New Orleans is famous for great cocktails, but specializes in guilty pleasure drinks
Every time I go to New Orlean’s Tales of the Cocktail, one of the largest gathering of bartending talent in the world, all I want is a Miller High Life.
By Trevor Kallies, Bar & Beverages Director at Donnelly Group
The first time I attended Tales of the Cocktail was in 2009 as a consumer and self-proclaimed cocktail geek of the highest order. Having never been to New Orleans, I’d arranged a sort of personal walking tour of the bars that have canonized various drinks.
What follows is a list of the bars and cocktails I had to experience, in no particular order: A Vieux Carré at the Carosel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, a Sazerac at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac (this bar had been open for less than two months, and the Sazerac wasn’t invented or popularized here, but what did I know?), a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House, and a Hurricane at Pat O’Briens. Also on this list was a Brandy Milk Punch at Bourbon House, a Flaming Dr. Pepper at Gold Rush, an Absinthe Frappe at Absinthe House, a Ramos Gin Fizz anywhere (apparently, I wanted NOLA bartenders to hate me), and, of course, a French 75 at Arnaud’s, though I knew nothing of the brandy history of this drink at the time.
Here’s what I discovered by consuming this bingo-style list of cocktails:
- Few of these drinks are particularly amazing at their origin locations.
- Random consumption of this variety of spirits does not make for an amazing morning.
- The romanticism of these cocktails runs long and deep, but the bars and cocktails themselves (with some exceptions) are simply dated.
Since that inaugural trip, I have made more than ten visits to that amazing city that I now know and love. On eight of those I attended Tales of the Cocktail as part of the Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP), a gathering of close to seventy bartenders from all over the world who come together to batch, prep and serve tens of thousands of cocktails over the five-day festival. The hours are both early and long, with most call times coming at 7 A.M. or earlier and running until well after sunset. It’s a big deal, as far as bartending gatherings go.
About four years ago, I started sending a select group of Donnelly Group employees to Tales under the guise of research and development, meaning they drink while I work CAP during the day and then we all drink at night–the most educational kind of drinking.
By way of preparation, I send the group an email each year, detailing some of the cities do’s and don’ts. With the booze flowing at these rates, Responsibility Pants are required attire. Yes, you can wander the streets, drinking with impunity, I tell them, but DO NOT BRING GLASS OUTSIDE AND BREAK IT. You will get arrested. DO NOT TOUCH THE HORSES, I stress. These are not our friendly Royal Canadian Mounted Police. You will get arrested. Also, DO NOT URINATE IN THE STREET. Seems obvious, but still, you will get arrested. Looking back, I find it only slightly ironic that the education portion of trips designed for R&D and seminars end up being more a crash course in how not to get arrested and how to survive for a week on Pedialyte and American economy lagers. But it is what it is.
Because being in the Big Easy, surrounded by some of the world’s best and future best bartenders, you might think that each day would close out with some sort of cocktail competition, or seminar on the method of stirring or the ideal serving temperature of a Martini. But that’s not exactly what ends up being top of mind with the world’s best and brightest; the Tales end-of-day ritual is less World Class Cocktail and more Miller Time. Hence the slightly foreboding email to the rookies.
One of the first group conversations of the week, in fact, is an icebreaker exercise where each of these A-Team Glass Mops identifies their ‘guilty pleasure drink’, a descriptor that, in this context means “A drink that, if your colleagues, regulars or local media found out you actually enjoyed, could cause you the utmost embarrassment.”
Here’s a taste:
- Bombay Sapphire and Mountain Dew
- Bud Light Lime Mojito
- ‘Fernanas’ (Fernet Branca and banana cream liqueur, as a shot)
- Tanqueray Rangpur and Monster Energy
- Boxed White Wine Spritzer
- Coconut Milk White Russians
Now, it’s important to remember that these concoctions come from the minds of people who voluntarily jump to the aid of a fellow CAP who has been “Iced” (yes, this is still a thing) and seemingly enjoy it. And while you’re digesting that, also keep in mind that many of these bartenders will also compete annually in renown competitions like Bacardi Legacy, Diageo World Class, Bombay’s Most Imaginative Bartender and so on. It’s the A Team, even if their taste suggests the D List.
So, how does a team of elite bartenders that comes together to make and serve tens of thousands of cocktails go from sampling the most divine drinks in the world to crushing ‘Gator-Pagnes’, a hangover drink consisting of three parts orange Gatorade and five parts sparkling wine? Well, it’s easy in a town like New Orleans where the drinks, although famous and culturally important and being consumed at an incredible rate, just aren’t that good.
Yes, I said it.
I should note, however, that I have NEVER had a bad drink at key cocktail hotspots in NOLA. I can’t list them all, but Latitude 29, Cure, Cane & Table, Manolito, Bar Tonique, and Longway all make beyond amazing drinks. My favorite Negroni of all time is made by Chris Hannah at Arnaud’s French 75—it’s so good that I regularly bookend my city visits with it. During the event, however, participants have few chances to make it to these bars, and if they do, getting a seat is next to impossible.
The other thing to note is that after drinking and tasting spirits and cocktails from dawn ‘til dusk, the last thing a bartender is looking for is another cocktail. Ask most bartenders what their go-to post-shift drink is and you’ll get an array of oddities thrown your way. If any of those is a cocktail, you can safely assume that bartender is a liar. As a general rule, we don’t finish a shift and go for a Ramos; we finish a shift and reach for a Miller High Life.
Then there’s the heat and humidity. In NOLA’s hotels and bars, you are blasted with 55°f AC, and the second you step outside, accosted with a heat index of 112°f. I basically spend two weeks sweating; not exactly a feeling that induces a craving for a Vieux Carré. Even sour drinks like Sidecars and Daiquiris (yes Daiquiris) can be too sugary to quench the thirst.
What goes down easily in New Orleans is a pony of light beer chased by a Frozen Irish at Erin Rose. What goes down easily is a Daiquiri bar slush or a Fishbowl filled with some tropical drink. I once saw a woman pause in the middle of a Bourbon Street intersection for a sip from such a Fishbowl. After sipping and smiling, she performed a little dance—she enjoyed it that much.