Spirits preview of products is most promising

Death in the South Pacific, a new tiki-style punch, was the official cocktail of the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 4:15 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- There is something about Tales of the Cocktail, the huge spirits industry conference that has been held here every July for eight years, that leads one to make epic pronouncements about booze.

Take, for instance, this one from F. Paul Pacult: "Gin is such a lovely invention. There is the wheel, and then there's gin."

Pacult, a critic and the publisher of the influential newsletter Spirits Journal, made that observation during a session on how to "Hone Your Sensory Skills to a Higher Level."

His seminar, in which we tasted six spirits, was a sort of refresher course, with basic reminders: Tasting spirits is different from tasting wine. Don't swirl too much, and go for shallower, fast sniffs, with your lips slightly parted, rather than a long inhale. Take a small, quick sip to clear the palate before taking a larger sip for the actual sample. "Don't overtax your palate," says Pacult, who never attempts more than about eight spirits in a sitting. "Don't think too much. Don't over-analyze."

Of course, he then passed out rating sheets specifying 49 criteria on which to grade each spirit. Ten minutes after we were taught how to smell, Pacult informed us that we should detect a hint of "eastern Speyside" in the Chivas Regal blended Scotch we were sipping. A bit later we tasted Martell XO cognac, which rarely retails for less than $120 a bottle. "How does it taste?" Pacult asked. "It doesn't suck," shouted someone from the audience.

Pacult's instruction seemed almost quaint in comparison with the rest of Tales. With reps from the the large liquor companies, public relations people and thousands of attendees swarming the Hotel Monteleone, and with all of the flashy promotional events - including a Cointreau-branded burlesque show by Dita Von Teese that kicked off the week and Diageo's happy hour, with 51 bartenders serving 46 kinds of cocktails on three floors of the Louisiana State Museum - it was easy to forget that Tales of the Cocktail started as a small educational conference for bartenders and spirits industry folks.

It has been an essential gathering during an era when bartending has evolved into the "mixology" we hear so much about these days. It's no surprise that an embarrassing old cocktail gets "buried" every year in an elaborate jazz funeral procession. The Appletini and the Red Headed Slut have been killed off in years past. This year: Sex on the Beach.

What mostly draws me to Tales now is the chance to get a sneak peek at emerging trends and new products we'll be seeing on the local bar scene later this year. Hot item: It's still tiki, tiki everywhere, including lots of new rums I'll be writing about soon. And the bartender's existential question of whether to embrace vodka was summed up by one panel: "I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka."

It's clear that the speak-easy trend of the past three or four years is on the wane, so much so that a caricature of the speak-easy bartender has emerged and become an object of lampoons. "The bigger your beard, the curlier your mustache, the better bartender you must be," sniped Angus Winchester, a London "global bar" consultant and a "brand ambassador" for Tanqueray gin, at a seminar called "Bartending Fun-da-mentals." "Mustaches and arm garters do not make a bartender."

(It should be noted that there were lots of both in New Orleans, in addition to trilby hats and seersucker suits.)

In his seminar, Winchester suggested that too many bartenders - in the race to elevate themselves to "mixologists" or "bar chefs" - have lost their sense of fun. He suggested that perhaps it's time to get away from the sanctimony and remember why people go to bars in the first place: "Bartenders get paid to flirt with girls and boys all evening. It's about hosting."

As for new products, I nearly cried when I saw Zucca, the Italian rabarbaro (an amaro-like spirit that is infused predominantly with Chinese rhubarb) that I'd pined for back in April. Eric Seed, of Haus Alpenz, finally persuaded the company in Italy that produces Disaronno amaretto to let him import Zucca, which it also owns. "They were skeptical," Seed said. "But I explained there is now an appeal for amari in the U.S."

Beyond Zucca, I also tasted an amazing gin made from damson plums - a sort of American cousin of British sloe gin - that will soon be launched by DH Krahn. After the success of its Chairman's Reserve rum from St. Lucia, Washington's Team Spirits will soon introduce a new spiced rum. I'd never been a fan of spiced rums, such as Captain Morgan or Sailor Jerry, but Chairman's Reserve was subtle and delicious. It has changed my opinion.

Finally, a product I hope we'll see soon is Root, inspired by an 18th-century Pennsylvania recipe for root tea, the precursor to root beer or birch beer. At 80 proof, and with its complex maceration of birch bark, spices and herbs, Root is the opposite of a silly, artificial "root beer" liqueur. I would actually call it the first American amaro.

Going a step further, I would say that the product launches coming to liquor store shelves in 2010 might be the most exciting I've seen since I've been covering this beat. And because Tales of the Cocktail is the time of year for boozy pronouncements, I guess I can get away with saying that.


Death in the South Pacific

Emily Callaghan contributed to this report. Follow Wilson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," is to be published in September by Ten Speed Press.

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