Dispatches from the world's most insane cocktail festival.
Per gentile concessione di Jennifer Mitchell Photography
I'm panic-chugging water in my New Orleans hotel room. The stories I've heard from veteran Tales of the Cocktail attendees has inspired my fear-based hydration effort. Tales of the Cocktail is billed as the world's premier cocktail festival, a 5-day extravaganza of alcohol-related educational seminars, tastings, and parties marketed as an opportunity for professional growth. However, the festival has become either infamous or legendary, depending on who you ask, for the hardcore drinking that goes down in the swampy Louisiana summer heat.
I'm here attending Tales for four days to find out if some of the world's best booze professionals are holding secrets to the world's best hangover cures. If they are, they'll be putting them to use this week in New Orleans.
It's a brutally hot and muggy 87 degrees with 75% humidity outside. Who picked mid-summer to throw this thing in the summer? Satan? I scroll through social media and see a few Tales-related posts about Pedialyte purchases.
"Pedialyte® is not a hangover cure, but it can help with the dehydration you may experience after a couple of cocktails," the oral electrolyte solution's website reads. "If you're feeling tired, have a headache, or are experiencing other signs of dehydration after a couple drinks, see the Lyte and rehydrate with Pedialyte to feel better fast."
Booze people like Marshall Seyler swear by Pedialyte for their hangover needs. Seyler, a bartender at Civil Liberties in Toronto, immediately hits a drug store when he gets to Tales. On his shopping list? "One case of water, a shopping cart full of Pedialyte, two cases of Miller High Life, and a carton of cigarettes," he tells me.
Seyler pairs Pedialyte with his alcohol. He makes strawberry kiwi Pedialyte ice cubes to throw into Pinot Grigio. "Strawberry kiwi and pinot grigio is fucking delicious," he says. "Your hangover is gone. Second option: flavorless Pedialyte put in a Bloody Mary as the salt element so you hydrate with electrolytes while you get drunk."
San Francisco-based spirits journalist and 12-time Tales attendee Camper English also stocks up on electrolytes for Tales. "I take Nuun, which is an electrolyte fizzy tablet. It's great," he says. "I do that if I'm generally feeling a little sluggish in the morning. It's basically a Gatorade pill."
When night falls, a friend of mine and I head out to Bourbon Street to take in the sights and get our hands on a po' boy. We do just that, then begin a journey of bar hopping until 6 AM. This is not how you pace yourself for Tales of the Cocktail.
No surprise that it's difficult to peel myself out of bed at 9 AM for the first seminar of the week. I feel like trash, and no amount of electrolytes can save me now. I grab a coffee, fold some scrambled eggs in a piece of bread, and eat breakfast while power walking to the seminar.
I arrive fully dripping in sweat to "Hey Scotch, Where's My Age Statement?" Normally I wouldn't love the idea of drinking Scotch at 10 in the morning, but I welcome the hair of the dog with open arms. I learn that that older does not always equal better in the world of whisky, and that alcohol professionals are maniacs.
"If I'm not feeling 100 percent in the morning after having a few wee drams of Scotch the night before, I always get up and go to the gym," a Scotch ambassador tells me. "My mindset: there is no wallowing allowed."
The idea of working out right now sounds truly insane. I continue my wallowing and head to an agave spirits tasting room to pick at the scant remains of a cheese plate like a vulture. At the next seminar, Charlotte Voisey, the director of brand advocacy for William Grant & Sons, leads a presentation on all things cherry-related (There are 120 different varieties of cherries, who knew?).
Voisey has attended Tales eleven times. She swears by coconut water, kombucha, nutrient-dense food, and working out to combat the booze backlash. "Morning exercise is also a big part of my routine," she says. "If there is anything to sweat out, it's best to do sooner rather than later."
I sulk back to my room for a deep, deep nap, waking up hours later in the dark. After dinner, it's time for the William Grant & Sons "Love Supreme" portfolio party. These parties provide opportunities for alcohol companies to put their brands in front of influential bar people. Tonight Sailor Jerry rum is doling out free tattoos. Hendrick's Gin has this giant steampunk-y garnish-making contraption powered by a guy bicycling on top of it.
Men and women in the prime of their lives float around the huge Mississippi Riverside venue. It's not the shitshow I expected. I only spot a few zombie drunk imbibers, but people are handling themselves pretty gracefully considering the situation.
"I think [Tales is] changing. It sounds crazy but I think this year people are behaving a little bit more," Martini global ambassador Roberta Mariani tells me. It's her third year at Tales, an event she handles in moderation. "I think the best advice would be take care of yourself. You don't need to get wasted during Tales of the Cocktail."
After the party there's an after party, followed by more drinking after that. At Erin Rose, an Irish pub known for its frozen Irish coffees, I corner Shawn Cantley, the co-owner of Louisville whiskey haunts like The Silver Dollar, to get his Tales tips.
"I try to drink a lot of water, try not to do shots—although I just fucking had a shot—and try to drink sessionable beers," Cantley says. "I day drink all day with these fucking guys. I just drink Modelo and water."
His day-after drinking meal is menudo. "I think the best hangover cure in the world is menudo, but you're not going to find menudo in New Orleans," Cantley says. "I think the closest you're going to get is pho."
I end the night with a Miller High Life and go to sleep with the sunrise. I am my own worst enemy.
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By the grace of God, I get to sleep in on the third day of Tales. I drink some Pedialyte cut with water and heave my weary bones toward the hotel gym wearing some alcohol brand swag I've repurposed for my athleisure needs. If bartenders and brand ambassadors can power through the pain, so can I—or at least that's what I'm telling myself.
The workout does not go well.
It feels like someone is smashing an ice pick into my temples as I try to squat my way out of misery. I start lifting some weights and wait for my headache to stop its shrill terror, but it doesn't. I found some solace on the elliptical and slog through twenty minutes of floppy cardio.
I feel a little better post-sweat. I feel a little worse after I hit up different brand activations and eat some heavy Southern food.
At night, it's time for Bacardi's massive Neon Tide portfolio party. It's lavish as hell. I ask people how much they think the party cost to throw, and get estimates between $600,000 and two million dollars. There are stilt performers lumbering around the packed warehouse decorated like a jungle. We drink rum slushie cocktails and cups full of Cazadores until the party is over.
We find things to drink elsewhere until 5 AM. I appear to be an old dog incapable of learning tricks.
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More Pedialyte, more coffee, and more day drinking on day four. I have to be at a Scotch seminar at 10 am that turns out to be more of a roast. The audience samples different Scotches while brand ambassadors call each other out for their bad teeth, low YouTube tutorial views, and whisky making practices.
I follow up the scotch with some mezcal at El Silencio's party down the street. In a lightly BDSM-themed room upstairs, they're serving mezcal negronis, free condoms, and complimentary tattoos.
On a leather couch, I catch up with Natalia Garcia Bourke, El Silencio's brand director and five-time Tales survivor. She tells me she learned from her mentors how to make it through the festival alive.
"They were really adamant about all of their different instructions on how to have the best time of your life without fucking yourself up," Bourke says.
For treating hangovers, Bourke reaches for more of the same. "My mom always said have the hair of the dog that bit you. So you have a little bit of something you were having the night before, for me it's mezcal obviously," she says. "A michelada is a life-send in the afternoon."
A few mezcal pours later, Birds & Bees bartender Cole Rapkin shares his hangover routine with me. "A cup of coffee, a cup of water, and a cup of orange juice works every time. Smoking a bowl also helps," he says. "Not to get raunchy, but a little rough sex always helps."
He's not the only one at the party who vouches for carnal cures. "There are two things that have always worked for me. The first is having sex with whoever I happen to go home with the night before again," says Manulele Distller's Kyle Reutner. "The second one is a haircut, a haircut really works. Getting your haircut works. You go in, they give you a little head massage, cut your hair and your hangover is gone. All of the other stuff is bullshit."
I go back to the hotel and take another stab at a hangover workout. A whiskey ambassador I met the night before is doing the same. We exchange sweaty pleasantries and I start cranking out sit-ups. Lo and behold, I feel better with each heaving crunch.
At dusk, I stop by Fernet's party in an old opera house where they're mercifully serving muffalettas to help soak up all that needs to be soaked up. I ask Nicola Olianas, the global ambassador for Fratelli Branca, about how he approaches drinking at Tales.
"My thing is, first of all, I try to drink good things. Quality," he says. The morning after a big booze night, the Italian starts the day with his own supply.
"What I'm doing, no matter where I am in the world, the first thing I do in the morning, I'm having just a little sip of Fernet-Branca," he says. "The bitterness, the herbs, stimulate your body to fight back everything so you can keep on going and start the day."
Olianas champions drinking Fernet for its low sugar content but gravitates toward sugar when it comes to his favorite hangover meals.
"As an Italian, for me in the morning a cappuccino and croissant is what we get. In Sicily, for example, if it's the summer, a croissant with ice cream, gelato, inside which is fantastic. I would suggest to everybody go there and try it," he says. "Here in New Orleans, what I'm having is some nice cinnamon rolls. Some nice cakes."
Tonight's big portfolio is another next level production thrown by Diageo, a company that boasted more than 15 billion dollars in revenues last year. Snoop partnered with Diageo's Tanqueray gin in 2016, so he's here tonight performing at The Dogg House.
Outside the venue, I cross paths with LA restaurateur Med Abrous, whose Hollywood bar The Spare Room is up for multiple Tales Spirited Awards®. He tells me he hasn't found any solid hangover cures yet, but feels a little better if he drinks a coconut water before bed. He has, however, picked up helpful hydration tips from the wine industry.
"Any somm or winemaker will tell you, because they drink wine all day, that if you take as much water as you do wine, you can drink as much as you fucking want," Abrous says. "If you balance out the ounces of water to wine, you're pretty much all good. Do I do that regularly? Absolutely not."
After Snoop's performance, it's time to get out of The Dogg House and keep drinking somewhere else. It's Friday night and absolute pandemonium back on Bourbon Street. New Orleans' most notorious strip of bars and restaurants is flooded with groups of revelers. I can't count all of the bachelor and bachelorette parties.
I am completely burned out from the marathon imbibing of the past few days and cannot feign enthusiasm when some dude throws Mardi Gras beads my way. I escape the madness at Absinthe House and still manage to stay up later than any human should. I choose not to look at the clock when I finally go to bed.
A quick shower and I'm off to the airport at 8 AM. There are some other slumped-over bodies at my gate. I find a chair and slump over, too. Yes I survived, but it will take a while to recover from the hedonism. I need more Pedialyte, or maybe just sobriety.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2017.