Eric Alperin is in full cowboy mode -- holster, hat, pistol. The bartender behind The Varnish is working the door at One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans, as part of the madness that is Tales of the Cocktail, the annual gathering of bartenders, liquor companies and booze obsessives that takes over the French Quarter every July.
Alperin had many responsibilities at this year's Tales -- hosting this tequila and taco party at One Eyed Jacks (some of the proceeds of which went to the ongoing effort to increase the quality of tequila through lobbying the tequila industry), and judging one of the many cocktail competitions that happen throughout the week. But he was also there along with other members of his 213 company to attend the Spirited Awards, one of the world's most important awards for the bar industry. Alperin was up for American Bartender of the Year, and the Varnish was up for Best Cocktail Bar in the World.
In the end, neither award went to Los Angeles. American Bartender of the Year went to Charles Joly from The Aviary in Chicago and World's Best Cocktail Bar went to Boston's Drink. But with only four finalists in both categories, 213 and the Varnish team should be incredibly proud of the respect from the industry those finalist spots represent.
There were a number of L.A. bar folk at Tales this year, including the Eveleigh's Chris Amirault who was the West region winner for Broker's gin's Bowler Cup competition with his drink The Ballad of Sir Francis Drake, a mix of Broker's, rum, lemon and toasted pistachio-infused coconut cream. Amirault mixed his winning drink for the masses duing the Broker's tasting room party where they handed out bowler hats for all the attendees as well as shots of gin.
Every year at Tales of the Cocktail, certain trends emerge that help us understand things we might see in bars across the country in the coming months. Rum continues to be a trend, with more and more top bartenders using it as inspiration. Cane and Table, a new rum-themed bar from the owners of New Orlean's beloved cocktail bar Cure, opened during the festival as if to put an exclamation point on the rum love.
There was also a lot of talk about low alcohol cocktails, both as an aesthetic choice and a way to avoid too much drunkenness among customers. There were at least three different seminars about different aspects of creating lower alcohol drinks, and sherry is playing a large role in those conversations. There's plenty of interest in sherry as an ingredient from a purely taste perspective -- one of the best-attended seminars I was in was a sherry class and tasting -- but it has the added benefit of making for drinks that aren't nearly as strong as the whiskey and gin-heavy drinks that have held the limelight since the beginning of the cocktail revolution. It feels as though there's a definite swinging of the pendulum back towards moderation from the excesses of bartender culture over the past few years.
Best Tastes of the Festival:
One of the best things about Tales is the opportunity to taste liquors both on their own and in cocktails. The two that stood out were a high end rum and a not-yet-released rye. Pyrat's standard XO Reserve rum is a lovely and balanced rum, but their premium label, Cask 1623 (Available at Mel & Rose for $249.99) was an incredible treat, leaving a toasty spun sugar aftertaste.
Hillrock is a newer distillery from upstate New York, lead by master distiller Dave Pickerell, longtime distiller for Maker's Mark. They already have bourbon on the market, but Pickerell was handing out small bottles of rye that isn't available yet. Even after tasting a lot of whiskeys this rye stood out, with an almost floral honeyed finish. Pickerell said that he's hoping California will be either the second or third market the rye will be available in when it comes out some time in the next 18 months.
Worst Taste of the Festival:
One of the dirty secrets of Tales is that there are a lot of bad cocktails. There are exceptions -- most of the drinks that are results of national competitions, for instance, are great. But many of the parties are sponsored by liquor companies who come up with their own drinks, and many of those are sugary abominations. The worst I had was called Follie a Deux, a mix of Hendrick's gin, Snap liqueur, lemon, lavender, birch extract and sparkling water. It somehow managed to taste like watery bubbly Pepto Bismol.
Most Confusing Tattoo:
Style-wise, there were far fewer fedoras and handlebar mustaches this year. In 2012 the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone where the conference takes place was a sea of fedoras, a forest of facial hair. That has toned down significantly. Tattoo-watching continues to be a fun sport, and after many contenders I chose the above as the most baffling tattoo of the conference. It was spotted on a young lady at the Agostura bitters pool party at the Monteleone.