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Tales Highlights, Part I

Tales of the Cocktail ended last week, but it’s taken me this long to sort through all my photos and videos and notes.

When I tell people about Tales of the Cocktail, they either get it right away or seem puzzled by the whole thing. To some, the idea of a conference on the subject of cocktails simply does not compute. What is there to talk about? How could this topic not be exhausted after a few minutes? Who comes to this thing anyway — bartenders? makers of spirits? aficionados? (Yes to all three, by the way.) I hope the following smattering of highlights gives some indication of the breadth of the event, but know that I have only scratched the surface.


My favorite seminar, without question, was “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks.” Since I interviewed Wayne Curtis in advance, I thought I knew what to expect. I was not prepared, however, for the sight of Mr. Curtis in full colonial getup, complete with tri-cornered hat, a look he described as “Yankee Doodle Douchebag.” Nor was I prepared for the flavor of drinks like the Calibogus or the Stone Fence. (Actually, J mixed the latter way back in ’92 according to a recipe that I know now is highly suspect.) Not that I was particularly wild about any of these drinks, but they all had interesting flavors that transported me mentally to another time. Wayne Curtis was a consummate showman, managing somehow to evoke the fascination of bygone days while also maintaining a sense of (hilarious) ironic detachment.

The grand culmination of this session was the making of an old-fashioned ale flip. This involved thrusting a red hot poker into a jug filled with ale, rum and molasses. I was conscripted into service holding a second mic for the moment of truth, and it was indeed a glorious moment when the sound of boiling booze filled the air. As noted elsewhere, “the seething iron made the liquor foam and bubble and mantle high, and gave it the burnt, bitter taste so dearly loved.” I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to record it myself.

Oh wait, I did.

The recording doesn’t really do justice to the sound. I guess you had to be there. (Todd Price was there and he wrote about it too.)

Carbonated Negronis

Another highlight of the conference was the Negroni seminar (see previous interview). Paul Clarke made a convincing case for regarding the Negroni as the first modern cocktail, born of the collision of the European aperitif tradition and the American cocktail tradition. He event went so far as to call it a Cubist drink.

It was most enlightening to hear from Luca Picchi, in translation via Livio Lauro. Luca is probably the world’s foremost expert on the history of this cocktail, and his book should be in English available soon. Watch for it. Personally I was just grateful to learn that a Negroni really should be built on the rocks, not shaken.

Livio is no slouch either, and he endeared himself to me forever with the following remark:

The American palette has changed. We’ve gone from sweet to bitter.

Just as I suspected.

The Negroni was created by dropping soda water from the Americano in favor of gin. But what if you like the fizz? This problem was neatly resolved by the first public deployment of the Perlini system, which can carbonate cocktails just by shaking ’em.

Stanislav Vadrna is the Guru of Swizzle.

Swizzle Guru

I don’t just say that as a lame cliche. The man evinced a surprisingly spiritual approach to swizzling. It’s not something you see much in the cocktail context. Stanislav abjured his followers to find their center, feel the love, and “be here now.” And you can’t argue with the results.

More to come.

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One Comment

  1. […] I was shocked and awed by a seminar on vinegar. This paired nicely with Wayne Curtis‘ seminar on colonial American drinks, because we kicked things off with a Haymaker’s Punch, also known as switchel, a beverage […]

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