Tales of the Cocktail is one of the largest annual spirits industry conferences in the world, spanning 5 days and including hundreds of events! While the conference is catered towards those working in the spirits industry, there are also opportunities for cocktail and spirits enthusiasts to participate. Each seminar is ticketed separately so that you can choose those most relevant to your interests, and if you purchase at least $150 in seminar tickets you'll also receive a tasting wristband which grants access to dozens of tasting events throughout the week. There are various cocktail and bartending competitions incorporated into the event, as well as endless networking opportunities at spirits company sponsored parties.
Check out the Tales of the Cocktail website for more information and to purchase tickets:
Although Tales of the Cocktail encompasses all types of spirits, our focus was on rum and rum cocktails. Even with that narrow focus, we quickly learned that it is impossible to attend every event that you are interested in. There were several incredible events we attended that were not rum-based, so save some time for trying things that are outside of your comfort zone. Based on our experience in 2018, we have compiled a list of tips to help ensure your Tales experience is enriching, entertaining, and enjoyable:
Many activities run longer than scheduled and others require getting in line early to get the best seats or swag. It also takes time to walk to the various venues, some of which were several blocks (or even a few miles) from the host hotel.
Each day is a marathon and you will need fuel to get through the day and night. Complimentary bottles of water were available during the day throughout the hotel to keep you hydrated. There are many excellent restaurants in all price ranges within a few blocks of the host hotel which makes it easy to take breaks for meals. Also, some events have light bites served so be on the lookout for those if you don't have time for a restaurant.
This is a great resource to ask questions, gather recommendations, and obtain invites to spirits company sponsored events. Everyone is incredibly helpful and supportive of each other and it is great way to meet new friends.
We have traveled to many tropical locations and we live in Florida, but the heat and humidity in the French Quarter in the heart of summer is unlike anything we have ever experienced. Some events are held outdoors and you will likely need to walk to different venues in the mid-day heat. Even air-conditioned buildings struggle to keep up with the temperatures. Be sure to drink lots of ice water and plan for at least one or two changes of clothes per day.
You will have drinks offered to you non-stop daily, starting as early as 9 AM through late into the night. It is easy to overindulge and ruin rest of the day (or the next one). No one will be offended if you politely turn down a drink. If you try a drink that you do not like, just discreetly drop it into a trash can or leave it on a tray.
Rum Traveler attended Tales of the Cocktail for the first time in 2018 and we wanted to share our perspective of the event, both as newbies and as rum enthusiasts. The event was held at the historic Hotel Monteleone in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Opened in 1886 by Antonio Monteleone, a cobbler who emigrated to the city from Sicily, the hotel has been continuously owned and operated by five generations of the Monteleone family. Many authors such as Ernest Hemmingway and Tennessee Williams have frequented the hotel and it has been the backdrop for several movies and television shows, including Double Jeopardy and NCIS: New Orleans. It is also known as one of the most haunted hotels in the city. But perhaps its most famous feature is the Carousel Bar - a 25-seat, circus themed revolving bar that has been spinning since 1949. And in July 2018, it transformed into the headquarters for Tales of the Cocktail.
Overall, Tales of the Cocktail is the most comprehensive, productive, and intense spirits industry event we have attended. The educational offerings were vast and the networking opportunities were endless. However, the scope of the event can be overwhelming (especially to newcomers) so we wanted to break down the various activities and offer our take on each.
These 90 minute learning sessions are the flagship offerings of the event and where you will be spending most of your money on tickets. Popular seminars sell out early, so be sure to purchase tickets well in advance. Held in the host hotel's ballrooms, seminars are moderated by an industry expert and presented by several well-known personalities with extensive knowledge on the subject matter. Attendees are seated at long tables in rows facing a stage with projector screens behind it to display the presentation. There are usually tasting placemats at each seat with several spirit expressions to sample during the presentation. In 2018, we attended two seminars:
Another main component of Tales of the Cocktail is the large assortment of tasting rooms sponsored by various spirit companies. These drop-in format events are free to attend with a Tales tasting room wristband and are held in various locations throughout the host hotel. They typically offer samples of spirits and cocktails and if you arrive early, you are likely to get some free stuff like t-shirts, hats, and stickers. Tasting rooms provide an excellent opportunity to meet brand representatives and network with others in the spirits industry. No reservations or RSVPs are needed, but sometimes there are lines to enter the more popular rooms.
Each day, one or more sponsoring spirit companies hosts a party at the host hotel's pool for several hours. They go all out with decorations, pool toys, cocktail stations, and swag so as a result these parties can get crowded. Don't expect to get a lounge chair or souvenir beach towel unless you line up at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the event. It can get steamy but it is a nice break from the air conditioning and a great place to relax and spend time with your new friends. Event staff come around frequently with appetizers to give you some fuel for the rest of the day. The pool parties are also free to attend with a Tales tasting room wristband and do not require an RSVP.
This is a small window in the lobby of host hotel where you can stop by for a complimentary cocktail from one of the event sponsors. It is open for a specified periods of time during the main event days and there is usually a quick-moving line.
This separately ticketed event is usually held offsite (it was at the nearby House of Blues in 2018) in the late afternoon on one of the main event days. Many different spirits brands offer samples of their expressions as well as cocktails and are happy to chat with you about their products. We were impressed by the diversity and sheer volume of offerings, and at first we didn't even realize there were several rooms to explore! This event gets packed so make sure to arrive early and prioritize the tables you want to visit since it is not possible to stop at all of them.
Many of the most desirable events of Tales of the Cocktail are invite-only. These include spirits tastings at local bars, day-long cocktail parties, and the famous after-parties. Among our favorites from 2018 were Rum Rising (hosted by Appleton and Wray & Nephew), Avuá Bálsamo Cachaçha tasting at Manolito, and Garden of Elyx (hosted by Absolut Elyx - yes a non-rum event!). The Tales Facebook group mentioned above is an excellent source for obtaining invites to these exclusive events, but networking at tasting rooms and seminars can also get you in.
We also had the opportunity to meet with several VIPs from the rum industry during Tales of the Cocktail in 2018:
Santa Teresa - Nestor Ortega, Master Distiller
Based in Venezuela, Ron Santa Teresa has been producing rum for over 200 years, making them one of the oldest rum producers in the Caribbean. Their premium Santa Teresa 1796 rum is a blend of molasses-based pot and column still rums which are aged in American white oak and French limousin oak barrels using the solera system. This results in a complex flavor profile with notes of vanilla, allspice, and caramel which is best enjoyed neat or in a Rum Old Fashioned cocktail.
We had read about The Alcatraz Project and the company's rugby team on their website, but it was incredible to hear the story from Nestor himself, who watched the story unfold firsthand. Back in 2003, members of one of the local Venezuelan gangs attempted to rob the distillery but were apprehended. Alberto Vollmer, the company's CEO, gave them two options: be handed over to the police or work at the distillery for 3 months without pay as atonement for their crime. They chose work, but asked to have jobs offered to all 22 members of the gang. Vollmer agreed and after the gang members successfully completed their work agreement, he offered them permanent jobs at the distillery to escape from their life of crime. The sport of rugby was introduced to give the workers a way to burn off steam and to build comradery. Over time, other rival gangs joined the rehabilitation program (known as The Alcatraz Project) and violent crime in the area was drastically reduced.
The company offers tours of Hacienda Santa Teresa, which was named as one of the "Top 10 Distillery Tours" by CNN, that include the distillery, the estate, and the rugby fields. Rum Traveler is looking forward to visiting Venezuela and Hacienda Santa Teresa as soon as current travel advisories are lifted.
Diplomático - Nelson Hernandez, Master Blender/Maestro Ronero
Diplomático is one of the largest rum producers in Venezuela and is distributed in over 70 countries. Locally grown sugar cane is processed into molasses and honey then distilled using continuous column, batch kettle, and pot stills. The result is a unique variety of rums, from the light Planas rum with its subtle fruity notes to the amber Reserva Exclusiva rum which has pleasant flavors of brown sugar and orange peel.
Nelson walked us through a tasting of the base unaged rums from each type of still as well as the resulting aged rums prior to blending. The tasting demonstrated that the rums' sweetness comes from the raw molasses and honey, which have a higher sugar content than others, and not from added sugar or caramel.
We also had the opportunity to sample Diplomático's three Single Vintage rums which are aged for 12 years in bourbon and single malt whiskey casks, then blended and finished for an additional year in sherry casks. Each vintage has a completely different flavor profile that reflects specific environmental fluctuations like rainfall and temperature during its production. The Single Vintage 2000 has a buttery aroma and prominent vanilla notes along with cherry and caramel. The softer Single Vintage 2002 has subtle cinnamon and chocolate flavors with hints of banana and pear. The newest expression in this series, the Single Vintage 2004, is drier than the others and features hazelnut, coffee, and chocolate notes.
Montanya Distillers - Karen Hoskin, President/CEO
Montanya Distillers is located in Crested Butte, Colorado at an altitude of 9,000 feet, a unique attribute for a spirit that is typically produced on tropical islands near sea level. The company is committed to environmental responsibility, as demonstrated by Karen's refusal to use disposable cups for our tasting and by the fact that the distillery is completely wind powered. Their rums are 100% American made, from the Louisiana sugar cane to the corks produced in Pennsylvania.
We sampled the Montanya Aniversaria which is a limited 10th anniversary release that is aged for four years in several different types of barrels including ex-bourbon and ex-wine casks. This results in a deliciously complex flavor profile with notes of peach and cherry and a pleasant sweet finish.
Montanya offers free daily tours and tastings at their distillery, which also serves a variety of appetizers and small plates for a full culinary experience. Their location in Crested Butte is a bit remote (about a 4 hour drive from Denver or Colorado Springs) but would be an excellent weekend trip to soak in the stunning mountain scenery. Rum Traveler is looking forward to visiting this unique distillery in order to provide a more in-depth look at their production methods and discover other local attractions.
Flor de Caña - David Powell, Brand Ambassador
Nestled at the base of the active San Cristobal volcano in Nicaragua is Ron Flor de Caña, a rum company that has been operated by the same family for over 125 years. The fertile soil, enriched water, and high temperatures in this volcanic climate are known to contribute to the smooth, complex flavor of Flor de Caña's rums. Younger rums produced here have robust, elegant tasting notes typically found in much older spirits. Flor de Caña has one of the largest reserves of aged rums in the world, much of it tucked away in the 1980's after the Nicaraguan political revolution and a period of hyper-inflation.
David started our tasting with Flor de Caña 7 Year Gran Reserva, which is a smooth, full-bodied rum with hints of vanilla and toasted coconut. Next was the 12 Year, the youngest of their Ultra Premium collection but an excellent sipping rum with sweet notes of honey and apple. We concluded the tasting with Flor de Caña 18 Year, a much drier, smokier expression balanced with a smooth caramel finish.
Sailor Jerry - Anthony Bohlinger, Brand Ambassador
One of the most popular spiced rums on the market today is Sailor Jerry, which is made with a blend of Caribbean rums and several spices including vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It is bottled at 92 proof, higher than most spiced rums, to ensure that it stands out in cocktails. While many people enjoy Sailor Jerry mixed with cola, it was designed to pair perfectly with ginger.
Anthony shared some interesting information about the rum's namesake and it's iconic hula girl tattoo logo. Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins was a Navy veteran who built his reputation tattooing US servicemembers in Honolulu after World War II. His highly coveted tattoos embodied the live-in-the-moment mentality of the era. Sailor Jerry rum is crafted in his honor and is inspired by the tradition of sailors improving the flavor of their on-board rum rations by blending in spices. Collins' hula girl artwork on rum's label is an illustration of Hawaii as not only a place but a state of mind.
Overall, our first experience at Tales of the Cocktail was incredible. We were able to make many new connections and meet some of the most respected and knowledgeable people in the rum industry. The learning opportunities were extensive and every day of the event offered a diverse selection of activities to further enrich the experience. And most importantly, we had a blast! We look forward to attending this event again in the future and highly recommend Tales of the Cocktail to spirits industry professionals and enthusiasts.