Like many bartenders, enthusiasts and all around bar geeks, I spent last week in New Orleans at the annual Tales of the Cocktail event. It’s more interesting than a lot of cocktail events in that there are seminars and workshops, not just brand shills. (Unfortunately, some of the seminars are given by brand shills, so you have to read the descriptions carefully.)

But for most of us working bartenders, it’s really an excuse to rub elbows with those industry folk we admire, and hang out with bartenders we like but rarely have the opportunity to spend time with outside of their bars (and ours). And drink, of course.

The workshops themselves were a mixed bag. I’ve learned to go by the people giving them, as they tend to be pretty informative. One I went to, Asian-Influenced Cocktails, was essentially a brand promotional event given by two soju and sake producers trying to convince everyone that these liquors were the Next Big Thing. (Example: Soju cocktails are low-calorie! Which everyone appreciates! Um, aren’t they lower in calories because they’re lower in alcohol? And why is the drink you’re serving me blue?) I wish I had spent the same money on the ice-carving demonstration given by an actual bartender. The best one I went to was Sugar: The Science of Sweet given by Darcy O’Neil of The Art of Drink. He discussed various sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, etc.) and how they act in the mouth and in the presence of other ingredients like acid and alcohol, all important considerations when composing cocktails. I’ve been a fan of Darcy for years, and will happily sit in any seminar he gives.

One of the most fun nights was a party and barbecue held by a handful of San Francisco bartenders who had rented a house right near Frenchman Street, home of some of best bars to see live jazz (more on that later). It was close to our rented apartment, which, seeing as I did not have a prize-winning cocktail that garnered me a spot in the Hotel Monteleone like last year, was a far more practical option.

Me and Miss Jackie Patterson, the two lady bartenders of Heaven’s Dog
The Pisco Duggan was drinking was delicious. I would totally buy it if I knew what it was.

One of the absolute best things about San Francisco bartenders is our support of each other and willingness to share tips, techniques, recipes and anything else involved in making our drinks. It’s a dynamic I haven’t seen, at this level, in any other city. When we’re off work, we sit at each other’s bars and ask questions, and drink, and talk shop. No one is cagey, and no one is rude, or even rarely very arrogant. People who act that way don’t fit in very well, and it’s pretty obvious. We all work so much that we rarely get to hang out without being at a bar, in which case, one of us is working. So when a San Francisco bartender party gets going, it’s pretty much love all over the place. Smack-talking, of course, but mostly drunken, drunken love. Ronnie from Magnolia worked the grill, there was swag and product promotion (i.e. free booze) all over the place, and it was overheard that “if this house burned down you wouldn’t be able to get a decent drink in San Francisco for ten years.” Great fun.

This year I brought my boyfriend, a member of the Oakland-based Dixieland style brass band Blue Bone Express. Although I had been to New Orleans before, I got to see a whole new side of it (arguably the better known side) as he took me to club after club, introducing me to his industry giants

The New Orleans Jazz Vipers at d.b.a..
Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile

We also saw Treme Brass Band, but the venue was little more than a smoky basement, and none of my photos turned out. It was pretty amazing; I’ve lived in California my whole life, and was never exposed to this kind of music before. But in New Orleans, live brass is played nightly, and often for free. It was a welcome respite from the 10:00am drinking workshops, too.

Our last day we rented bikes and had a picnic in Audubon Park. Anyone who knows me well knows I love picnics!

New Orleans in July is the low season because of the ridiculous heat, so hotels and apartments are dead cheap. The struggle with the conference on the whole is how to negotiate brand sponsorships while trying to provide informative discussions on aspects of drink-making. I don’t consider a sales pitch something I’d like to spend money on, and yet I did, unwittingly until I was there. I left early from such events, and felt taken advantage of. I know the event itself is expensive, and sponsorships help offset that cost. But if the seminars continue to consist of brand shills and company bartenders, I’m pretty sure home enthusiasts and professional bartenders will stop attending. So I’d recommend the event for next year, but with the advice to only take classes taught by folk you have heard of, on subjects you are interested in. Taste the brand products in the tasting rooms. They’re free.