a French gin called G'Vine, distilled from green grape flowers, or a liqueur called Domaine de Canton, made from "baby Vietnamese ginger." The next, you would attend panel discussions with titles such as "Cocktails of the Old Raj," "Making Your Own Spirits: A Look Into Modern Nano-Distilling" and "How to View Beer as an Ingredient Rather Than the Drink Unto Itself."

In one room, you would hear someone declare: "We've all been preaching ice. We all realize what a travesty ice has become in the American bar." (Tony Abou-Ganim at "Latino Libations.") In another, you would find yourself tasting an aged rum next to someone wearing a pith helmet or a kilt.

All in all, this remains the best place to find out about the state of the cocktail in America. And by all accounts, that's a fairly dynamic state.

Last year, for instance, absinthe supposedly was illegal and was discussed in a session on obscure and impossible-to-find booze. This year, marking the opening here of the Absinthe Museum of America, there was a tasting of four brands of absinthe now available in the marketplace.

Now that real absinthe has returned to the United States, the spirits world has turned its attention to "saving" two other cocktails. I attended events dedicated to preserving the Sazerac and the daiquiri.

Last month, the Louisiana legislature voted to designate the Sazerac "the official cocktail of New Orleans." That fact was the focus of the opening reception, which was kicked off in a packed ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone by Kevin Brauch, host of "The Thirsty Traveler" on the Fine Living Network, who shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your livers!" Brauch surveyed the roomful of bartenders, liquor brand representatives, cocktail bloggers, authors and journalists and said, "This is like a dysfunctional family in many ways."

Sazeracs were served, of course, and state Sen. Edwin R. Murray made a little speech. After a few Sazeracs, the crowd got pretty boisterous. "You don't have to drink it all right now!" shouted Paul Tuennerman, whose wife, Ann, is the event's founder.

Later that night there was a Save the Daiquiri party at Arnaud's in the French Quarter. When I asked the party's host, Ben Jones of Rhum Clement, why saving the daiquiri seemed especially urgent, Jones replied, "Just walk up and down Bourbon Street and look at all the pre-mixed green goo that they call daiquiris."

One of the most fascinating panels, "Molecular Mixology," was about a movement that mirrors the techniques of molecular gastronomy popularized by chefs such as Ferran AdriĆ  in Spain and Wylie Dufresne in New York. Molecular mixologists are creating foams and powders, employing sous vide and liquid nitrogen, and bringing pastry tricks into the bar.

We were served a Ramos Gin Fizz marshmallow and a deconstructed Red Bull and vodka: The Red Bull was spun into cotton candy on a stick and served with chilled vodka in a cocktail glass along with a grapefruit marshmallow. There was talk of a Sazerac gummy bear, but I didn't see one.

This panel seemed a little defensive. "Let's face it. Molecular mixology is a bit wanky," said Claire Smith of Belvedere Vodka.

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