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101. The Big Easy Goes Hard on Exemplary Cocktails, and to a Lesser Extent, Beer
An account of Tales of the Cocktail and a check-in with New Orleans drinks; plus, tarot for some alone time.
~Tales from Tales~ of the Cocktail
That there title is about as creative as my fried little brain cells can muster this week. I know it’s not a hot (pun intended) take to bemoan New Orleans weather in late July, but I do think the particular heights the heat and humidity reached on Sunday permanently damaged some brain cells of mine. And that’s not including the wear and tear that an eating-and-drinking bonanza the likes of only a few cities like NOLA can lovingly inflict.
I waded into Tales of the Cocktail territory this year not with multi-day media credentials but with a one-day, general attendee pass. After doing both the Craft Brewers Conference and Bar Convent Brooklyn for the first time this year, I think I felt I needed to take this massive destination spirits summit on in baby steps; plus, I wanted to combine it with vacation and visiting a friend who lives there. What I learned is that there is definitely more than enough geek-out opportunity for me to more fully sink my teeth into next year, and that you can also soak up plenty (in more ways than one) without even being inside the event’s Ritz-Carlton digs.
Non-alc is in a really exciting place. Non-alcoholic options are trending, have ya’ heard? Jk, jk, I know this is not news. What I do think is news is how much serious attention an event like Tales of the Cocktail gives this category. It occupied a lot of real estate in terms of pop-up bars and booths on the convention floor, and while there were definitely a few groans to be overheard about the [imagined] superiority of full-booze products, it seemed that for most, the intrigue of really and truly good options is a big draw right now. Unsurprisingly in general but honestly impressive in volume was just how many people represented different approaches to seeking booze-free options, from totally sober to a little bit sober to simply seeking some balance and swap-outs. While we were trying Lyre’s genuinely quite good sparkling wine—with caviar on potato chips—a representative cited wanting to be a part of the boozy brunch experience with friends but honestly not feeling the actual booze part after maybe having been out the night before.
That Lyre’s room was full of other fantastic options that honed in on the different experiences you could still be a part of without imbibing, in the form of a tiki-style bar with tropical NA cocktails and a more classic bar diving into trendy amaro-based riffs. I had an espresso martini situation that was right up there with some of the tastiest full-booze iterations I’ve had of the cocktail.
Later, I had a delicious cocktail with Ritual Zero Proof’s Aperitif Alternative, and Ghia’s canned aperitivo with sour sumac and spicy chili. Frankly, it was really lovely to reach for anything I wanted to try with absolutely no concern as to getting inebriated. The focus was entirely on flavor and aroma, and that proved a fertile playground for the crafters of these cocktails. Corny jokes about double-fisting drinks and “getting cut off” whizzed around these NA bars and the vibes were just good…like, light? Others, too, seemed really excited to experience these next-level cocktails and not even have to think about booze. And there was an emphasis on what I think is the update here, which is just how seriously this segment is being taken. There is finally a really big, really diverse pool of mixology talent exerting their skill and creativity in the world of non-alcoholic beverages, and that is evident in the options that are now just as good as traditional cocktails and also nearly as available, appearing on the menus of more places, even of the ~hotspot~ variety. It feels like a confirmation that, more and more, people will be able to engage with the world of bars in all their forms, in myriad ways, without having to consume alcohol.
Good whisky is pouring forth from beyond traditional whisk(e)y countries. At a “New World Whisky” seminar, we tasted offerings from Mexico, Australia, Denmark, England, India, and Israel. Each was a really interesting balance between maintaining some element of whisk(e)y tradition and pushing boundaries on innovative processes and different flavors and aromas. These distilleries are utilizing fresh ideas—some of them are specifically brewing-world crossovers, too, like roasting and smoking malt and using alternative grains. They’re locally sourcing their plants, wood, and peat, and they’re fermenting with customized yeasts and cultivated wild strains. I’m not well-versed enough in the whisk(e)y world to weigh in—yet?—but there is obviously a terroir—to be or not to be?—conversation happening here, too. And with all of these different countries with their own traditions to weigh against long-standing whisk(e)y traditions as well as novel ideas, said conversation is alive, well, complicated, and fascinating.
My favorites here, by the way, were Abasolo from Jilotepec, Mexico, made with 100% ancestral corn; Stauning from Skjern, Denmark, made with 70% malted rye and 30% malted barley; and Rampur, a single malt made with six-row Indian barley in Uttar Pradesh.
Spirits come from more than grain, fruit, and sugarcane. I know, I know—“duh.” But “tree spirits” are a small and perhaps burgeoning category? To be more accurate, I’d say more global awareness is burgeoning. In fact, to skip past that distinction could be considered some narrow-minded, Eurocentric bullshit. Some of these spirits have been an integral part of different cultural traditions for generations. The happy update is that they are now being shared across more borders, which not only spreads their stories further and louder broadcasts their appeal and specialness, but also creates the opportunity for their makers to grow their businesses and more readily engage with the bar scene and mixology conversation in a wider array of countries.
Interestingly, the other point to be made before even moving past the overall category is how much conversation was devoted to how it’s named. The prepared portion of the panel was intentional in explaining the nomenclature—these spirits are, after all, made from fermenting tree sap—and then the audience Q&A kept landing back there, trying to suss out whether it would better serve tree spirit makers to add them to more well-known categories, or to not categorize them at the sake of erasing their individual identities. For the record, none of the makers on the panel seemed to think either extreme was a risk to their particular spirits. Arrack, for example, still maintains its identity even when classified as a “tree spirit” for categorization’s sake.
On that note, the spirits we tried were acerum, from Quebec, specifically from Distillerie du St. Laurent; arrack, from Sri Lanka, from PÓL Arrack; and ògógóró, from Nigeria, from Pedro’s. Acerum is distilled from fermented maple syrup, and for the sake of relating it to something you may be more familiar with, it’s akin to whiskey or cognac. Arrack is from coconut palm sap, and is akin to rum, and ògógóró is from palm sap, and is akin to rum or maybe gin…in fact, gin is a part of ògógóró’s absolutely fascinating and culturally vital story, as it’s been written off as gin, and a bad one riddled with additives at that.
According to the brilliant Pedro’s cofounder, Lola Pedro, colonizers in Nigeria deemed ògógóró illegal in order to trade gin. Today, many African people still refer to it as gin and it’s a catch-all for synthetic drinks for lower classes. Pedro’s is successfully flipping that script and celebrating the rich legacy of this drink. Its story is as fascinating as the drink itself is delicious, especially in the form of a hibiscus cocktail popular in Nigeria. You can read more about this in Adaorah Oduah’s PUNCH story, “This Is What Decolonizing a Spirit Looks Like.” And keep an eye out for acerum and arrack for now; ògógóró is not quite yet available here in the States but they are working on it, and I know I’m crossing my fingers.
New Orleans really is a cocktail town. I mean, hey, there’s a reason Tales happens here, right? And, NOLA is the birthplace of some of the most iconic cocktails and their ingredients. New Orleans has a reputation as a drinking town because of its monstrous to-go drinks clutched by staggering stag do-ers along Bourbon Street, but real ones consider its drinking-town reputation more intrinsically tied to its rich history and culture of iconic bars, visionary bartenders, and drinks that are either classics in their most traditional form or innovative twists on those classics.
I did not get to drink a French 75 at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar because they, well, seemed overwhelmed by a Tales event ending and let’s leave it at that! But I did have one at the Sazerac Bar—and that’s okay because I’ve been there before so I could venture away from the titular focus (and sazeracs are a commitment)—and it was simple and excellent. In terms of the new guard, I fell in love with a limoncello cocktail at the Ace Hotel’s restaurant Josephine Estelle, and then fell all over again for the La Luz Espresso at Bar Marilou (seriously, let your eyes feast upon this cocktail list).
And, for a sort of fresh celebration of time-honored classics, Manolito has been on my bar bucket list for a bit and did not disappoint. It is a merging of New Orleans and Havana, waving a proud and dedicated banner for the daiquiri. The daiquiri, I think, is just clawing its way back out of a “cheesy/unsophisticated/no-thank-you” bin many have tossed it into because of an over-saturation of sugary frozen strawberry situations years ago. In its truest sense, it is simple in ingredients yet a little complex in flavor and so, so refreshing. If you are hot in New Orleans, go there and order the Daiquiri Menta.
Because New Orleans is indeed such a cocktail town, the craft beer scene there is…well, not so much of a scene at all, I don’t think, from an outsider’s perspective. There are a few absolutely killer breweries and one well known beer bar…(locals/people who know this town better, correct me!) and some less killer breweries…beer’s just not really The Thing there, because the strong cocktail reputation overpowers it and that’s what people visiting town are after—I’d be surprised to meet anyone beercationing in New Orleans. But, about those killer breweries—they could now finally be getting some beer-scene momentum going, and if you’re open to combining your beercation with some cocktail-ing and a lot of eating and live music and history, definitely move New Orleans to the top of your list now.
Brewery Saint X is the newest addition. It comes from Neighborhood Restaurant Group—Bluejacket, Churchkey, The Grand Delancey—so you can trust they know what they’re doing. I think this is a spot with great crossover potential: it’s gigantic and comfortable, has great food, and a well-curated cocktail list, so I can see people who don’t think they give a hoot about beer coming in and then possibly trying something they end up loving. That success factor has good odds, too, as the beer is quite good and represents a nice range of styles. The extra selling point for me was cask ale, like a little Churchkey/Grand Delancey signature. I wondered if people would get into cask ale in the New Orleans heat, but I believe in Brewery Saint X’s ability to get people excited enough to try it and then realize how great it is and how refreshing it can be.
I got back to a brewery I loved from my visit last year, Miel. When was the last time you tried a beer that made your eyes pop open in revelatory excitement? I had two of those at Miel. And I was thinking a lot about the recent “no new stories in craft beer” conversation. Upon first sips of Miel’s smoked braggot (with Lapsang Souchong tea) and Fresh Growth, an IPA with spruce tips, I felt more confident than ever that that is just so not true. And the lovely bartender was so knowledgeable and jazzed about the beers, I thought of how there were multiple stories happening just within Miel’s taproom. Now I’m sad, missing that smoked braggot…
And then there’s Brieux Carré. This might be one of my favorite breweries in the world. I got there last year, and beelined back this year. It’s got this perfect old school craft vibe, with its pocket-sized taproom (plus lovely back garden), crowd of regulars, and chalkboard of “beer it forward” entries where people can buy a beer for, say, someone who has a pug (yes, that was me, and if you go into the taproom now and it’s still there and you have a pug, beer’s on me!). The vibe is simple, and that lets focus fall on two things: community, and beer.
If the atmosphere is old school in a cool way, their beer is so very ~now~ in a cool way, too, which means that you’ve got a lot of classics and traditional styles being brewed exquisitely and with new twists where appropriate. The tap list is substantial and I think there were…two hazy IPAs? One West Coast, a doppelbock, a Berliner weisse, a stout, a porter…and tons of lagers. Their decision to make so many lagers—and, importantly, make them very well—resulted in this very exciting exploration of the subtle ways you could very much differentiate, say, pilsners. West Coast pilsner, Belgian pilsner, imperial pilsner with orange blossom honey…they’re doing it all, and really raising the bar for what a small brewery can do.
Because of a very fun beer community plot twist—we walked into The Avenue Pub and behind the bar was our favorite beer-world bartender from back in NYC who we hadn’t seen since the pandemic and therefore did not know he’d moved to New Orleans—we ended up back at Brieux Carré a second time in just a few days. They’d added a grodziskie, and my heart nearly exploded. Just when I thought a tap list could not get any better! Drinking a Brieux Carré grodziskie in the brewery’s backyard with the NYC bartender who taught you how to properly pour a beer was a peak craft beer experience. And now I just can’t wait to engineer another trip to NOLA just to get back to that brewery, who I think is carrying a lot of weight in making the case that New Orleans might be a cocktail town, but you’d better not sleep on the beer.
This week, I pulled The Hermit.
The Hermit, perhaps unsurprisingly, speaks to alone time, introspection, reflection, and soul-searching. In some way, you might be feeling a need to turn the world off to some extent in order to listen to your own real needs, desires, and thoughts. You might be approaching a big life decision or turning point, and your head is cluttered to the point of chaos with the opinions of friends and family, with what everyone else on social media seems to be doing, with stats and anecdotes you’ve read online, with trajectories you’ve seen play out on TV or in the real world. It’s all just noise now, really loud and maddening noise, and you simply can’t let this cloud your own judgment and what you truly need. The only option is to switch it all off to the best of your ability.
For example, it’s the perfect time to disconnect from Twitter, now that’s it’s “X,” barf. Or, you could take a yoga retreat. Or, hole up in your apartment for the weekend with your favorite candles, foods, beverages, and tunes. Or, go for a solo hike (be safe, obvs). Find a spot on the beach that isn’t crowded (I don’t actually know how you do this, but it sounds nice in theory). Basically, step away from your version of the rat race and create your own personal ideal haven for soul-searching, whether that must lead you to some big, definitive decision or be more open-ended—maybe you’re just trying to figure out what you’re really looking for at a new stage in your life.
If you’re in the general vicinity, this tarot card is telling you to take your soul-searching journey right to Hermit Thrush in Brattleboro, Vermont. Vermont feels like a perfect place to commune with nature and your own thoughts, and then you can celebrate your dedication to yourself with a gorgeous wild ale at a renowned brewery. Not a bad deal, right? Right now, I’ve got my eye on the Coolship Plum.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
I am extremely behind on the magical storytelling of Good Beer Hunting. I know you don’t need me to spend each week’s issue listing GBH entries at you, but there are often such important, essential pieces there that feel just mad to not highlight. In beginning to catch up, because I am headed to Portland, Maine this weekend, I jumped into Matt Osgood’s “Seeking Forever in a Temporary World — Sacred Profane Brewery and Tankpub in Biddeford, Maine.” Wow, the storytelling in this one. Absolutely gorgeous writing that I will admit made me jealous—could I weave a love story and an intimate introduction to a story’s subjects into a beautifully visceral and informative examination of beer and brewing? Idk! But I do know that I wish beer nerds made up big enough of a market that a studio would make this movie (when all the strikes are—fairly!—over).
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
It’s truly hard to choose from this past week, taking into consideration Brewery Saint X, Miel, and Brieux Carré. But I have to go with the latter, so nice I went there twice. That lager-heavy, lager-eclectic tap list…and very, very important, that grodziskie. We took advantage of the open container laws and I got a pint of the grod to stroll through the French Quarter back to our hotel on our last night, ending the trip on such a lovely, memorable note.
Until next week (or tbh maybe the week after, as more travel is a-comin’), here’s Darby physically expressing how I usually feel.