If you drank a cocktail at a bar in the last week in Chicago, it may have seemed like something was missing. And it was—tons of Chicago bartenders were in New Orleans for the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention, a raucous gathering that includes tasting not-yet-released products, taking classes on Advanced Sherry and Airport Bars, and drinking way, way, way too much, starting at breakfast. When bartenders weren't drinking, they were winning awards—the Aviary’s Charles Joly was named American Bartender of the Year and Sable’s Alex Renshaw was named one of 10 bartenders to watch in the country.
After giving everyone a few days to recover—seriously, we drank a lot—I talked to five bartenders about their visit to New Orleans and what they brought back to Chicago.
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Beverage Director at The Aviary
What he did there: 1) Won Best American Bartender: “I was so happy to make it to the final four [for Best American Bartender], and I was friends with everyone nominated as well, and they’re all at the top of their game. I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, so bringing any national and international attention to the great things happening in the city is the bigger picture. Anytime anyone gets recognition for what they’re doing, whether it’s a great restaurant or a great bar, it’s great for the whole community.”
2) Judged the Bare Knuckle Bar Fight: “The creativity in the cocktail world just continues to grow. You’re seeing cities like Miami and Kansas City making great cocktails, which shows that people are drinking better all over the country. Plus Barrelhouse Flat made a Malört and housemade tonic that was remarkably good.”
Bartender at soon-to-open tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash
What she did there: “I went down to Tales to take classes on rum and tiki. I’m Paul McGee’s student in the project, so I’m not making the drinks there myself, but it was nice to go and get in-depth background on rums. I went to a seminar on European rums, which are aged in the Caribbean and in Europe. I was able to learn about why these rums have certain notes and characteristics. We’re going to have several European rums at the bar.”
What she took away: “There are interesting spirits being produced all over the country that have so much character. And they’re much more interesting to talk to guests about than bigger brands. The High West stuff is really cool, and so is the Breckenridge stuff.”
Bartender, Sable Kitchen + Bar
What he did there: “I was doing the cocktail apprentice program along with Mike Ryan. We basically made all the cocktails for the seminars. We made like 50,000 cocktails throughout the week.”
What he took away: “You learn how to work with people you haven’t met from all over the world. You learn how to approach situations in a bar and you get to know bartenders and gain friends and mentors.” But he says, “I get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I leave the bar. I’m working a 17-hour day today. I’m excited to be back.”
“Undisclosed new project” in River North & formerly of Sepia
What he did there: Pearson was working with Absolut during Tales. When he wasn’t shaking up drinks (he made me a maple bacon flip during the Absolut party), Pearson sipped his way through tasting rooms and other events.
What he took away: “Punches are still holding strong for large groups. In the past three years, they’ve really taken off, but it was cemented this year at Tales. I didn’t go to a single event without a punch bowl.” While punches can use any spirit, Pearson said that he noticed a lot of Irish whiskey punches, including one with tangerine, orange and eucalyptus.
“It was all about simplicity this year. A couple years ago, everything was heavy on molecular, but this year I drank a lot of negronis. I don’t know what’s going on with the negroni this summer, but it’s having its moment.”
Bartender at Scofflaw
What he took away: “Death’s Door gave me a taste of the peppermint schnapps they’re working on and I’m definitely going to look into using that at Scofflaw.”
“I’ve been going to Tales for four years, and the biggest takeaway every time is that you’re reminded that at the end of the day a bar is all about hospitality. It’s a place everyone likes to hang out together.”
Some other trends I noticed:
• Sherry is cool
Sherry has a reputation as your grandmother’s favorite beverage, but perspectives on the Spanish fortified wine are finally changing. Sherry-focused bars have opened in D.C., San Francisco, and other cities, and I’m hoping Chicago isn’t far behind. There are several varieties of sherry, from bone dry to sweet, and while they’re enjoyable sipped on their own, they’re also fantastic in cocktails. Since sherry is a fortified wine, just like vermouth, expect to start seeing sherry used more frequently in manhattans, negronis and other cocktails. In Chicago, Vera has a solid sherry program, and offers occasional tasting classes, so start learning now.
• Vermouths continue to grow
A visit to the New Vermouth tasting room made me really, really excited about some of the off-the-wall vermouths being made right now. Uncouth Vermouth, a one-woman company operating out of Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery, is making seasonal vermouths like a pungent beet eucalyptus and floral Serrano chili lavender. Oregon’s Hammer & Tongs Vermouth makes L'Afrique, an earthy, vegetal vermouth made with botanicals from North and West Africa. While there’s debate over whether all of these are true vermouths, since vermouth is supposed to have wormwood, they’re still cool. I tried each vermouth neat or over ice, and while they were light aperitifs on their own, I can see them making funky manhattans and other cocktails.
• Scotch cocktails are getting better
Of all the bad cocktails out there, bad Scotch cocktails are the worst, since I almost always would prefer to just sip it neat. Besides being the base spirit in a drink, Scotch can add a hint of smokiness to accent other spirits, and the cocktails I tried in New Orleans were much, much better than the hideous Blood and Sands I usually encounter. In various tasting rooms and seminars, Scotch was used to great effect in milk punches, fizzes, flips and even Bloody Marys.