A chat with Ann Tuennerman, Founder of Tales of the Cocktail, where we touch upon plans, learning, and visions for the festival in coming years.
In a market flooded with bars, restaurants, cocktails, bartenders, chefs, and consumers, the challenge every day is to deliver uncompromising quality in food and drink offerings. Not only has it been fantastically easy to open a bar or restaurant in the age of venture capitalism, it has also been equally easy to fall into a cycle of under-delivering on quality, just because there will always be someone who will buy the product. The delivery of experience, and not just product is fast becoming a key differentiator between bars and restaurants as consumers become more discerning with time. Today, a guest doesn’t just want a drink with his plate of food; he wants an experience, a suave server, a bartender who can tell a story, a chef who can transport him to another time and place. And this is why the game needs to keep changing and evolving in this industry we all know and love. The act of dining and drinking out today is no longer just a routine one; it is an immersive social activity that deserves our undivided attention.
Fifteen years ago in New Orleans, Ann Tuennerman decided to share her love for the city and cocktails with a larger group of like-minded folks. What started off as a walking tour, visiting the city’s cocktail shrines, and enjoying some legendary drinks, is now a fledgling industry event in its 16th successful year.
For the uninitiated, Tales of the Cocktail is an annual spirits and cocktails festival held in New Orleans. The weeklong event is packed with networking events, seminars, and tastings, making it a holistic, one stop destination for industry professionals looking to fully submerge themselves in the cocktail industry.
In addition to the annual festival, Tales of the Cocktail develops over 200 events every year specifically for bartenders, distillers, and spirits professionals to develop new products and techniques, and exchange ideas.
We caught up with Ann to find out more about this ever-growing mecca of cocktails and learning. Read on:
What drove you to start Tales of the Cocktail?
It all came from a love and appreciation for New Orleans. I started The New Orleans Cocktail Tour to share our city’s rich drinking history with tourists and locals. The one-year anniversary of the tour became the first Tales of the Cocktail. I found the members of the cocktail industry to be incredibly supportive. It was clear that there was a need for an event like Tales. So we brought it back for a second year and then a third and fourth and now we’re starting to plan for our 16th Tales coming next year.
Do you believe more events like Tales of the Cocktail can up the ante when it comes to how consumers drink?
While we don’t cater directly to consumers, Tales of the Cocktail and other cocktail events around the world have definitely upped the ante. The passion that bartenders have for the craft and the knowledge they acquire at events like Tales trickles down to the people they serve. Now consumers want to know more about what they’re drinking, from the spirits to the ingredients to, yes, even the ice. Consumers are asking questions and crafting a better understanding of what they like in a cocktail.
How do you see Tales of the Cocktail evolving over the next 10 years? What are your plans for it?
The real push I see over the next 10 years is making the educational opportunities of Tales available to more and more people. While we would love for everyone to be a part of Tales of the Cocktail every year, we know it’s just not possible for so many members of the cocktail community around the world. So we’re planning to expand our offerings to other platforms like our website and social media properties. We currently have over 50 seminar videos up that anyone around the world can access.
While nothing can replace the experience of being at Tales in person, we hope that by expanding the educational opportunities on different platforms more cocktail professionals can continue to grow their skills.
There are hundreds of cocktail specialty bars all over the world, what do you think really differentiates the average from the incomparable?
For me it comes down to service. Having great drinks obviously a requirement. But creating a friendly, welcoming environment, whether you have a small bar or a large, high-volume one—that’s what really differentiates one to the next. It’s what brings customers back.
What advice would you give bartenders looking to up their cocktail game and what would be the pitfalls they should look out for?
Find a mentor. It could be someone you work with directly or it could be someone you meet at Tales that you carry on a relationship with beyond the week’s events in New Orleans. I have found people in the cocktail industry to be incredibly generous with their time and talents. They know that we all share in each other’s success.
I think the biggest pitfall is really universal no matter what field your in—a tendency to get complacent. The best bartenders in the business are constantly learning, experimenting, failing and trying again. That’s how they continue to create incredible things.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced with Tales of the Cocktail over the years?
Our biggest challenge is one that affected so many New Orleans organizations—Hurricane Katrina. At the time, we were only a few years old, still getting established when the storm hit. We didn’t know what was next for our city and home, we just knew we had to come back the next year if Tales of the Cocktail was going to survive. So we scraped money together to bring Tales back in 2006 and because of that we’re still here today.
What would you say has been the biggest or most significant change in how people drink, over the last decade?
People are much more aware of what’s going into their drinks. They want to know about the spirit. They want to know about the ingredients. Are they fresh? This is definitely part of the broader food movement in general. People are taking more time and interest in knowing the story behind what they’re eating and drinking.
Was there a moment at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail that you would like to make special mention of that made a lasting and memorable impression?
It was such an incredible honor to see Charles Schumann accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Spirited Awards. He’s never been one for awards or self-promotion but his accomplishments deserved recognition. It was such a touching moment to see the whole industry stand to salute a man who has done so much for us.
If you could take Tales of the Cocktail outside New Orleans, where would that be and why?
Seven years ago, we asked ourselves the same thing and Tales of the Cocktail on Tour was born. Since then we’ve taken our show to Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Edinburgh. It’s been an incredible experience sharing Tales with these communities and learning more about the unique cocktail cultures of these destinations. We’re heading back to Edinburgh in 2018. After that, we’re looking at a number of exciting new locales in Europe and Asia.
Lastly, what is your favourite whisky cocktail?
This one’s easy—The Sazerac. Legend has it that the Sazerac was the first branded cocktail ever made so it’s definitely important from a historical standpoint. Sipping one almost takes you back in time. But the Sazerac is really like New Orleans, in a way. It might not be for everyone but those that love it will defend it to their death.
Read more about Ann Tuennerman here.