What’s new at New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail

Ann Tuennerman can’t help but marvel at the evolution of “Tales of the Cocktail,” the international cocktail convention she started in New Orleans more than a decade ago. From its scrappy beginnings, she says, it has become one of the world’s premiere gatherings for all things liquor.

“The first year we had about 100 people and two events,” she said. “My husband (Paul) likes to say we had an opening and closing event. But after that first year, people said, ‘This is great. You have to do it again.’ ”

And so she did, again and again. Last year, the Tuennermans celebrated the festival’s 10-year anniversary by welcoming more than 20,000 cocktail connoisseurs to New Orleans, from mixologists and bartenders to distillers and chefs. Tuennerman said the event has grown so big that she would be perfectly happy if it grows no more.

The five-day “Tales of the Cocktail,” which features more than 200 seminars, tasting rooms competitions and dinners, opens July 17 at the Hotel Monteleone. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, which awards scholarships to emerging talent in the New Orleans cocktail industry.

“We program the event for professionals,” Tuennerman said. “So you won’t find a seminar on ‘setting up your home bar 101.’ But we do have cocktail enthusiasts who attend — people who are hard core just like someone is about wine or food.”

With 10 years of organizing “Tales of the Cocktail” under her belt, Tuennerman says the key to its success lies in programming — keeping up with what’s new in the spirits industry and offering seminars that teach professionals new ways of serving, preparing and even creating cocktails.

“We have the same structure every year but with all new content,” she said. “We do that to keep it fresh. We have a process in which people submit their ideas. This year we had 300 submissions for 59 slots. All of our events are new.

“This year we have a seminar that’s all about glassware. We have seminars on ice. We have a woman coming who will be talking about using herbs and creating a garden for your cocktail bar.”

Other seminar topics include the role of pineapple in cocktails, running a successful airport bar, the roots of tequila and tips for making an elegant yet simple cocktail.

No cocktail convention would be complete without tastings, and opportunities abound for attendees to sample everything from tailgating drinks and ice cream floats to espresso martinis and party punch.

Yet another highlight of “Tales of the Cocktail” are the Spirited Dinners, in which mixologists and distillers combine their talents with some of the best chefs in New Orleans to create unique cocktail and cuisine experiences.

Each event comes with a pricetag — seminars are in the $40 to $50 price range — but there are also several complimentary events on the agenda, including talks, demonstrations and radio shows.

“New Orleans is a huge part of the success of the event,” Tuennerman said. “We have such a walkable city that really lends itself to people interacting and networking.”

Tuennerman said it was in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina, that she realized “Tales of the Cocktail” was here to stay. Although it lost its main sponsor, organizers were determined to keep it going. The only thing they did differently was move it from August to July — so as not to conflict with the anniversary of Katrina or the peak of hurricane season.

“We said we’re moving full steam ahead,” Tuennerman said. “And we actually grew that year. We were pleasantly surprised. And it kind of started to hit me what a big deal this was.”

Last year, she said, the festival had a $14.3 million economic impact on New Orleans, up $1.6 million from 2011, according to a study by the University of New Orleans.

Over the years, the festival has expanded to help groom the next generation of mixologists. The Cocktail Apprentice Program gives up-and-coming bartenders a chance to learn from the world’s top cocktail masters, and the Cocktail Apprentice Scholarship Funds enables former apprentices to pursue educational opportunities and research projects in mixology.

“In 2013, we anticipate that we will spend in excess of $150,000 in scholarships,” Tuennerman said, “and another $192,000 funding various projects and programs closely associated with Louisiana, New Orleans and the bartending industry.”