From New York To New Orleans: Experiencing Tales Of The Cocktail

Do you want to know what Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans is really like?

Aperitivo with bartender Valentino Longo at ITALICUS Rosolio di Bergamotto.

Urban Cowboy’s Beverage Director, Harry McNamara, takes us on a journey through his first time at the multi-day cocktail and beverage industry events.

As I boarded my flight from New York to New Orleans, it was a record high-temperature weekend in the Northeast. But the sliding doors open to the pickup line at Louis Armstrong airport, and it’s like walking into a steam room with the sun blazing down relentlessly overhead. When locals question you as to why 20-30 somethings are descending on the Crescent City in summer in well black, of course, the answer is Tales of the Cocktail, one of the nation’s largest gathering of beverage industry professionals.

The Tales of the Cocktail Festival takes place in New Orleans every year. This hub features multiple seminars all day, complimentary bars on-site, and a wealth of off-site events throughout the town. More than one unsuspecting family booked a luxury getaway, only to be inundated by bartenders, restaurant owners, brand representatives, and other cocktail-adjacent folks.

So here are a few takeaways from my first Tales that might set you up for a successful visit.

Refreshing spritzes with Select Aperitivo.

Pace yourself!

This event is a continuous waterfall of booze, and it’s tempting to try everything. Space out your cocktail-consuming events with some of the fascinating seminars, there were world-class presenters from all across the industry, and you might come away with a new view on how best to run your business. Don’t be afraid to taste, toss and move on. After one probing and thought-provoking sip, I left more than a few full cocktails on the bar. It might feel a bit wasteful, but you’re here to enjoy, learn, and meet new people; it’s tough to retain anything if you’re three cocktails deep before noon. Wine industry folks spit all the time; there is no law that the liquor must pass your mouth to get all the benefits of a tasting.

Side tip: Zero and low ABV cocktails were a huge presence this year at Tales and a great way to slow down your alcohol consumption. Gruppo Montenegro and Italicus showcased delicious ways to sip low-abv spirits and apply them to well-crafted cocktails. There was a “No and Low” bar running throughout the duration of the event in the Ritz, showcasing some of the fantastic new N/A spirits and mixer companies that are cropping up like weeds among the legacy brands that define this event.

Cocktails at Absolut Elyx’s Disco Garden of Elyx.

Get to the off-campus events.

The brand-sponsored events across the city are where the big marketing bucks are spent, and most are open to all attendees if you sign up in advance. I spent a couple of hours before arriving running through the schedule and RSVP’ing to as many events as I thought I might attend. However, you should try to make the ones you respond to keep costs and numbers accurate for the event planners who take on this massive undertaking each year. These events were how I got to explore some of the best bars and boutique hotels in town and talk about entertainment. Poolside cocktails, spontaneous second-line bands, and even a surprise burlesque show were just a few of the highlights that come to mind. The energy at any Elyx event is always high, and in their Disco Garden of Elyx, the vibes were spot on. Cooling off later at Teremana Tequila’s pool party was also the perfect respite from the NOLA summer heat.

Jazz ensemble at Amaro Montenegro’s Prima e Dopo soirée.

It’s OK to be a Tourist

You made it all the way down to New Orleans, one of the nation’s most historic and culturally rich cities. It’s tempting to slam down shots of fernet at a dive bar with your bartender buddies all night, but there is so much to do and see in this town. A personal favorite – head over to Frenchman Street at the border of the Marigny and drop by Cafe Negril or the Spotted Cat, two of the best music venues around. They host music almost 365 days a year, and no matter when you roll in, there’s sure to be some killer artists rocking out on stage. At the very least, take a sweaty wander of the French Quarter, eat some beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and throw some cash in the hat of a street performer. 

Classic New Orleans Po’ Boy sandwich.

Eat food!

This advice is essential in more ways than one. First, from a practical standpoint, make sure to eat food as you drink your way through Tales. The event hosts are excellent about providing snacks and water to temper your intoxication, and there was some darn good eating at some of the Tales events. But more importantly, make sure you take a night (or day) off to have some authentic New Orleans cuisine. The Quarter has some impressive review counts by tourism alone, but New Orleans has a new-school cadre of young chefs creating incredible cuisine that fuses the history of this astonishing food town with a host of personal and cultural influences. But get a po’ boy too.

Some of my favorites: 

  • Marjie’s Grill: Try this restaurant in Mid City for a Thai-inspired southern family-style feast. The pig knuckles, braised to a crisp outside and sticky, tender fatty on the inside, were a new kind of taste and sensory experience for this Yankee. The beef belly, like fattier short rib, with that spicy, fishy, fresh herb Thai set that makes everything here addictively delicious blew me away. The cornbread is a side but soaked in maple syrup; it doubles as a dessert. 
  • Le Chat Noir: This modern bistro with a nod to classic New Orleans cuisine has a contemporary minimalist feel and a view right into the kitchen in the Warehouse District. Start with some oysters on the half-shell, and then dive into the beautifully executed menu by Chef Seth Temple. The smoked oyster mushrooms, with a rich smoky taste, punched up with citrus zest, and the stuffed quail are must-haves, and the chicken liver terrine and bone marrow will have me back here next time I’m in town. 
  • Turkey and The Wolf: “Get High and Drop on By” is the motto of this walk-up lunch counter in the lower Garden District. The fried bologna on Texas toast made this place famous, but the head cheese tacos and collard greens triple-decker club sandwich had me mopping my plate for every last drop. This restaurant is drenched in nostalgia for us millennials; your food is served on vintage McDonald’s souvenir plates, with hot wheels cars and mini dinosaurs everywhere, even glued to the salt and pepper shakers.
  • Parkway Bakery and Tavern: Honorable mention for my favorite poor boy. This neighborhood joint has built a cult following over the years, and it’s been open since 1911. Do you need a hangover cure? It’s worth the ride and worth the wait. The Parkway Surf and Turf (slow-cooked roast beef topped with Louisiana wild-caught Gulf shrimp and smothered in gravy) might put you to sleep, but it’s a New Orleans experience you won’t soon forget, and hey – you’ll need to catch up on sleep after Tales anyway.