Cocktail festival marks 10 years
Mixologists and craft distillers from around
the world joined amateur cocktail enthusiasts
in the Crescent City on July 24-29 to share toasts and to celebrate the history and craft that goes
into creative sippers.
They were among the thousands who attended seminars, learned what it takes to become a master bartender, went to early morning and late-night parties and dinners, and competed in cocktail
mixing contests at the 10th annual Tales of the Cocktail, billed as the “world’s premier cocktail festival.”
A cocktail is an alcoholic drink that includes a mixer such as liqueur, soda or fruit juice. At this year’s seminars, there was an emphasis on drinks that refresh rather than hard-core alcoholic cocktails.
Attendees learned bitters, ginger beer, and the use of egg white and citrus mixers are major trends in cocktails — all of which make for refreshing drinks for the Southern climate. For the person who doesn’t want to drink alcohol, many of the cocktails can be altered with the use of lemon-lime sodas, lemonade, pomegranate juice and other fruit juices.
Among the tidbits picked up during two days of seminars:
- Throughout history, religion and alcohol have been mutually dependent on each other. Monks learned about distilling from early pilgrimages (the 11th century on) to the Middle East and brought the technique back to monasteries in Europe.
- Liqueurs were developed when monks began adding herbs, such as cinnamon, hyssop, juniper, myrrh, nutmeg, lemon balm, thyme, peppermint and honey, to aqua vitae, a clear distilled brandy. They believed aqua vitae, which means “water of life,” was medicinal.
- Early Russian alcoholic drinks included birch wine and a low-alcohol drink made of aged and fermented honey. The fermented honey was mixed with either berry juice or hops. By the 15th century the Russians moved from fermented honey to mead, which is made with yeast. Distillation began in 1386 when an emissary from Genoa, Italy, brought a gift of aqua vitae.
- In 1533, Ivan the Terrible opened the first Russian bar for the public, and from 1765 to 1863 is considered the golden age of vodka in Russia.
- One of the earliest cocktails made with vodka was prepared in 1911 at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans.
Kahlúa sponsored a seminar titled “Coffee: The Missing Ingredient” at which attendees learned about the different flavor profiles in bean varietals and how they complement — or don’t — particular spirits. “Tequila and whiskey just aren’t naturally good pairings with coffee,” said Troy Sidle. “With coffee cocktails, sugar and cream are your friend.”
In discussing specialty coffees, Sidle said, “Every batch of coffee is different no matter how good your roaster is.” But, he added, “truly great coffee is not difficult to make. You must be engaged and have a commitment to formula and technique.”
He suggested tasting each batch of coffee before making a cocktail.
He said, “If your coffee tastes too bitter, the (bean’s) grind is too fine and if it’s too sour, the grind is too coarse.”
Drinking the Panama Canal
In a seminar called “Bottle Alley: Drinking the Panama Canal,” Jeff Berry and David Wondrich discussed “the scandalous, murderous, delicious history” of Panama’s alcoholic drinks from 1502 to 1945. Thousands died over the centuries during attempts to cross the isthmus of Panama.
“It was a very dangerous place, with wild animals and people and disease,” Berry said. “… It was a test of your constitution.”
In 1671, England’s Oliver Cromwell sent Henry Morgan to the Caribbean to vex Spain, Berry said.
Morgan hooked up with 1,200 pirates to take Panama City, whose governor had sent the good treasure out of the city.
“The pirates didn’t follow the treasure ship because they were drunk on pirate punch,” Berry said.
The punch, which was popular from the 1660s to the 1720s, was made with rum or another spirit, lime juice, sugar, water or tea and a spice such as nutmeg. It was drunk from a silver bowl.
When gold was discovered in California, many gold seekers traveled from the U.S. East Coast to Panama and then crossed the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean.
“The city of Cólon was started as a company town for the Panama Railroad,” Berry said, describing it as “a sink hole of card sharks, bars and bordellos” with the worst area being three-block-long Bottle Alley, so-called because it was paved with bottles.
“The city was built for Americans so it had American bartenders. Some good drinks were developed” during that period, he said. Among them was the Champagne Cocktail by Jerry Thomas. It was made with 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, two dashes of bitters, Champagne, broken ice and lemon peel. The ice came in by steamer ship, he said.
Many workers believed having a dose of rum would keep malaria away while bourbon and mustard seed were thought to ward off yellow jack (yellow fever). Tabasco sauce and quinine were other popular additives to alcohol.
Cruising the Caribbean
Today, people travel to the Caribbean by ships such as Carnival Elation out of New Orleans.
Edward Allen, vice president of Carnival’s beverage operations, said he makes alcoholic purchases for 24 cruise ships.
“Guests want drinks made well,” he said, adding that he is proud the line offers “quality control on drinks and training of the staff. If you go to different bars on the same ship, you can get the same drink every time.”
Prices run from about $4.95 to $10.75. “We go through six million cocktail parasols and 11/2 million bottles of alcohol a year” which includes 675,000 bottles of rum and 1.4 million bottles of wine, he said.
Anise liqueurs, apéritifs
A seminar on “Anise: The Treasure of the Mediterranean” looked at the historical and cultural heritage of anise-based liqueurs and apéritifs, which are popular in Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Ceylon and France.
The drinks, which include absinthe, banned in the United States for most of the 20th century because it is distilled from wormwood, should always be cut with water, mixologist Francesco Lafranconi said.
“Anise is very delicate” so “copper stills are still used for distilling because copper is an inert material.”
The No. 1 selling anise in Italy is made by Distilleria Varnelli, a family-run business founded in 1868. Its chief executive officer, Orietta Maria Varnelli, attended the seminar dressed in the attire of the Ordre Internationale des Anysetiers, which was launching the first U.S. chapter of the medieval guild of Anysetier, established in 1263.
Members of the Louisiana Bailliage include Tales of the Cocktail founders Ann and Paul Tuennerman; Liz Williams, who heads the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans; and Laura and Chris McMillan, of the Museum of American Cocktails.