Tales of the Cocktail: Where spirits live

July 2010 New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA)
• Tabytha Towe
308285_3499606503289_1726118527_nThis city is legendary, known for it’s big night life, it’s history and untold secrets. It’s home of the good ol’ jazz and blues and lies on the Mississippi River, where the 2009 Superbowl champs “The Saints” (who dat) play.

It’s famous for infamous Mardi Gras parties, a city with mystical voodoo magic, chasing the green fairy, watching ladies dance on poles and/or on laps, a State of outrageous, tropical storms, the birth place of the original Sazerac and Vieux Carre cocktails, classic bayou hot sauce in the lovely French Quarter.

It was an extremely last minute decision for me to just jump on board to this elaborate convention, and not just any bartenders affair, but the head honcho of bartenders, mixologist and aficionados affair. So it certainly was not a hard decision. To have the chance to learn more about cocktail culture down South by some of the worlds’ famous owners and representatives and bartenders *scu as Tony Abou-Ganam, Dave Wondrich, Simon Ford, Charlotte Voisey, Dan Warner, the impressive list just goes on – – – I mean, come on, it’s a no brainer! Fortunately I managed to book a plane ticket and even yet still make the very flight my friends and colleagues were on.

With a lack of sleep from the early morning flight, a team of 6 of us arrived in NOLA at 10.30am to excruciating heat and a bustling vibe. Our Astor Hotel’s lobby was beautiful in itself and was located right beside the infamous Bourbon Street where you can eat a crayfish po’boy, support the strippers, listen to live music on the street and shop for souvenir masquerade masks all within an hour. Seminars for “Tales of the Cocktail” were between the gorgeous ‘Hotel Monteleone’ (the one with the Carousel Bar that created the Vieux Carre) and ‘The Royal Sonesta’ (the one with the roof top pool) just a few blocks apart (a short, tipsy stroll back and forth from each other). I personally did not manage to make it to every seminar, there were so many happening all the time and at the same time, however was grateful to get in to as many as I did. Peers from my work place would go to other talks and we would exchange notes, ie: ‘How to be interviewed by print, tv or radio’ – this lecture delegates that you gather info, develop product and story, set your goals, be quick and efficient, understand your format and profile, grab attention and woo your audience. Little tidbits from the professionals with sound advice. So if you’re ever on television and being asked about your drink, don’t panic!

‘The Mastery of Wisdom Behind the Bar’ – First off there are 3 categories: the “mixologist”, the “sage” and the “rock star”. These are there to teach us about right-action techniques through self observation and objective evaluation through a conscious effort based on these characters. We all know what a mixologist does, but the theory in foresight is that he/she creates an experience for a guests that gives them an alibi and possibility of something about to happen to them.

The sage is wise and keeps your intentions working from a detached self. The rock star is the confident and charming persona that helps attract guests to trust them and return. Dushan Zaric is right I have to say. Basically his food for thought is to be aware of all three characteristics, and importantly, not to jump to conclusions, not to judge and try not to be negative. Be conscious of your thoughts and emotions when you are working the bar, it reflects your attitude and business otherwise.

“Shaken, not stirred” – James Bond

I never would have understood the ‘Science of Stirring’ had I not gone to check out these nerds that actually experiment with the temperature of their drinks at various lengths. It was rather long yet entertaining and informative, especially when one guy froze his hands in the liquid nitrogen and swore out loud repetitively, proving his point no less. Optimal dilution is created where the surface area of ice is not as important as the result of what’s released from inside. Melting has more energy at -0 degrees (below). Therefore the faster you stir (about 20 seconds) the colder your drink will get. There is lower dilution in stirring as opposed to shaking, and it is less aggressive and more affective as a cooling agent. Sadly I was extremely hung over for the rest of this interesting debate, as I woke up when it was over! At a different seminar my colleagues and I actually tried a new trend in technique for freezing methods, which has become popular in Melbourne, Australia, using liquid nitrogen. It sure does freeze well, but too much so that our frozen Mint Julep was nearly too cold it actually burnt our tongues. Pretty cool (pun intended) to see how it was made however and all the condensation steaming through the machine.

Your mommy –

D’arcy O’ Neil has researched the dynamic of ‘Umami’. Basically a 5th flavour sense and how it can affect flavour responses in people. It can release hedonic pleasure signals in the brain, the part that also relates to orgasms 🙂 Umami means delicious in Japanese and was discovered in 1908. The flavour (for example, msg contains vegetable, aroma, richness, salt) is predominantly noticeable as savoury or meaty, and triggers gastrofacial responses, which means, instinctual expressions upon taste such as the ‘yucky’ face after trying something you don’t like. Neurobiology is very significant in cocktails, as you can see when so many Canadians like to drink or even crave a Bloody Caesar. Mmmmm, yummy umami.

I love liqour, I do, and there is so much more to learn it’s insatiable. Finding how complicated a concoction can be and the beauty of how it became is intriguing. Right down from what region something came from, to how it got exported, the history behind Prohibition era and what it has done for us in the now, to the exact measurements it would require to conjure up this specific alcohol, a signature recipe, it’s like creating science and a whole story. Just like each bottle holds its own; every bartender has their own style or special ingredient they deliver. When I say style it can mean flair or a trademark, a spiel, an extra dash of a specific bitters to make it their special way. Look at Hendrix Gin for a minute; typically all gins (whether it be traditional old English or nouveau century) have that exceptionally recognisable juniper berry ingredient, the essence of which is prominent in gin recipe. Even as a mixed drink you taste it and even if you aren’t familiar with the berry, you know the drink because of this flavour sensation right away. Hendrix follows standard recipe but adds their own botanical elements to enhance it with cucumber, rose, elderflower, lavender and chamomile so that on the nose you get a bouquet aroma. If you think about it, 80% of taste is really from smell. Smell goes to your brain and sends responses, euphoric hopefully. And indeed amongst every sensation you get physically, there is so much more to the drink in front of you than just a mixture of product, there is always a worthwhile story and history behind every drop that is to be appreciated with your order.

Imagine having such a great, stand up drink then having fun with it and mixing it with other liquors, oils, fruit, herbs, citrus, sugar, love etc….it’s endless and amazing what you can do to make cocktails unique. Take for instance a ‘Negroni’, a classic and a favourite. Gin based (we already know the flavour) Campari, which adds bitter, and Sweet Vermouth (either Carpano Antica, Cinzanno, Martini Rosso, etc) to add sweet. Resulting in a well-rounded and full balanced drink, except the specs are always equal parts, and if you don’t do that, the drink will not be proper. Add an orange peel zest, and voila, godsend in a glass. Just the tiniest mishap of measurements being off in your procured cocktail can change or dictate the entire taste or dynamic of it. So you see, that’s why these specialties are an especial hit with me; it’s fun to understand more to appreciate more. Having a cocktail is also as an event in which to share with friends and strangers whilst sipping, exchanging conversation, a full endurance, not a rushed ordeal. However, as a lady of liquor I do also love the traditional and straight up -thank you bourbon on the rocks and gin and tonic!

“Okole malana” – Hawaiian for ‘bottoms up

I speak for myself when I say that my interests were in other areas for attending seminars. Missed the ‘Prohibition’ and ‘Green Hour’ talks, which would have been ridiculously interesting, however walked in to a few others. I don’t own my own bar so going to ‘Top Revenue Building’ speeches did not essentially apply to me. Although going to a ‘Tiki bar’ seminar was fun because of the history, rise, down fall and now re-born again exotic, concept. It holds some appeal to me considering from time to time I work on a tiki bar mixing wonderfully obliged rum-based and other, delicious cocktails. I tend to be quirky and enjoy being festive, so tentatively Polynesian and Jamaican themes are cheeky and the decor even more ground to play with. But realising how far you can go with rum (dated back to 350 years) and what you can play with when it comes to cocktails in tropical variations – pineapple, mango, citrus etc., – is almost mind altering. With rum you have your white, dark and amber, and each is identifiably different, for example: the darker it is, the sweeter it is due to the more charred barrels they use in making them.

Don Beachcomber was the founder of this nautical idea for the then revolutionary franchises in the 1950’s. He started the classic tiki cocktails used today, however the era died out and hence drinks like the ‘Test Pilot’ inspired by world war 2 became nearly forgotten; but a new wave has created a craze again and now these classic delectables are re-named and re-born. It was astonishing to see how that particular seminar was over packed, like there were not enough seats.
Industry hounds were all over it. So perhaps it is making a bigger impact on the world of business and is going to make a huge come back… I won’t wear a grass skirt behind the bar, but maybe a flower in my hair or I’ll lei a guest once in a while (not that kind of lay!)

At the end of the day, having tried more-than-a-few samples during seminars and running back and forth between hotels, already hung over from the extravagant party the night before, you’re magically ready to drink more cocktails all night long again because they are so darned irresistible. One night my fellow friends and I had to try 15 Milagro Tequila variations of a margarita influence. We were definitely becoming under the influence ourselves as we had half an hour to try them all then vote on our favourite mixologist of the event. After that we had a Grand Marnier party to attend of course called “The Bartenders Brawl”, (sounds inviting doesn’t it 🙂 So no big deal, just a couple of elaborate parties here and there!

A few days in, after multiple concoctions and melting from the extreme Louisiana humidity, booze pours out of your pores the more you sweat; so I was ready to have good old-fashioned beer. I enjoy cocktails, but on a hot day barley, hops, yeast and water do the trick, especially when you get three for the price of one! That’s absurd now. I would be a fat drunk if I lived with all the cheap, fried food and beer specials (I was not complaining mind you!) I had wanted to frolic more of the wondrous city and get more of a Southern city feel, however time did not allocate leisure time for the street car tours or sight-seeing old neighbourhoods. I really wanted to see an old man sitting on a porch swing outside an old, character house, smoking a pipe and playing a harmonica. Never got to see that, maybe next time. Maybe 30 years ago that was witnessed more often. Poor NOLA, the devastating hurricane Katrina, biggest oil spill known in the history of man off the gulf of Mexico affecting their waters and fisheries industry, thus resulting in a bit of an economic depression; a city of lost souls yet with an abundance of soul. I would have loved to experience its liveliness back in the day. You can see what a vibrant city it once was and it yeah it does still have that magic, but a sense of something tragic and missing at the same time. The touristy areas were full of fun, but also dirty and you would constantly get whiffs of, well, very unpleasant smells. I gagged a few times walking those streets. Nevertheless I would still go back and walk up and down those same smelly streets in a heartbeat.

‘The Blues means somebody you love don’t love you’. I saw that quote at a bar once. Was lucky to see some great live performances, mostly street bands where you can’t help but jig on the street with them. They were a full on jazz orchestra! My friend and I found a random day band that in Toronto would probably be a busy head liner, the guitarist was fantastic and they played dirty old rock and blues to merely a dozen people smoking in the bar. Man, that talent should have packed the house!

I’m not a good gambler, though I made it out of the Casino in 30 minutes having won a dollar extra back on my losses, phew. I also got to rodeo a whale (that’s right, a wicked, spinning, bumping whale) at a pretend surf bar and actually chaffed myself on the rope between my legs whilst attempting to hold on for dear life riding it…that whale was a real jerk! (get it?) I also watched some sexy, talented strippers and some really awful ones that looked as if they could almost vomit on stage; *down the strip there are plentiful clubs, no doubt some classier than others; Hustler being one where we were invited to swim in the pool (yikes – more like cess pool) and watched in awe one place that had a sign reading “1000’s of hot women, and 3 ugly ones.” Myself and 2 others of the crew were also lucky to get spontaneous tattoos! A great way to end the trip no doubt. The shop was closing in about 20 minutes so the three of us jumped on board to get inked right there and then with Sailor Jerry inspirations. I got a wee anchor on my wrist, the one that’s on the 40 oz bottle cap of that tasty, 92% proof rum.

I wish I didn’t get so blasted our first night at the Alice in Wonderland themed party (put on by Beefeater) as the Welcome Reception. I forgot to claim a prize for (by de-fault) winning with my mate a round of silly, drunken croquet. Though in retrospect I only ate three oysters all day and was on 2 hours sleep, but the party was absolutely grand and did not end there. A bus picked us up out of nowhere, like a magic bus, and took us to a beautiful house that had the likes of anything from Sailor Jerry and Solerna offerings in many twists and shakes. They also had a funky, outdoor brass band in the yard. It was so very grand. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves that first evening, maybe I did too much, especially on an empty stomach…. I fell up the stairs on the bus back and had to eat a falafel.

In between we went swimming on hotel rooftop parties, provoked people to jump in with us or else get squirted with our water gun. It was so hot, as if a bit of cold water would harm you! We ate po’boy sandwiches, wondered to the market, went to antique shops, photographed the beautiful architecture and scenes painted behind a stunning canvas of a city with a lot to offer. Sadly, our last evening of our new found beloved had to come to an inevitable end. But not without an amazing Izakaya dinner, random tattoos and one last, late gala!
Our flight was at 4am and there was also a category #4 hurricane predicted earlier on in the week. There was massive rain so we were getting a little excited (myself more so that flights would be cancelled and we could stay an extra day, not so much of our safety), but within hours it became reduced to a tropical storm and therefore the airports were perfectly fine, *much to my dismay, but that is my being selfish.

As someone who works in the industry I know I do it for the love of every day being different, the love of people, and as a bartender, making someone feel better, guiding them, listening to them, sometimes entertaining them and laughing with them. I find that knowledge is constant and infinite and the people you interact with are the reason why you get into this type of business. I like both aspects, the social part and the service part, where I get to build drinks, make drinks, set up, present and see someone cheers before they sip and smile after they swallow. I personally am very beginner at mixology, I can do classics and basics, but haven’t deserved my 101 yet, it takes a lot of time, research, patience, money and of course, passion. Do hope to get better understanding of this compelling world of spirits, and each day I work or go home or to another bar and try new things, I realise all the more of merriment. I also hope that everyone has had the full bartenders’ experience in their life as a guest and has tampered with their intuition of taste and pleasure. Passion is key for any recipe, the rest are ingredients you use to aluminate and grasp your senses to enjoy and appreciate with every story, sip, lesson and moment shared over a glass. To New Orleans and all of the incredible educators and purveyors of ‘Tales of the Cocktail 2010’
I very much thank-you and without a doubt I’ll be back.

To the rest of you – Cheers!!!

© Tabytha Towe July 2011 (Toronto)
tabythat@hotmail.com

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