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Tales of the Cocktail’s Big Opening Party Didn’t Serve a Drop of Alcohol

And more big changes seen at this year’s event

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For a long moment, the fate of the world’s largest spirits industry event remained lost at sea, but under new leadership, this year’s Tales of the Cocktail showed a new side — one of transparency and moderation.

Tales of the Cocktail, the a multi-day conference held each summer in New Orleans for over 15 years, is considered one of the alcohol industry’s biggest annual events, and winning one of its Spirited Awards is a top honor in the beverage world.

It faced a storm of criticism last year when, in what has now become the infamous Zulu “blackface” Facebook episode, Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Tuennerman and husband Paul were forced to abandon ship after the intense public outcry over a video and racially insensitive comments posted to social media.

In December, just a few months before the annual event in New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail found a savior in the Soloman family, a New Orleans family known for its philanthropy, and Neal Bodenheimer of Cure, when they announced their plans to purchase Tales and turn it into a non-profit. Caroline Rosen, former Besh Foundation director, now helms the foundation as its executive director.

From its inception, the new regime stressed a sea change, citing as part of its mission to make education more accessible, increase diversity, and address issues in the industry like sexual assault and addiction. As one if its first acts, Tales pledged to give away $250K to socially-minded organizations, particularly those that either directly supported the cocktail industry or those who worked in it.

How did the “new Tales” actually fare? Here are Eater’s takeaways from this year’s transitional event.

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Moderation, Even to the Point of Sobriety

While there was no shortage of spirits, this year’s line-up of events included morning AA meetings, afternoon yoga classes, and plenty of frank talk about addiction and sexual assault in panel discussions. Taking responsibility was a topic de rigeur; and at points, Tales seemed to be less about spirit trends or business promotion than about redefining the industry’s identity and conduct. As Laura Green, a group behavioral expert, boldly noted in her talk on the excesses of bar culture, “We’re talking about legalized poison.”

In perhaps the boldest move, though, mega distributors William Grant and Sons, whose Wednesday night throwdowns/throw-ups have become the thing of legend, opted to not serve alcohol at this year’s party, upping the food and entertainment offerings and emphasizing mocktails over the spirits smorgasbord from years past.

The sobering moves might seem counter-intuitive. Should the alcohol industry be taking a stand against the very products it wants to promote? While some event-goers Eater casually polled rejected the idea of a party sans hooch, most seemed surprisingly open to Tales’ new emphasis on moderation, including the idea of not waking up without a hangover, if only to be steady enough to sip again come 9 a.m. (One attendee said she was still buzzed from a previous event and anticipated that it would carry her through the sober party)

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Less Bling, Less Swag

In 2016 and 2017, spirits distributors and producers were beating themselves up trying to outcool one another; for some, Tales had reached a Bonfire of the Vanities level with over-the-top backdrops and props, coteries of model-like servers, and pricey swag.

Case in point: In 2017, Absolut’s House of Elyx put on an exquisite extravaganza, decking out myriad rooms in the Latrobe building with multiple bars, a cabaret singer, a blacksmith jewelry maker, a beauty salon, and sit-down brunch menu. This year, with less time to coordinate and perhaps a more cautious “wait and see” approach, House of Elyx opted for a pared-down outdoor pool party with slushie machines (alas, unable to stay icy with the sweltering temperatures) and two lounging mermaids flapping bedazzled fish tails in the pool.

Surprisingly, Eater found few complainers about the curtailed swag. Rather, attentive sampling and discussion took the forefront. Ironically, “new” Tales seemed to have come back to the event’s roots, putting the emphasis on the wares themselves and quality talk.

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Smaller Crowds

While a final tally of this year’s attendance numbers has yet to be released, Tales officials confirmed that they had 25% less inventory and the event moved from two host hotels to one.

Simply from observation, this Tales definitely felt sparser — not that anyone waiting in a tasting line was griping. The usually packed-to-the-gills lobby of the Monteleone was actually navigable, and there were some empty seats in panels that last year would have been standing room only.

While smaller crowds were nice, there’s no reason to think they’ll stay that way — after all this was a transitional event after a year that saw lots of controversy. As many people found the transition to be smooth and the changes positive, it’s likely the crowds will be back in full force next year.

Transparency, Sensitivity, and Inclusion

This year’s Tales began with the traditional toast in front of the Hotel Monteleone. From there, the main event quickly transitioned into a press conference when organizers announced the 11 winning grant recipients, thus fulfilling the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s pledge to give away $250K its first year. While philanthropy has long been a part of Tales, this year’s above-board approach placed charity front and center and quelled any past concerns over the process or monetary amount, when a mysterious letter surfaced questioning where the Tales of the Cocktail money was really going.

Every panel discussion began with a video showing the new leaders’ emphasis on education, sustainability and inclusiveness — a message they clearly wanted to drive home. While there were certainly panels geared towards improving branding or the bottom line, it would have been entirely possible to experience Tales without ever considering the question of profit.

In what appeared to be an unrehearsed statement, Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard, stood when recognized at the Dame Hall of Fame luncheon and stated, “We almost came close to losing Tales.”

While not giving particulars of past violations, Marine Lombard hinted that the ATC had considered shutting down the event. She praised the new leadership for working closely with the ATC.

Tales of the Cocktail’s uncertain future seems to have found some solid ground and while the leaders made some changes, the backdrop of New Orleans seems to be the one thing that won’t change — and that’s a win for the city.

UPDATE (July 26, 2018): A previous version of this story referred to a quote in the Crescent City Jewish News in which Neil Bodenheimer predicted that ticket sales would be on par with the previous year. Tales of the Cocktail has said that the publication misquoted him. The story has been adjusted accordingly.

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