Tales of the Cocktail is a yearly gathering of bartenders, distillers and spirits professionals that takes place in New Orleans every July. It features seminars, competitions and a ton of parties, and finishes with a gala awards ceremony that recognizes the world's best in our industry. I attended my first Tales of the Cocktail seven years ago; in 2006, I may have been the only bartender from Colorado in attendance. I went alone, paid for myself, stayed in a shitty hotel and attended seminars about syrups, specific spirits, ice and the cultural differences of bartenders around the globe. I was a sponge.
See also: - Williams & Graham and Sean Kenyon both finalists for Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards - Patrón Muddled: An XO Cafe Shakedown - Who's a dickhead? Barman Sean Kenyon's response to Jenn Wohletz's cocktail grievances
Without a doubt, that trip in 2006 changed my life and ignited my passion for classic cocktails and the practice of mixology. At that point, I had been bartending for 21 years, and I felt like I knew nothing. Sure, I could take care of my guests, but I knew little about the products on the back bar or the history of our craft.
I was working at Steuben's and had just started transforming the cocktail menu there into a classically influenced list. My inaugural trip to Tales gave me the inspiration and direction to push my game higher. I left New Orleans that year and purchased about every classic cocktail book I could get my hands on: The Savoy, Jerry Thomas's The Bon Vivant's Companion, Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan, and more. I got back behind the bar at Steuben's and played around with new ingredients; I started working with chef (and good friend) Brandon Biederman about taking a culinary approach to cocktails.
The next year, I was joined in New Orleans by some of the people I consider the "godparents" of Colorado cocktail culture: Bryan Dayton, Anika Zappe and Mike Henderson. It was equal parts learning and partying, but the inspiration that we drew from meeting our peers from around the globe was immeasurable. In the years following, more and more Colorado bartenders made the annual July pilgrimage to the Crescent City. Every trip we took to Tales, we returned and shared our new experiences and knowledge. It was so much fun for me to see ACE bartender Randy Layman experience Tales for the first time in 2010, and upon his return, he shared his trip with Café Society readers. I've had the pleasure of watching Randy and his twin brother Ryan mature into leaders and role models for Denver's bartenders, and Tales was at least a small part of that growing process.
This year, Colorado was represented by about fifty bartenders, distillers and spirits professionals. It was an amazing feeling to walk through the French Quarter and see so many familiar faces (in varying states of intoxication). We were teaching seminars, running huge events, bartending in tasting rooms, and working/attending huge parties. I am so proud that our Colorado cocktail community has entrenched itself in a world that was dominated by the huge markets on the Coasts: For the first time in the history of Tales, we had establishments and a bartender as nominees and finalists for the annual Spirited Awards.
Finally, the nation is taking notice of what's going on in the Mile High City. Tales of the Cocktail has had a profound impact on bibulous culture in Denver. It's a major reason that bartenders here know their classics, and have the resources and ability to create amazing craft cocktails. So if you were drinking in Denver a couple of weeks ago, you might have been wondering, "Where's my regular bartender?" The answer to the question was most likely, "At Tales of the Cocktail." I'm sure she/he brought back a headful of knowledge, a boost of inspiration and a hangover.
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The moral of this "Tale"? Losing your bartender for a week in July is a small price to pay for the inspired drinks that follow.