With the 21st edition of the annual spirits conference/bacchanalia Tales of the Cocktail in the books, it’s a good time to reflect (after a weeklong detox) on what the spirits conference tells us about the drinks industry. With tens of thousands of attendees — many of whom are luminaries in the hospitality world — TOTC serves as an ideal microcosm of what’s going on in the drinks space, both domestically and globally. Throughout our five days there, we attended more than 50 events, seminars and parties. Was it swelteringly hot in New Orleans in July? Yep, but no worse than, well, anywhere else. And Tales is certainly worth a visit — weather be damned — if you’re an enthusiast, a liquor brand or a drinks professional.
We first attended Tales back in 2016; the change from then to now — including an ownership shakeup a few years back — has been welcome, as the conference seems more in tune with philanthropy, well-being and, honestly, emphasizing what bartenders do best. We talked to a ton of industry folk, drank a lot (or didn’t drink at all, as one InsideHook attendee courageously accomplished) and tried to suss out what TOTC 2023 tells us about the rest of the year in the booze world. Here are some takeaways.
Non-Alcoholic Drinks Are Here to Stay
While the stats say non-alcoholic drinks only represent 1% of the volume share of the total beverage alcohol market in the United States, the category is growing rapidly (up 15% in 2022). And the quality and attention to detail (particularly with mocktails) is growing. One of the best cocktails I had at Tales was at the Lyre’s bar, a second-floor space at the Ritz-Carlton devoted to their non-alcoholic line of spirits (they also incorporated some AI aspects, which were fun). And several boozy events offered non-alc options that went beyond water or club soda. Given that one member of our team was not drinking at all during Tales, it was an interesting exercise to find what she could or could not imbibe at each event.
Visiting Bartenders Are the New Best Thing
I’m spoiled as a New Yorker — great bartenders come to the city in pop-ups or as guest drinks slingers all the time. But the trend appears to be growing across the country. At Tales, some of the most interesting drinks showed up at a Singapore Residency at the Ritz. In partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board, each day showcased a different exceptional bar and its menu.
Smaller Events Make a Bigger Impact
The larger drinks brands threw a lot of money at their activations down at Tales, and while those parties were damn fun (Campari had sword swallowers!), the most memorable moments I had were more intimate: getting a private, impromptu tasting from a brand ambassador for Teeling’s (including a new release); Redemption Whiskey’s hourly “show” that offered comedy, history and a unique tasting experience for about 20 people at a time; and talking with the actual people behind the bottles at the Meet the Distillers event, which is unfairly showcased on the last day of Tales when most people have packed up. And that’s not to mention the dozens of educational seminars throughout the week at the Ritz.
How People in the Drinks Industry Maintain Their Mental HealthWe asked dozens of bar professionals about their wellness plans for 2021
The Industry Is Getting Better at Taking Care of Itself
The Tales of the Cocktail Foundation has done an admirable job in promoting the health and well-being of hospitality workers. They offer yearly grants focusing on programs that promote equity, advocacy, healthcare, mental health, education, sexual harassment prevention and workplace safety. And we saw some brands promoting their own endeavors in the wellness space this year. It was at an Elijah Craig event for the upcoming Old Fashioned Week where I learned about their association with Southern Smoke Foundation, which puts money directly into the pockets of food and beverage workers in times of need. A lot of bigger booze brands have worthy programs similar to this; it’d be nice to see their efforts publicized and emphasized more.
Even as a Drinks Professional, There Will Always Be Cool Things You Haven’t Tried Before
Some of the oddities — mostly good — I sampled at this year’s Tales included a savory rum from Haiti, a pea-based vodka from New Jersey that was more like a mezcal, a local New Orleans rum brand that’s making delicious non-alc syrups (including praline, King Cake and cucumber), a chamomile-infused Indian whisky made into a vegan milk punch at a House of Sazerac event and something called Blue Crush, a frozen mix of vodka, coconut berry Red Bull, Hypnotic, lemonade and Sprite, which I found on the menu at a local, well-loved eatery called Turkey and the Wolf. It wasn’t an official TOTC drink, but it was proof that the drinks world can still offer surprises.
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