By JUICE GORDON
I've been in the bar industry for just two years and that places me in the category of "green": a fresh, unripe, unblemished little banana bearing none of the squishy brown spots that eventually result from the harsh but wonderful reality of the world that comes with this job.
I sometimes like being the littlest baby behind the bar because I can use it as an excuse for not knowing things. But it also makes me wildly intimidated by the knowledge my peers possess and forces me to constantly soak up as much information as possible. In this pursuit to speed-ripen and become a better bartender, I decided to fly to New Orleans, Louisiana, at the height of sticky summer, for the 13th annual installment of Tales of the Cocktail, the world’s "premier cocktail festival.”
If you were to look up Tales without speaking to anyone who has previously attended, you would perhaps interpret it as a five-day convention for like-minded folks from across the globe to get together and share ideas and techniques, and to build new foundations for change in an ever-growing industry.
Perhaps there's a way to infuse vodka with all the flavours of a bloody mary so that it could be served with fewer calories than ever!
Or maybe they've brainstormed the most glorious of garnishes, peels from each and every citrus fruit, braided together in eternal, pithy unity!
Or possibly they’re all down there together getting wasted and sleeping with each other, relishing the time away from their own bars as they scrape themselves from their hotel beds/floors every late afternoon and start their days by washing the stale beer taste out of their mouths with slightly less stale beer.
The latter scenario was my fear.
I had been told countless horror stories of missed flights, week-long hangovers, lifetime-scarring physical altercations, extremely public vomiting, accidental and career damaging sexcapades, and pickpocketed wallets, and that was just from one person.
My mother, upon hearing the news that I’d bought my tickets, shook her head and warned that my English heritage (skin) could not handle the “unbearable Southern heat” and that I was “burning the candle at both ends” thinking I could handle the “incessant imbibing and suffocating humidity” simultaneously.
A friend that works in the industry explained that neither he nor any of his coworkers had ever been because he heard it was just a chance for big brands to pour themselves down the throats of these drink-making drones, who then just turn around and promote said brand in exchange for cash and swag.
I combined this horrific imagery with my own fears, which I thought were much more logical. Things like overcrowding, being in the wrong place with the right place just around the corner, sunburn, etc. I also knew there were going to be a lot of important people from the industry there and I became intimidated at the thought of meeting them in such an environment.
Could they even remember my name if we met whilst double-fisting a Coors Light and a Lucky Dog hot dog at the Old Absinthe House (a place I ended up every night and never saw anyone drinking absinthe)? Would they be able to see/smell the pools of sweat accumulating in the crevices of my body? Could they, with a sticky, reluctant shake of my hand, sense whether or not I would succeed in this field and, if they predicted I would not, would they tell me or just let my career trail off until I ended up as a corporately employed “mixologist”, combining tequila with Mountain Dew Baja Blast for teenagers and single parents at a suburban Taco Bell?
It was with these (mostly self-imposed) stresses and much anticipation that I boarded my 8 a.m. Spirit Airlines flight to New Orleans to find out for myself what Tales of the Cocktail is really like.
And it was nothing like I expected.
Yeah, it was hot. It was hotter than I've ever been in my green little life. But as a Chicago native still defrosting from a lifetime of brutal winters, I welcomed the sunshine and the humidity. Every time I walked out of my air-conditioned hotel into the hot soup of New Orleans streets, I licked my lips and strolled with an ice cold, legally-sanctioned open container of [insert beer/alcohol here]. I wondered aloud and too-loudly for my hungover comrades at the architecture and plant life. I went to beautiful, historic bars and restaurants and sipped cocktails and ate foods I'd never tried before, and somehow always had room to try something new.
Sure, the financial power of the brands was present. There were t-shirts, sunglasses, koozies—even whole parties thrown by the seemingly bottomless bank accounts of the larger spirit brands. It was mind-blowing to see the thought and backing of some of the events (e.g., a “backyard” themed party in a warehouse transformed with fake grass and beach balls, flanked with individually customized, hand-built stands for each brand, complete with working bartenders to make signature cocktails served in customized glassware, pumped in A/C, AND a mechanical bull).
But despite much of this seemingly flagrant extravagance, it is the same money that also sends bartenders across the globe further their education and maybe even give them an opportunity to travel to a part of the planet they never would have otherwise. Many of these companies also sponsor events that generate serious financial support for charities of all kinds (e.g., Speed Rack, an annual all-lady speed bartending competition that so far has raised over $300,000 in funding for breast cancer research).
And sure, I met other, oftentimes quite well-known and influential bartenders while drinking at other bars. But this was no stumbling Bourbon Street encounter—I was meeting these folks at places that had to be sought out, that my work family and I had gone out of our way to see, and so really ended up meeting my most like-minded counterparts in the industry and immediately had topics of conversation in common on which to build.
I met bartenders from across the world that I wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to meet, who've now have inspired me to travel to visit them at their places of work. My friend and I went to one of the many seminars offered during the week, led by experts of each field and saturated with knowledgeable attendees, and we got to chat with them in a casual setting that would not have existed anywhere else (e.g., conversing with the man who re-created an extremely historic but long-lost rum, while sipping said rum with a regular from my bar who I ran into at the seminar).
After narrowly avoiding arrest by airport security on the way home (apparently my self-defense keychain was "pretty much brass knuckles" and I could have been fined $10,000 for having it but was let go for being "such a nice young lady"), I was sitting in the terminal eating a fancy sandwich I bought as hunger-security, mentally going over the events of the weekend. With powdered sugar in my eyebrows from an obligatory last-minute visit to Cafe du Monde, I came to the realization that I'd ended up going on a trip very different than the one I had expected to go on, and that I'd enjoyed every minute of it. I bonded with coworkers, tried wonderful new things, and met wonderful new people.
As I looked across the terminal at the other straggler bartenders ready to go home, my gaze landed for a moment on one in particular: a swaying, belly-over-flip flops bartender in line at a pretzel/hot dog stand, the bags under his eyes so low they grazed his nipples, which were themselves barely contained by his ill-fitting, mostly unbuttoned, crumpled Hawaiian shirt that he had clearly worn every day. This man embodied every fear and concern I’d had not only about Tales but about the industry (and life) in general: it is depleting to give yourself fully day after day to strangers who feel they owe you nothing, and the FOMO that accompanies any minute of free time can lead you to zero sleep and over-indulgences of every kind. This industry is tough, both physically and emotionally, but it’s up to each person living this life to make it what they want, and my hot, sticky, delicious, exhilarating experience at Tales of the Cocktail reassured me that mine’s gonna be A-OK.