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The Insiders' Guide to Tales of the Cocktail

San Diego bartenders share their experiences at the iconic annual event


Tiki cocktails from Beachbum Berry's bar, Latitude 29. | Photo: Stephen Kurpinsky

Tales of the Cocktail, held annually in New Orleans, has been described as the Coachella for bartenders. Let’s add in Comic-Con, too. At Tales, you’ll find fans, professionals, and cocktail icons, all there to pay homage to the art of making a delicious drink, try out new booze, and get nicely loaded along the way. Roughly two dozen San Diego bartenders flew from SD to NOLA to for this year’s event, which took place this past weekend. By Tuesday, a handful had recovered enough to share some tales from Tales.


Two words: Ancho Verde

From the folks who brought us Ancho Reyes, the ancho-chile liqueur that’s redefined spicy cocktails, comes Ancho Verde. Several people mentioned it as a Tales highlight. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until early next year to try it.

Christian Siglin, Bracero Cocina: “Aside from being delicious, Ancho Verde’s spicy and green, just like biting into a fresh poblano chile. The versatility of the product is really exciting and I’d imagine it’s going to be on a lot of cocktail menus when it's released.”

Stephen Kurpinsky, George’s at the Cove / Level2: “A completely different product from Ancho Reyes, this stuff is seriously on another plane. It’s going to explode—expect it on back bars everywhere when it comes out. It will be a heavily used ingredient on cocktail menus, in the way that Stiggins’ Plantation Pineapple Rum took the world by storm last year.”


Three words: Plantation Pineapple Rum

Willem Van Leuven, Herb & Wood: “During Tales, there is an awards ceremony and one of the categories is 'Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient.' The winner this year was Stiggins' Fancy Plantation Pineapple Rum from Barbados. We've had it on the back bar at Herb & Wood since we’ve opened, and it makes such a beautiful daiquiri. A few of my staff have it as their go-to option when a guest asks for a special rum cocktail.”

Joshua Carlos, La Puerta: “On Friday morning, I showed up at Bar Tonique at 11:59 a.m. The first person in the bar, I was ready to drink tequila. I looked up at the shelves and saw the coveted Plantation Pineapple. I said, Before I leave, I need a shot of that. Before I knew it, we were drinking shots of 100-proof Don Fulano tequila with a Plantation Pineapple float. Best thing ever.”


The Bartender’s Guide to New Orleans

A bartender staple: Irish coffee from Erin Rose. | Photo: Jesse Ross

Elliot Mizuki, Polite Provisions: “This year, I went to the places I couldn't live without for over a year, and Erin Rose is that place. I probably had five or six of their Irish Coffees in the four days I was there. It's an industry spot and at any given time of the day during Tales, you will run into at least a half-dozen bartenders you know sipping on one. They keep their recipes close to their chest, but it is magical.”

Stephen Kurpinsky’s NOLA picks:

  • Hotel Monteleone: “Ground zero for the convention, where registration and most of the seminars were held. The hotel did a remarkable job handling the 30,000 industry professionals that hit them during the week. The hotel is old, and is therefore too small to hold such a gathering, but that’s part of the charm of the French Quarter—it’s too small for a modern world.”

  • Cochon Butcher: “Damn fine meats and foodstuffs. I can’t stress how good they are—just go.”

  • Cane and Table: “A proto-tiki/colonial-inspired restaurant and bar, it’s a must-stop for me every first night I land in NOLA. The drinks and the food are always on message, and just plain delicious.”

  • Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29: “This tiki bar, by the tiki legend himself, is no joke. The drinks are on-point, the service is pure brilliance, and the garnish game is about the strongest I’ve ever seen. Extra bonus that Beachbum himself was there and made it a point to have a conversation with us.”


Tiki supremacy

Jesse Ross, Sycamore Den: “I didn't so much discover a particular spirit or liquor or drink that I didn't already know about. What I did experience was this interest in the two trends of agave spirits and tiki cocktails kind of being solidified as legitimate and here to stay. Just between this year and last year, the focus, excitement and buzz is growing. The fact that Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco won best American cocktail bar is really big for the tiki scene and is going to further bartenders’ and cocktail consumers’ interest.”


Cocktails made

Will Van Leuven: “On Saturday night, I bartended at the Jägermeister ‘Deergarten’ party. I made about 400 cocktails called The West Coast German, which is a tiki-style cocktail. It’s not currently on the menu at Herb & Wood. However, I'm planning on making some changes in the next few weeks, it'll probably make it in print on the menu.”

1 1/2 oz. Jägermeister
3/4 oz. pineapple
3/4 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. Lillet Blanc
1/2 oz. simple syrup

Shake hard and double strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a grilled pineapple wedge.

Jesse Ross: “I made a cocktail for the Jägermeister ‘Deergarten’ event. There were 10 bartenders from all over the country, with five bars within one space. The five different bars represented the five main tasting notes in Jäger (sweet, spicy, citrus, herbs, bitter). I was at the herbs bar with Avery Underhill from Good Times at Davey Wayne’s in LA. My drink was called a Black Sea Spritz. It was Jägermeister, prosecco, fresh lemon, a tarragon syrup, salt, and activated charcoal, which turned the drink a very deep, dark black. It was really awesome. I saw several people come back for seconds, which, by my rule of thumb, means they dug it. It was super-light and bubbly and refreshing, but looked quite the opposite, like a wine glass full of squid ink. I was pretty proud of it.”

Joshua Carlos: “I did a watermelon agua fresca with some tequila for our tequila tasting room. Simple, yet a perfect opportunity to get a little tropical. It was prepared by Ricardo Pico of Hacienda Chihuahua Sotol for the event. He blended fresh watermelon with a little sugar. From there, I took the agua fresca and did a 2:1 ratio of Don Fulano blanco fuerte served over ice, lightly stirred and garnished with a sprig of mint. Light 10 a.m. refresher.”


Cocktails drank

Garrett Thor, Jaynes Gastropub: “My favorite drink was the Ramos Gin Fizz at Muriel’s Jackson Square. I assume it was the classic ingredients: gin, egg white, lemon and lime juice, cream, simple syrup, a hint of orange-blossom water, and soda water. What made this one so spectacular was the frothy texture due to some magical mixing machine. It was like drinking tasty, alcoholic air. Drinking it in the 'seance' room was a trip as well. Very surreal.”

Jesse Ross: “The best drink I had was a spin on the classic Daisy cocktail at the Rutte Gin G&T party: Gin, lemon, Mandarin Napoleon, and agave. You try so many drinks at Tales of the Cocktail that I try not to finish one unless I really like it—and I had two of these.”

Will Van Leuven: “Two friends of mine from Los Angeles, Yael Vengroff [from L.A.’s The Spare Room] and Aaron Polsky [Harvard & Stone], worked together to create some of the most fantastic cocktails I’ve ever seen. This all took place during a spirited dinner at the industry-favorite restaurant, Bacchanal. Usually, a spirited dinner pairs a chef to create dishes that complement a cocktail or two. Bacchanal has never hosted a spirited dinner—they originally said no to the request. Vengroff and Polsky changed the restaurant owners’ minds when they explained what they had in mind. Their goal was to turn spirits into wine. In this case, they worked some incredible magic to turn Fortaleza tequila and La Niña Mezcal into what tasted like wine using varying infusions and other techniques that are honestly still a mystery to me. They created what looked like a rosé wine, a Meursault, and a Cornas (a northern Rhone type that looked and tasted like Syrah). It was the 'Syrah' that blew my mind: Fortaleza añejo tequila infused with salumi, lavender, black currant, aronia [berry], oak chips, and Bittermens Scarborough bitters.”

Rebecca Votel, Kindred: “The best drink I had was at Latitude 29, called the Hawaii 504. It’s Chinese five-spice suspended in honey and shaken with Virgin Islands rum, ginger liqueur, lime, and orange juices. So good! I'm a sucker for Chinese five-spice anything, and this drink knocked it out of the park for me.”

Stephen Kurpinsky: “Best cocktails I had the entire week were at the Singani 63 party, held at Cellar Door. The theme was secret agent, where you were given a series of clues and riddles that made you interact with everyone there, including the owner of the company, director Steven Soderbergh. Singani 63 is a Bolivian spirit made of muscat and some of the finest bartenders in the country mixed up creations featuring it, such as Ivy Mix, Alex Day, Julie Reiner, and Jesse Harris.”

Cory Alberto, Grant Grill: “I had a drink at The Dungeon Bar they called Louisiana Lightnin’. I asked for the strongest drink they made. They poured one ounce of five different whiskeys (that’s five ounces!), one ounce of gin, one ounce of tequila, lemon juice, honey, and blue Curacao into a giant mug, splashed it with soda and garnished it with a bunch of ugly fruit wheels. It was tacky as all hell but surprisingly tasty. And, yes, it got me drunk!”

Got suggestions for a future column? Write to 2kellydavis@gmail.com.

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