by David Greig | For the uninitiated, Tales of the Cocktail (aka “Tales”) is an industry-oriented trade show specialising in the promotion and study of all matters concerning mixed drinks. It is a haven for the geeky bartender and anyone who can sit and discuss barrel charring levels and dilution/temperature ratios without fear of social ostracism, and it is traditionally held at the birthplace of the American cocktail, New Orleans, Louisiana. It is also responsible for several entries into the Annals of the World’s Worst Hangovers.
As most Scout readers are likely aware, Tales recently upped sticks and found its way to Vancouver in its first step toward a life on the road. Tales of the Cocktail On Tour Vancouver was the official moniker of what was in effect a traveling jamboree, and like so many screaming groupies, the city’s bar nerds (noted for their dramatic swoons and hurling of panties) flocked in their hundreds to worship in shrines of their own making.
It’s over now – come and gone through the Ides of March – but it’s not something that I hope to ever forget.
That this city was chosen as the first stop in a presumably long and lucrative line of road shows was a punctuation point that showed how Vancouver had arrived as a destination for drink lovers. It makes solid sense, as the multi-faceted bar scene here runs the gamut of options. Venues like The Refinery push boundaries with textures, homemade bitters and the like; Calabash serves up mainly rum-based Tiki-style libations; the ever busy Diamond plays it straight with the tastiest of old-school classics; and so on (there are to many worthwhile joints to list). That it got to be this way is a testament to the passion and drive of local bartenders and entrepreneurs who, in the face of restrictive liquor laws, decided (not long ago) that their discerning drink disciples deserved not just a handful of top notch watering holes, but many. It’s only natural that the resulting mosaic of bars, restaurants and taverns that we now enjoy captured the attention of the international cocktail community. And thus, Tales.
The focal point of the event was the seminar program conducted by industry experts. While I could only attend two out of the three sessions, they nevertheless proved informative and, remarkably, quite fun, that is if your idea of fun is noting early 19th century ice storage methods (sums me up rather neatly, that does).
First up was a terrific talk on the history of New Orleans drinks. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping on a well crafted Sazerac or taken sadistic delight in ordering a Ramos Gin Fizz from an unsuspecting bartender (it takes a good 4-5 minutes of shaking to achieve the proper consistency), then this was an absolute joy. Historical documents and clippings were shown to give context for these most Southern of beverages, and ringmaster Chris McMillian, co-founder of the Museum Of The American Cocktail and all round drinking oracle, lent the occasion enough scholarly gravitas to leave many awestruck (his full recital of a poem from an 1880’s edition of the Lexington News while constructing a Mint Julep was a moment few watching will forget).
Likewise, the revelation that the site of the former Sazerac Coffee House, which in turn housed establishments employing both Henry Ramos and Joseph Santini, is now a parking lot, drew gasps of sadness from the crowd. (Why the fuss? Imagine Terry Fox, Trevor Linden and Michael J. Fox were all born in the same house and then imagine that house was bulldozed and turned into an Earls. You get the idea).
Next was the ice seminar. A lesson in American entrepreneurship from William Grant & Sons’ Ambassador Charlotte Voisey began the proceedings with the story of Frederick Tudor, and one man’s batshit crazy idea to export ice from Massachusetts to the Caribbean in 1807, which in turn led to modern modes of ice storage, chilled drinks in general, and arguably the birth of the cocktail as we know it. Cool stuff, indeed, and no pun intended.
It turned out that this was just a warm up to the real entertainment, as Hendricks’ Ambassador Jon Santer was on hand to provide some visual pyrotechnics. He demonstrated how to chop up a 5 foot piece of lake harvested block ice with a goddamn chainsaw. Waterproof jackets were given to those in the first two rows, and these were a necessity. With a dexterity and finesse not normally associated with chopping stuff up with a motorised death machine, Jon produced cubes as clear and simple as a pencil user’s manual.
The other highlight of the show was the BC Bar Crawl on Monday night. As a working bartender, I was obviously otherwise engaged with a rather busy time serving thirsty folks some 100’s of cocktails at L’Abattoir, and was very much honoured to be joined on the wood and well by former Vancouverite and “startender” Jamie Boudreau (now living and working in Seattle), who ably indulged people with St. Germain drinks and top-drawer banter (any man who brings a gold-plated bar kit – pimp! – to the game better be good, and he knocked it out the proverbial park).
The rest of the bars around town were doing similar promotions with other brands, with everything from Taboo Absinthe (Pourhouse) to Pierre Ferrand Cognac (Market) on display, showcasing the best talent this city has to offer and sending the booze pilgrims back home with stories of Van and our increasingly stellar cocktail scene. It was an appropriate finish to the day, a reminder of just why the show came in the first place.
The rest of the festival was – as befitting a cocktail event – a series of well-disguised excuses for a drink. The Hendricks Midnight Croquet Society at Lamplighter was a collection of real ‘characters’, to use the polite vernacular, as the good times hit new heights there, and the following evening continued in the same vein but with poignant timing, for local barstar (and fellow Brit) ‘H’ bade goodbye to his gig at Revel Room on Abbott en route back home to London (with promises to return).
All that remained was Tuesday’s farewell lunch at Chambar, which included a pig roast to send the hordes away with full stomachs and smiles on their faces. This was a wholly appropriate venue, as the Belgian-inspired restaurant and bar is undoubtedly one of the brightest stars in our city’s culinary constellation. Hogs were flamed with bourbon and hacked up for sandwiches, and cocktails were made by GM Justin Tisdall and his team as quickly as they could be consumed.
The big turnout at Chambar was all the more impressive considering my own queasiness at the sight of yet more alcohol, but the local cocktail community seemed determined to make the most of its last turn in the spotlight. It was an appropriate end to the festitvites, and as good an indication of the city’s love of food and drink, coupled with its insatiable appetite for a good time,. It was the best time I’ve had while here in Vancouver.
As an outsider, I’ve come to fall in love with our bar scene. Its spirit of community, openness, passion and wit are all qualities that I treasure, and these were all amplified during Tales of the Cocktail. The tour may have only temporarily parked its sodden bus here for a few days, but the impact of its arrival will still reverberate long after it’s gone.
David Greig is a visiting barman from the UK. Vancouverites can sip from his skills at Gastown’s L’Abattoir.