Spirited Beginnings, or Tales of the Cocktail


So I’m at Tales of the Cocktail and having a fantastic time.  To sum up, this brief post is just merely remarking on some points I have noticed concerning Tales and also establishing what I hope to talk about once this is all over.

So lacking a USB cord to connect to my bloody laptop, I am unable to export my pictures to my site. Yet, if I put some notes online, or an enumerated list of talking points I want to cover, it forces me to be more motivated to do some writing, so hence the actual raison d’etre for this post. 

Having never been to Tales before, I was never quite sure what to expect, but I have found that there is quite a bit going on, between the tastings, the shared camaraderie between members of the bartending and liquor community, an exchange of knowledge and enterprise praxis, as well as the enterprise of just enjoying oneself and having a grand old time.

The tasting rooms vary in terms of their style, ranging from seminar style tastings with presentations and more intimate environs for the smaller groups, or larger more elaborate set ups for multiple product sampling.  For instance, the tasting room at Bacardi was a seminar style tasting in which bartenders gave a talk about the history of cocktails, the history of the brand, the use of Bacardi in the cocktail, both in terms of cocktails which may utilize it as a white rum, but also how it behaves in the drink from a taste standpoint. 

On the other hand, tasting rooms such as the one by Haus Alpenz was more informal, with people congregating around the room and the tables sampling the various, and by various I mean extensive product range; there were papers given at the beginning before entering, that provide a list of the various spirits and wines and gave you space to write notes or rate them.  Yet while this style of tasting, which is very informal, seems quite at a loss in terms of information when compared to the the seminar or lecture style tastings, there is still quite a bit of information being exchanged here. The very simple fact that tools, even as simple and mundane as paper and pencil are being given out indicates that there is some sort of skill set necessary to taste and adequately reflect upon the nature of the spirits and how to engage with these potations.  Furthermore, the use of the liquor representative as a host of information is quite common, and in the case of many brands, there are quite a few liquor representatives that cannot adequately talk about the enthusiasts interests in the brand; however, this is quickly changing in an industry that is now priding itself on expertise.  When you have someone who is more than just a pretty face and can talk to you about the differences between this bottling and the previous years, the ingredients, process of making it (I am so happy someone told me about the lack of malolactic fermentation in Champagne Lanson), or the history of it, let alone about distribution channels, you know you have representatives that have “expert knowledge.”  Like wine, a knowledge of the product is essential to marketing and selling the product, but also like wine, there is a new found expertise related to the taste of products on the market.

Another thing which has been interesting is the wide variety of individuals who are represented at this event: from a tea sommelier that I met yesterday, to people form the CIA, to the bartender or the liquor representative, or the brand owner, there is quite a plethora of different agents at this event.  That was to be expected, but, the sheer level of people engaged at this event is fascinating. 

Yesterday on the plane ride to ‘Nawlins, I ended up talking with a few petroleum and system engineers for smaller companies that are contracted to design oil platforms.  We ended up talking about the level of involvement on different parties and companies in order to provide economic gain within the petroleum industry: media represents the oil industry primarily as a bad, specifically because they only dwell sensationally upon disaster or the financial and legal aspects of big oil.  History has always been driven by top-down views of elites controlling and influencing the world, and media does dwell upon that, but what it doesn’t capture is the level of engagement within the oil industry to produce gain requires quite a bit of different engagement and companies: the oil companies themselves contract out most of the work to smaller, family owned and operated or independent contractor businesses, as is the case with the design of many refineries and other spaces necessary for the production of refined petrol.  But in the case of the oil platforms, which people live, there is a need for food and other supplies: oil companies use locals, in the New Orleans area at least, and have them transport on their own boats to the platforms these supplies.  When oil is not being produced, as was the case after the huge BP disaster, many people who might solicit this food, or produce this material or tool, or transport these goods suffer and lose income as well as the oil company itself.  We do not think of the interdependence of different chains of inquiry in profit.

This is the same case at Tales.  The interdependence is clearly there.  The tea sommelier is talking about the use of tea in cocktails and how tea can be paired with foods, and is looking towards establishing higher levels of certification through Oxford; already there is a direct relationship between the tea and spirit industry, both in terms of service and execution, but also in products and branding; there is then also the interaction between the people in that industry and research institutions, or accredited institutions at the very least.  More is going on in this interaction than what meets the eye at first, and brief, glance.  The most obvious thing to deconstruct is the restaurant: the restaurant must order liquor, which means dealing with suppliers and brand representatives that want the restaurant to order that liquor, who in turn have to interact with the makers of these spirituous beverages; there is a pairing between food and drink, a pairing between the front of the house and the back of the house, a marriage of intricate and delicate textures, tastes, sights and smells; there is the interaction with the consumer, the patron of the establishment, who provides the source of revenue and income, which encourages the front of the house to have what, in many cases is not genuinely there, something known as hospitality; there is the interaction of the media as a source of potential advertising and illumination of the merits-or not as shining qualities-of the establishment, and the delicate balance act between foodies, bloggers, enthusiasts, and “legitimate” professional journalism; et cetera.  The relationship is complex in that environment, and a lot goes on to make this executed well, and to make a restaurant stand out as a top quality establishment, which is why it is genuinely so rare to see a great restaurant, and I have been fortunate to be to some truly great ones.

But in this industry, the relationship going on between bartender and blogger, between brand manager, distributor, et cetera is fascinating since it very well encourages a sense and deployed interaction between groups which have to manage and manipulate their way through politics, pricing, distribution channels and law.  This is why events like those between Pusser’s and PKNY draw since an outpouring of criticism and views.  The sheer volume of interaction and reliance upon others in this industry in order to make it profitable is fascinating.  And the deployment of media and journalistic praxis helps to establish a sense of expertise within the community, with the written word: giving a place a good review, or talking about the execution of a great meal or drink, or the flair of a bartender, are all examples of formulated expertise.  The review establishes a sensation of expertise, and a quality of expertise, it invigorates and instills, and brings into existence expertise which may not have existed before.

This isn’t to say that expertise as a whole is not genuinely there in an industry like bartending, that expertise is a fabrication.  On the contrary, I view bartenders with great respect (which is a conundrum, since writing this I already am doing what I am talking about), but when looking at interaction between bartenders, there can already be an understanding of what is expert technique versus amateur technique.  At a seminar yesterday, on European bartending perspectives, we saw bartenders talking to each other about what is actually learned and trained skills: the free pour.  The free pour can be executed well, and when it is it can be almost as accurate as using a jigger, with the same margin of error, but it requires physical skill.  And when it is executed well, when there is a mastery through years of practice, it demonstrates a sort of artisanal expertise, with regards to the flair surrounding it.  This is a prefect and direct example of physical expertise being generated through praxis.

The exchange of knowledge here, and the networking aspects are important at face value, especially within an industry, since an industry is motivated principally by capital, but at the same time, the backside of it is just as important, if not more important to that side of things.  As more and more interaction is woven between individuals who help to construct forms of expert praxis, mores of good or bad liquors, bartenders, restaurants, there is money to be made, and direct movement of intellectual and social capital.  The use of social capital, the use of name, weight, and significance is extremely important since it deploys and markets to people with that knowledge.  Events like Tales are not for everyone, no matter what they would like to say.  There is a distinction of knowledge that is established, and even if you are here for just the drinks, the drinks themselves are complex beasts that cannot be tamed by the tongues of the novitiate. By being at Tales, you already demonstrate a sense of expertise, a sense of social distinction, a sense of taste that differentiates you from others.  The aesthetics of taste.  As visitors to Tales, we are keepers of secret, and not to secret knowledge.  We are propriators of the liquid muse, and we are enslaved to it as well.  We are brothers and sisters to a common taste, appreciation, love and hate, which binds us together in a whirlpool of orgiastic drinks.

Nota bene: if I sound arrogant, I’m sorry, and if you have met me, you know bloody well that I am not.  But truly, I feel that there are elements of social knowledge that come into play here, things we can call expert knowledge, and that is why events such as Tales, or other food festivals exist.  We might like something, deep down that might be what the fundamental reason for buying a commodity, living a certain way, or choosing to make certain decisions, but at the same time there are factors that motivate or lie subconsciously contributing to choice.  Choosing to go to a coffee festival or a cocktail festival, choosing to go to a trade show or whatever already demonstrates a sense of knowledge over knowing what to appropriate, and even though taste is very subjective on what is good or not good, the general uniformity of knowledge or opinion that can be arrived to over whether something is of good quality or bad reflects that there is an internalization of knowledge of distinction and choice.

Anyhow, I want to talk about both the European bartending perspectives panel (which is fascinating since it does suggest things, even if Simon Difford would disagree, that are different than what I had previously understood), the Spirited Dinner at Feast I attended, more on inter-connectivity between groups of people within the industry, more on instantiated expert knowledge and praxeological expert knowledge, the exceptional things which I have tasted and brand portfolios as examples of the aesthetics of taste, and a few other things.  But, some of those require pictures (at least the more mundane talks), so it will have to wait.

These are my notes for the first day.  I guess they were not brief, but oh well.  What can I say, I’m a rambling alcoholic academic.