Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ah, New Orleans: Part 4, the Finale

I once again didn't need to be in class on Saturday till 12:30, THSM (Thank Heaven Small Miracles). Ran into Steph and Jen on the streetcar and grabbed some breakfast once again at Cafe Beignet as Steph rushed to her 10:30. Craving A/C I went to ground zero to check out the tasting room, though I seriously didn't want to drink. Yet. Inside the tasting room, people were gathered to watch the show sponsored by Martin Miller's gin, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The cute and charismatic English brand ambassador, Craig Harper, led two teams of bartenders, Limeys and Shermans, as a scoreboard kept track of their antics. I walked in just as the Limey side of the gin and tonic competition took place. Objective: to make as many of them in a minute as possible. The guy just dumped a whole tray of ice on some cups, quickly drizzled them with gin and poured in the tonic, plopped in the limes and for show, threw one in the air and caught it in his mouth! Score for the Limeys. Apparently the Shermans took a more analog approach, which slowed them down. Drinks were being passed to the crowd but I abstained, knowing it would be another long day. Next was a game where each team chose a rep to shake a cocktail over their shoulder while stirring another with the other hand, all the while making banter with the crowd. Shermans won that big time. Chants of "U....S....A!!! U....S....A!!!" and then the next event: bowling for limes. Another score for the Shermans. Finally, a contest for a fancy gin cocktail, to be judged by Martin Miller himself, judged on creativity, flavor and appearance. The USA team won it hands down, led by the lovely and talented Andy Seymour of Beverage Alcohol Resource. Cupcakes all around!

I hadn't seen Sabrina and Lisa for a couple of days, as it is easy to lose people at this conference if you miss a couple of parties like I did, and so we had a quick LOFT meeting in the lobby before S. and I headed to our next class, this one over a the Astor Crowne Plaza, Carnivorous Cocktails! Moderated by writer Kara Newman, and featuring stories and cocktails by Adam Seger of Chicago's Nacional 27 and Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA. We were first treated to a home made Bacon "Cello" (hey Sabrina, think Lisa the veggie would go for making this? Yeah, I didn't think so), which disappointingly smelled and tasted more like vodka flavored with fake bacon, like bacos or bacon bits. I think the spirit neutralized the natural sweetness and left only salty smoke. Next was a wonderful prosciutto cocktail with infused vodka in a perfectly matched, tangy, fruity mix of berries and citrus. Then a "ham and cheese" which consisted of iberico ham-infused bourbon with another suitable fruit mix, a hint of rosemary, and topped with a manchego tuille and rosemary sprig, not easily balanced on those little plastic cups, but they made it work. Lastly, we were treated to a drink version of MacDonald's McGriddle breakfast sandwich: the bacon cello, this time suitably mixed, a whole egg, maple syrup, and topped with fresh (if you can call it that) bacon bits for salt and crunch. A successful combo, despite being the epitome of American gluttony in drink form. Must say, all those pork cocktails were quite the mitzvah to a lushy Jew hussy such as myself!

Stephanie and I decided to skip our Hammer of the Gods class, which would be all Absinthe cocktails that we were both weary of at this point, and met up, along with Jen, and Adam Levy of the NY Spirits Awards (total mensch!) for lunch at Coops, which I was more than happy to revisit. Our seemingly long and sweaty midday hike there rewarded us with another great local meal. While there, received a text from Mike, who I was going to meet up with again later with maybe some chaperones, I mean, peeps, that Cassandra Wilson's publicist had contacted him to do a bit for the local radio station Mike works at, WWOZ, and that maybe we would all meet for drinks that night! Funny, 'cos along the schvitzy walk back to ground zero from Coop's, we saw Cassandra on the street listening to a bunch of kids performing. Again, didn't want to disturb. But I hoped that we could chat about it when and if I saw her later.

Steph, Jen and I would be together for our next and final class of Tales, Agavepalooza. A rousing tequila and mezcal class taught by the most distinguished people in that field: renown maven of all things drink, Steve Olson, star bartender Junior Merino, who would be making our cocktails (psyche!), Ron Cooper of Del Maguey mezcal, David Suro-Pinera of Siembra Azul tequila and Mexican anthropologist and agave culture enthusiast Rodolpho Fernandez, as well as added commentary from Andy Seymour (from this morning). This was the class Steph came all the way to New Orleans to take, and the anticipation was reaching an explosive pitch as we lined the hall (no A/C, we were dyin' here!) waiting to get into the class room. It was going to start late, still setting up, so we were treated a refreshing cucumber tequila drink from Junior as we waited. The classroom was near the pool and we could clearly see Tales bartender antics taking place there through the glass doors. Lots of bikinis, tattoos and wet bowler hats.

We were finally let in, Mexican tunes getting us into the groove. At the seats before us were a printed placemat with relevant notes about tequilas and mezcals, and helpful maps. On it were placed four tequilas on one side, and three mezcals in clay pots on the other, with room for a "mystery" sampling to come later. After a few minutes we settled in and got going, and Steve was a very energetic leader. He passed around a large piece of roasted mezcal for us to look at, there's Steph with it on the left. I have to say the panelists got a little lengthy and detailed, somewhat hard to keep paying attention to, but still, the subject remained intriguing to me.

We learned the difference between high and lowland tequilas and mezcals (highlands are more saline and funky, lowlands usually more concentrated and sweeter), plus sampled offerings from the different villages. Top left to right: Familia Partida Tequila Blanco from Jalisco lowlands, Siembra Azul Tequila Blanco from the highlands, Siete Leguas Tequila Blanco smaller batch from the highlands (a personal favorite since I initially tried it at Astor, complex, balanced sweet, smoke and salt), Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Reposado (which was one of the funkiest, weirdest things I've tasted, a little rancid buttery, lemony, grass, green pepper, white flower and banana and lots of salinic ocean water and seaweed).

The mezcals were Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas High Mountain Espadin from Tlacolula village (herbal, peppery, smoky), Del Maguey Minero Low Broad Valley clay still Espadin from Ocotlan village (my favorita! sweet BBQ smoke, red hot pepper, cinnamon, salt, cucumber, lime), Del Maguey Tobala High Mountain Wild Mountain Maguet from Tlacula village (hot pepper and smoke again, less complex than the last) and finally, the "mystery" agave spirit: Pechuga! Pechuga is made when a whole chicken (yep, you read that right, CHICKEN liquor mutha fuckaz!) is roasted and fermented along with the agave, with the resulting fermentation bearing a wonderfully drinkable, medium cloudy white, somewhat chocolatey spirit with raspberry and licoricey flavors. We ran way late, even for our late start, and the hotel needed our class room, so the discussion was going to continue out by the pool. We got another superb Junior-made cocktail for our exit, with a pepper-salted rim. Sadly, I couldn't take part as I was late meeting the Mistresses for a Seven Deadly Sins party I was to help them schmooze at, at the W hotel.

I luckily got a hold of Lisa and Sabrina before they got to the hotel, otherwise, no way to get me into the shindig. It was big, loud and corporate, but sort of fun in a cheesy way. All the sins had a respective brand sponsoring and little vignette scene to accompany the cocktails. I don't remember all of them (just recovering from sips of 10 agave drinks), but "sloth" was Firefly sweet tea vodka (what I refer to as the Dave Matthews Band of spirits. Some good notes, but the fans are total assholes). Miss North Carolina lazily swung from a tire swing as though drugged on ruffies by, well, a bunch of white, male Dave Matthews fans. "Lust" was go-go dancers swaying behind a big screen, and I think it was a rum drink, but don't remember which one, though at least it was mixed with Fentiman's superb ginger beer. They had some coconut rum truffles off to the side, and I grabbed a couple of those. Within only 20 minutes I had already heard three Michael Jackson songs blaring. I didn't want to drink sugary liquor at all by then, but a few brand people I knew kept coming up and handing me drinks or tastes of things, so I took small sips and put things down at every opportunity. At least I had some worthwhile chats with people, especially Hanna Lee, a super cool NY-based spirits PR rep who always looks fab (and always seemed to have time for a costume change between events while the rest of us came as we were, in all day strength), Allison Evanow of Square One vodka (yay, female distillers!) and the guys from Pipeline, Jim Pickett and John Henry. I got a text from Stephanie who had just left the pool area, that one of the pool revelers got arrested and tazed! (Next day I learned it was a bunch of locals who crashed the hotel, stole a bunch of stuff and were getting lewd around the pool, called out by security. Dang. No Tales dirt here).

Soon it was time to meet Mike again at 13. I walked all the way from the W to Frenchman street, hoping the walk would sober me up. Although I think I felt more drained, dazed and hot, rather than truly drunk. A quiet bar and healthier food would be just the ticket.

Mike was a little late again, but that gave me some time too cool off in the A/C with an Abita and catch up on emails and facebook postings. We started talking about our days, and soon we were joined by Jason Rowan of Embury Cocktails. I liked him instantly. Very easy to talk to, rich, soothing voice and we seemed to share a lot of the same perspectives about the liquor industry and Tales of the Cocktail in general. The other two pix on the left were taken by him on his fancy professional camera! After another round of beers (wine for Mike), we went for a little ride.

Jason and I both had a curiosity about seeing the Lower 9th Ward, site of some of the worst destruction from Katrina, and the last part of the city to get redeveloped. One of those things you kinda have to do as an outsider, but still, not in the same exploitative way there are tours of Lower Manhattan. It's not like there are postcards and hats to sell near a marked house, or a photo op next to a FEMA trailer. Jason and I were both surprised to see that things had already been built up a lot, it was still bad, mind you, but not as bad as you would think. Work was being done. On the way there, we passed this little gem of a sight, looked to be like a combination meeting house and general store, pictured left. And then we also heard this on the radio! Good times.

Once out of the Lower 9th, Mike decided to take us to his favorite wine bar, Bacchanal. Already I was feeling really comfortable, a rare connection with these two considering Jason and I had only known each other a couple of hours, and Mike only one day. Good friends have often come in trios for me, and I haven't been in one since college. I was happy. Getting happier still as Mike and Jason smoked a very potent bowl while were were parked near Bacchanal. I don't smoke. Anything. Wish I could, honestly, but my lungs can't take it.

Bacchanal is a wine bar out front and huge, lush garden patio out back that feels so removed from the chaos and touristiness of the Quarter, more like something from Tuscany than a fat American city. I selected one of my favorite Northern Spanish wines to take out back with us, Ameztoi Txakolina (Chalk-o-leena) Rubentis, a crisp rose with a zingy fizz, which were shockingly told would be one of the last bottles as the vineyard had been paved over! Bah! It was perfect for a humid night outside. No one else was there, and we freely discussed a lot of things, parents, relationships, tequila binges, hysterectomies, you name it. Very naturally. Jason had a kick ass camera and was taking lots of pictures, including this one at left of Mike and me shooting the shit.

The place was trying to close and I had gotten a text from Steph that she was at another nearby bar called Mimis with an old pal Virle who lived in town, and Jen. We got back into the car and the boys lit up again. Mimis was just a few blocks away. I began giggling appropo of nothing and everything felt warm and happy. Mike looked at me and said, "YOU have a contact high!" Awesome! Something I've truly always wanted! Way better than that hot wheels loop to loop I coveted when I as eight, although that would be so fun to watch in action right about now.

Inside, Mimi's was regular pool table scene downstairs, upstairs, it's a hot, sweaty dance party. A colleague of Mike's at the radio station, Soulsista, was playing some classic R & B and the room was totally into it. I could barely make out Steph in the middle of the floor getting her groove on. We all met at the bar for a beer, and started moving to the sounds again, the one Michael Jackson song no one had played in my presence yet and an old favorite, "Ben." But it was getting so hot, and we had just come from this mellow scene, it somehow wasn't feeling right. I got Steph's attention and then our trio were once more into the night.

By now it was getting past midnight and clearly, Cassandra was dissing us (dang celebrities...), but we went back toward Frenchman St. Checking out some sounds from the sidewalk, we made our way into a bi-level R&B club with a balcony. We stayed a bit and checked out the scene inside, but we were getting tired and wanted something a little less party. Back down the end of the block to where Mike and I saw Cassandra the night before. They would be closing soon, but we got a table inside anyway. More talking, laughing. By now I was positive my makeup resembled the face melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark and I was definitely now drunk as well as high. But it felt good. We all felt good. After yet another beer (I know, momentum, remember?) we headed for the taco truck (either I was THAT drunk or grilled pork and pineapple soft tacos totally rock) and Mike drove us to our respective hotels. By now it was nearing 4am. Jason had a plane to catch in 3 hours (he didn't, I later learned. Lucky bastard got another day!) and I had to be up to go to a breakfast meeting with the Mistresses and be packed by 9. As Jason entered his hotel, I knew he would be a keeper.

It wasn't exactly birdies and woodland creatures singing to me as I got out of bed and washed up, but I somehow made it to that breakfast meeting, and in wayyy better shape than the ladies, who had both been out all night and not slept. Mike had offered to drive me to the airport, and luckily he was on time. Before I knew it, this epic 5-day journey was over. I was in the terminal with a lot of NYC people, making sure not to let them discuss mixed drinks in front of me (too soon, way too soon). And it seemed we had all shared in our own version of Tales of the Cocktail that would stay with us, for some, whether they liked it or not. My best college pal Jason Bylan put it best when he once said, as he longingly stared down a bar after a crazy, drunk bartender he had a crush on, "I just found something I didn't know I wanted. And gained something I never want to give up."

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