The first official flavor of this year's Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans' annual celebration of the art of the mixed drink, was rhubarb. On Wed., Aug. 20, at the Hotel Monteleone, Philadelphia's Art in the Age hosted the first tasting room of the week inside two second-story conference rooms.
Continuing the Old City spirits brand's portfolio of potable history lessons—their Root and Snap liqueurs, inspired by pre-Prohibition alcoholic tea and 17th-century Pennsylvania Dutch molasses— Art in the Age introduced Rhuby, an 80-proof tribute to the rhubarb seeds Ben Franklin gave early American botanist John Bartram.
The rhubarb—blended with a mix of beets, carrots, cardamom and peppercorn—was further enhanced that morning by the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.'s Colin Shearin and Al Sotack, the first bartenders to ever work with the spirit. After standing back so a half-dozen photographers could frame the sealed bottle, Shearin then got to work, improvising with strawberries, lime and Aperol, first for reporters then the masses.
Later in the evening, Sotack and Shearin were back to mixing Root and Snap, this time dressed as soda jerks in white paper hats, aprons, and black bow ties, stationed in a back corner of New Orleans' massive World War II Museum for a private party hosted by William Grant & Sons, the distiller that acquired Art in the Age last July.
Private here meant closing a three-story museum, which houses airplanes suspended from the ceiling that look less like artifacts and more like props to complement the enormous balloons rising above the crowd, with projections of Sailor Jerry tattoos flashing upon them. (The flagship Sailor Jerry store on 13th and Sansom streets closed earlier this year, but the rum carries on). Guests in Sailor Jerry hats wandered among a floor of inked pin-up girls while teams of bartenders dressed as Rosie the Riveter served the crowd. Outside, beside an incongruous cow being milked to make fresh cream for Ramos Gin Fizzes, the Sailor Jerry "Hold Fast" tour continued with its signature airstream trailer, and more importantly—free hot dogs for hungry guests a mile away from their hotel rooms.
Not every local brand has such powerhouse publicity behind it, however. Two days later, back at the Hotel Monteleone, Philadelphia Distilling only had one of the 32 tables lining the perimeter of the Craft Distillers tasting room.
Here, guests paid $50 for a 90-minute sampling of small batch American spirits. Some, such as Lucid Absinthe and Laird's Applejack, dominated their market share, and others, looked to break out. Philadelphia Distilling brought to taste their Bluecoat Gin, Vieux Carre Absinthe, as well as their recently introduced XXX Shine White Whiskey, made from heirloom corn the master distiller Robert Cassell planted himself on the Chester County farm that supplies the harvest.
While XXX Shine is only the fourth product from Philadelphia Distillery in six years, something new is in the works. "There's a cousin of mine who has a farm in North Central Pa. I'm talking about doing some stuff for next year," Cassell says, adding that ultimately he'd like to release a new product every year. However, with such expansion comes financial strain.
"This year was the first year we'll break even," he continues. "It's a very capital-intensive business. We see good growth every year, but growth is expensive. We see these growth rates then see we're out of money. Owning a distillery is not for people who want to cash out quick."
Sometimes capital doesn't matter as much as capturing the zeitgeist. XXX Shine's direct competition—located at the table literally beside them—is North Carolina's Piedmont Distillers.
Compared to the savory flavor of Philadelphia's white whiskey—something Cassell attributes to the fatty corn oil found in Shine's yeast strain—the flavor profile of Piedmont's Catdaddy Moonshine, the yeast enhanced by notes of vanilla and cinnamon, resembles that of a doughnut. It is an appealing alternative, but the real attraction was Catdaddy's sister brand.
A few months before Season 2 of the FX series Justified aired in February, Piedmont coincidentally introduced an Apple Pie moonshine from its Midnight Moon line. A homemade version of apple pie moonshine would play a crucial role in the show's season premiere and finale, giving the product a cool factor money can't buy.
Between these tasting rooms were 60 closed-door seminars for ticket-holding cocktail enthusiasts, media and professionals to learn from the industry elite about niche as the history of colonial drinks, how to carve block ice with a chainsaw and the art of drinking on deadline.
Aiding in everything from mixing and serving samples to seminar attendees to demonstrating equipment, were the CAPs. These Cocktail Apprentice Program participants—young, proven bartenders from around the country—applied to spend the week providing service and assistance to the world's best mixologists day and night.
After laboring behind the scenes all week, they shared a moment in the spotlight when they were honored for their service on the stage of the Mahalia Jackson Theater last Saturday night at the Spirited Awards, where the best nominated bars, mixologists, menus and writers from around the world were announced.
Returning for his second year, this time as an apprentice leader, was Franklin Mortgage's Jonathan Armstrong, for whom the experience only improved.
"This year we learned from all the mistakes we made. We drank more, we had more fun, we did it harder, we did it faster, we did it better. We laid it down," says Armstrong, now a Tales veteran, his energy still high five nights later.
However, upon entering the ceremony, Armstrong expressed a different outlook on the week than his fellow Franklin Mortgage bartenders who only had to stir punch while pretending to celebrate victory in the second World War.
"It's like Vietnam," he says of the grunt work. "I was baptized in blood, and I'll never forget that."