My Adventures at Tales of the Cocktail: 2016 Edition

Tales of the Cocktail is a spirits festival.  Scratch that.  It’s THE spirits festival.  Each July, everybody and their momma comes down to New Orleans to celebrate all those liquids we so love to imbibe.

After last year’s equally exciting and exhausting Tales of the Cocktail, I decided to scale back the number of events I was going to attend this time.  This New Orleans heat and humidity is enough to drain anyone.  Besides, it’s all about taking things slow and enjoying the experience.  So here is my day-by-day breakdown of what I collectively refer to as “whisky nirvana.”

WEDNESDAY

When the Tales’ schedule came out a few weeks back, one of the events I really wanted to attend was Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig “Blend Your Own Batch” which was to be moderated by their brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers.  A couple of weeks before the event I got a call from Heaven Hill telling me Bernie wouldn’t be able to attend that event and asking me if I would fill in.  I didn’t give it a second thought.  Of course I’d fill in!

Five bottles of Elijah Craig ready to be blended.

Fast forward to the event.  I was to guide Heaven Hill Master Distiller Denny Potter though some topics regarding Elijah Craig, the real star of the show.  Recently Heaven Hill removed the 12-year age statement from Elijah Craig and decided to focus on the flavor profile.  It’s all in the blend, right?  That was the objective of this event.

After some history and production tidbits, guests began blending their own batch of Elijah Craig.  They had 5 bottles in front of them, marked “A” through “E”, all single barrel picks ranging in age from 8 to 12 years.  Attendants had no idea of the age of each bottle.  We suggested they pour a little and experience each bourbon first, followed by actually blending their own batch by flavors they liked best.  In the meantime, Denny and I walked table-to-table helping folks out and finding out which bourbon(s) they liked best, and he took a couple of questions from the crowd.  When everyone was finished blending, we revealed the ages of the bottles.  The interesting thing is there was no clear favorite among the different bourbons.  People seemed to like them all, from the 8YO to the 12YO.  I guess it just goes to show age isn’t everything.  At the end of the seminar, the guests were able to take home a 100ml bottle of their blend.

Myself and Heaven Hill Master Distiller Denny Potter.

Everyone also got to taste a sample of the latest batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (139.4 proof).  Yep, these Barrel Proof releases are consistently delicious and this one is no exception.  I bumped into several of the attendants over the next few days and everyone agreed the event was fun and informative.
Nice start to my Tales 2016 experience, right?  This was only the beginning…

THURSDAY

Jared Hirsch Cocktail 2.jpg

The winning cocktail, Caged Heat. Photo courtesy of Four Roses.

Day two for me started by helping a friend shoot the Four Roses Charity Cocktail Challenge Finals.

While Master Distiller Brent Elliott (who instantly recognized me after only meeting him and last seeing him a year ago at Tales – small bourbon geek out!) poured Four Roses bourbon for guests, several talented bartenders mixed delicious looking cocktails for judges.

Jared Hirsch from San Fransisco’s Sidebar took home the grand prize with his Caged Heat cocktail.  Recipe below.  Bartenders Kate Kinsey and Laura Moore took home 2nd and 3rd, respectively.

After the winners were announced, Elliott presented a check to the Folded Flag Foundation, who helps families of fallen soldiers with scholarships and educational grants.

Caged Heat
2 oz. Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
0.75 oz. Caged Heat Syrup (Tamarind, Cardamom, Ghost Pepper, Cane
Sugar, Water)
Gold leafed dehydrated Lemon slice
Dehydrated Roses
Cardamom
Dehydrated Ghost Peppers
Chill a Coupe Glass. Add all ingredients into a Shaker Tin with Ice. Hard shake for 10 seconds. Double strain into the Coupe.  Garnish with a gold leafed dehydrated lemon slice and serve on a platter decorated with dehydrated Roses, Cardamom and dehydrated Ghost Peppers.

From there I walked over to Arnaud’s, one New Orleans’ oldest restaurants.  Beam-Suntory took over and transformed it into a turn of the century hotel.  The main room below featured a jazz trio, a bar serving classic cocktails and hor’dourves, along with a twist on a classic New Orleans dessert – Bananas Foster made with Booker’s bourbon.

The Beam-Suntory Hotel served Bananas Foster made with Booker’s bourbon.

The Jim Beam Bonded Old Fashioneds were nicely balanced.

I plopped myself down into a plush chair and enjoyed the cold, rich Booker’s Bananas Foster in the much appreciated air-conditioned hall, along with an Old Fashioned (made with Jim Beam Bonded).  From there, I noticed a few people sneaking up the stairs.  I was too nosy not to follow.  What wonders might await me there?

Some of Beam-Suntory’s finest liquids were being poured upstairs.

At the top of the stairs was a bar full of nosing glasses.  Behind the bar was a preview of what I was about to experience – the motherload of Beam-Suntory’s finest whiskies.  Past the bar were two small rooms quickly filling up with thirsty people.  Each corner of the room featured a Beam-Suntory brand ambassador (or Master Distiller in one case) pouring some of their specialty brands.  Laphroaig brand ambassador Simon Brooking poured Laphroaig Lore, while in the back corner Suntory Whisky’s Gardner Dunn was slinging Yamazaki 18 (one of my favorites) and Hibiki 21.  Since the latter isn’t available in my market, that’s where I went first.  Man, that was a delicious dram!  Next to Gardner was Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe and bottles of Booker’s Rye & Knob Creek 2001.  I chatted with him (and sipped on a glass of Booker’s Rye) for a few minutes. Seriously, that’s one guy I’d like to drink bourbon with on a porch!

Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe holding a bottle of the excellent Booker’s Rye whiskey.

Later that night, I was one of a lucky few to attend Diageo’s Spirited Dinner at Commander’s Palace.  The dinner centered around Diageo’s Special Releases – old, rare Scotch whiskies few are fortunate enough to try.  My jaw dropped when I saw the menu that Chef Tory McPhail created to pair with his favorites of the Special Release whiskies.

Brora 37 year, Port Ellen 32 year, The Cally 40 year, and Dailuaine 34 year were among the whiskies served at Diageo’s Spirited Dinner.

After walking in, I met and mingled with whisky writers Fred Minnick and Dave Broom (finally!), Diageo Master of Whisky Ewan Morgan as well as Dr. Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo.  We were served an aperitif and were seated shortly.

Among those seated at my table was Dr. Nick Morgan and Ti Adelaide Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace.  Needless to say, many interesting conversations came about.  One by one, exquisite culinary creations left the kitchen and landed on the table in front of us along with a pour of one of the night’s featured whiskies to complete the pairing.  As each whisky was served, a member of Diageo’s team introduced the whisky and provided a bit of background.  One highlight of the night was an Old Fashioned that was brought to someone at our table, who shared it with the rest of us.  Nothing out of the ordinary, except that the cocktail in question was made with Port Ellen.  Sacrilege?  Maybe.  Delicious?  Absolutely.

My favorite pairing of the night.

I didn’t jot down notes for each whisky served, but here’s what I remember: Clynelish Select Reserve was good, but not particularly memorable. The waxy fruit distillery character came through in a nice way. The Cally 40 year was one of the best single grain whiskies I’ve come across. It was elegant, and had a real “bourbon” richness about it. Brora 37 year still had a vibrance not usually associated with whiskies of such age. I really wish this distillery were still in existence.  Speaking of ghosts, Port Ellen 32 year was a peaty blast to the senses. Like Brora 37, Port Ellen’s wasn’t bogged down in old oak. Instead it showed restrained peat and refreshing tropical fruit in an exquisite manner. The Dailuaine 34 was on the sweet and rich side, making it a great one to pair with our chocolate dessert.

After dinner (and an enthusiastic applause), we were told to finish off the bottles of whisky.  I didn’t have to be told twice.  Port Ellen was my target and favorite of the night.  Apparently it was also Fred’s fav.  We both nearly broke out in a sprint to the table holding the bottle of Port Ellen.  He beat me to the bottle, but proceeded to pour a GENEROUS amount into my nosing glass.  Nice guy, that Fred is.  I recently sat down with Chef Tory McPhail to talk about the pairing.  A post shall soon follow.

FRIDAY

My Friday started with a Sazerac Company event.  One of the rumors I kept hearing was the launch of a new whiskey.  Not the case.  CEO Mark Brown announced the reintroduction of Mr. Boston Drinks, one of the biggest go-to bartender cocktail guides of the 20th century.  They’ve catalogued every entry of every edition of the book and have put all of that information into a new, well-designed website that features an Art Deco look that oozes cocktail culture.  You can look up info based on several different search criteria.  Want to look at bourbon cocktails?  Search “bourbon”.  Want a sour?  Search for “sour.”  One neat thing about the results is if there were differences in cocktail recipes between different editions of the book (cocktails changed over time), you can see all versions of the recipes.  The whole thing is a great idea.  I have a few cocktail books at the house, but I almost always search for a recipe online.  This new website is rich with information, and should be bookmarked by any cocktail fan.

Most of High West’s current lineup was up for grabs at the tasting.

After that I was off to the High West Brand Education Room, where founder David Perkins and crew were happily pouring High West whiskies.  David is a very laid back and friendly guy.  He’s the type of person who can make a friend out of anyone.

Valley Tan Utah Whiskey and Campfire Whiskey were among the ones I tried there (I’ll have full reviews here soon).   Then David pulled out a bottle of white dog that was destined to become a straight malt whiskey.  It was nice.  From memory, it was floral, malty and bittersweet.  Perkins said it is “100% malted barley, carrying a top secret mash bill of pale malt, caramel malt, and chocolate malt.”  He went on to tell me it’s currently aging in second fill casks.  This is going to be an interesting one when it releases.

Friday evening was party night.  I took my wife, Carly, to Beam-Suntory’s TOKI Party at the Ace Hotel.  Toki, Suntory’s newest blended whisky, was the star of the show.  In addition to wonderfully refreshing Highballs made with Toki, attendants were treated to Japanese-inspired hor d’oeuvres.  At some point I was sitting at a table with Stranahan’s Rob Dietrich!  Carly and I spent the next few minutes chatting with Simon Brooking.  What a great start to the night!  Off to the next party…

IMG_7370.jpg

TOKI two ways:  a pour and a highball

Diageo’s Portfolio Party was Olympic-themed, aptly named #DIAGEOGAMES, with all of their major brands represented alongside games like foosball, ping-pong and A LOT more.  After grabbing a tasty Johnnie Walker cocktail made with root beer, I bumped into fellow whiskey nut – Garrison Brothers’ Bourbon Evangelist Wade Woodard.  It was great to chat with him again.  Carly and I hit up a few more booths, played some games and ate a hot dog or two.

#DIAGEOGAMES.jpg

The crowd at #DIAGEOGAMES.  Photo courtesy of Shannon Sturgis.

We capped the night at the Four Roses suite where we met up with my friend (and WGNO Chief Meteorologist) Hank Allen and his fiancée, Casey. It was a small affair, which was the perfect way to end the night.  Aside form the friendly company, my favorite part was having about three pours of Elliott’s Select – it was THAT good.

Hanging out at the Four Roses suite.

SATURDAY

Though Tales officially ended on Sunday, Saturday was my last day.  Frankly, by this point I was exhausted, so I needed something big and full of energy.  That need was filled by the MMA2: The Rematch.  Six brand ambassadors, two each from Diageo, William Grant & Sons, and Beam-Suntory, basically roasted each other while the crowd roared with laughter.  Whisky writer Dave Broom moderated, or at least tried to moderate, the raucous event.  In the first of two rounds, each brand ambassador had five minutes to present a whisky as we sampled them.  This year’s twist is they didn’t know which whisky they were presenting.  Most spent their time ragging on their fellow ambassadors instead of talking about the whisky in front of us.  The second round revealed the whiskies we were tasting.  Oh, the whisky!  The first three were under 10 years of age, and the last three were wild cards.  Here’s what we had:

  1. Lagavulin 8 year cask strength at 58% abv
  2. Hakushu lightly peated, which was the main malt component in the Toki blend
  3. Balvenie 5 year matured in Hudson bourbon casks
  4. The Cally 40 year grain whisky (the overall crowd favorite)
  5. Glen Garaich 25 year
  6. 1998 Glenfiddich matured in refill Sherry casks

The crowd then voted for their favorite presenter (Diageo’s Ewan Morgan), favorite whisky under 10 years (Hakushu lightly peated), and favorite wild card whisky (The Cally 40 year).  In a rare case, the sequel was better than the original!

Then I was off to attend “The Ultimate Lagavulin” seminar, led by Dr. Nick Morgan, Dave Broom and Ewan Morgan.  I’ll cover this fantastic journey through history in detail in a separate post soon, alongside a review of the new Lagavulin 8 year old release.

Whew.

What a wonderful, but tiring, four days at Tales of the Cocktail.  Though Tales is mostly full of industry folks, a lot of the seminars are open to the public so long as they purchase tickets.  The festival celebrates spirits of all kinds, but for this blogger, Tales 2016 was a whisky lover’s paradise.  Here’s to this year’s extraordinary experience.  I can’t wait to see what next year brings.

Cheers!

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