This year’s Tales Of The Cocktail, New Orleans’ annual four-day festival of drink, was attended by 12,000 people. And one bum. A happy vagrant was he, hobnobbing with such luminaries of lush as drink historian John Myers, rum guru Ed Hamilton, Esquire drinks columnist David Wondrich, cocktail evangelist Robert Hess, and Jamie Boudreau of Vessel, Seattle’s bar of the moment, who patiently schooled the Bum on molecular mixology.
Inspired by the gastronomy-as-chemistry experiments of Barcelona’s El Bulli restaurant in the late 1990s, molecular mixology is a kind of postmodern drink deconstruction, in which cocktails are flavored with foams shot from nitrous-oxide canisters, or sealed inside skins of edible alginate, or caramelized with crème brûlée torches. Some molecular mixologists have even reduced rum into a powdered form. “All well and good, Beachbum,” you ask, “but what does this have to do with vintage tropical drinks?” Actually, the two styles have a lot in common. Whether your drink arrives flaming in a ceremonial Tiki bowl, or foaming in a saucer of powdered rum, the modus operandi is the same: Both tropical and molecular mixology celebrate the cocktail as conversation piece — as not just a drink, but a theatrical presentation to discuss around the water cooler at work the next day (a practice in which people who work reportedly engage; we, of course, have no first-hand knowledge of this).
In between the banquets and cocktail hours, Tales producer Ann Rogers offered a number of memorable seminars. We were on the edge of our seat during Ted Haigh’s “Lost Ingredients” panel (in which we learned that the elusive pimento liqueur might soon have a US manufacturer) and Wayne Curtis’s epic history of “Rum’s Punch,” during which Wayne introduced the Bum to his audience thusly: “If you’re an 89-year-old bartender who worked at Don the Beachcomber’s, lying on your deathbed, the last face you might see is Jeff Berry’s, whispering, `What was Don’s Spices #2?’” He knows us so well.
Chris McMillan’s solo Mint Julep seminar was another standout. How does one guy kill 90 minutes talking about one drink? Mr. McMillan, who tends bar at the Library Lounge on Canal Street, didn’t even break a sweat. He started his history of the Julep thousands of years ago, with the birth of fermentation, then wended his way through the millennia to a climactic demo of how to make a proper Julep a la McMillan; his tour de force performance had him muddling mint with peach syrup and smashing ice with a hammer bigger than Thor’s, all the while reciting from memory a long, flowery ode to the Julep. Audience samples were mixed by Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff, who artfully applied an ice shell to the outside of each glass, as McMillan fielded questions from the crowd. When asked what kind of mint to use, he replied: “Anyone who would put peppermint in a Julep would put scorpions in a baby’s bed.”
Then there was our own seminar, “Tiki Drinks: From A To Zombie.” Our fellow panelists, Wayne Curtis and Stephen Remsberg, did all the heavy lifting with their Mai Tai and Last Rites drink demos, with audience samples mixed by Martin Cate of the vaunted California tiki bar Forbidden Island, abetted by Mrs. Bum and local cocktail maven Jeanne Vidrine. They weren’t the only ones working: Jill DeGroff, the Museum Of The American Cocktail’s resident artist, dashed off a portrait of the Bum (above) in less time than it took him to stumble through his history of exotica, while Rick Stutz of the drink website Kaiser Penguin blogged the entire seminar live as it happened. Bless him for that, because now we don’t have to go to the trouble of summarizing it ourselves.
Rick also teamed up with fellow drink bloggers Paul Clarke, Chuck Taggart and Darcy O’Neil in a lively panel discussion entitled “Cocktails And The Blogosphere.” Among the many interesting observations bandied about was Paul’s warning that if you don’t blog at least twice a week, you will lose your audience. If he’s right, then no one is reading this post and we might as well stop here.