A master shaker at work.
A master shaker at work.
It’s official. Buenos Aires is undergoing a cocktail drinking revolution and if you haven’t signed up to the support the cause, then it’s about time you did.

This past week has seen the city undertake a starring role on the international drinking circuit, thanks to New Orleans-based Tales of the Cocktail event setting up its portable bar in BA for its first On Tour location outside of North America.

Let’s look at the evidence. If you wanted a respectable, well-made cocktail four years ago, the handful of options included Döppelganger, Gran Bar Danzón, 878 and Milion (besides the usual five-star hotel suspects). A shameful handful for a city this size, inhabited by a population that isn’t shy about drinking.

But times have changed, more bars making serious drinks have opened, and so the palate is a-changing.

Tales is quite the mammoth week-long event in New Orleans. Set up by Mr. and Mrs. Cocktail themselves, Ann and Paul Tuennerman, 11 years ago to celebrate the history of drinking in that city, it has also been held in Vancouver, perhaps not the most obvious location for beverages. And the reason the husband-and-wife team chose BA for their latest adventure was because its cocktail spirit is still on the make.

According to Ann, who masterminds every last detail, “We came to Buenos Aires on a secret, fact-finding recce in 2012, got some local bartenders involved and we had a gut feeling about the place. There was nothing scientific behind it! It’s easy to fall in love with Buenos Aires and there were lots of similarities between New Orleans, Vancouver and here. There’s a joie de vivre, and an important eating and drinking culture.”

Much like a favourite drink, Tales is made with various ingredients, including talks from industry insiders, a team of winning bartender apprentices who get to travel and make drinks for 200-strong audiences, and 12 participating bars that make signature drinks as a tribute to the event.

Packs a punch.
Packs a punch.
In fact, the signature drinks aspect hadn’t been made entirely clear else I would have cleared the diary to try and take on 25 percent of them… next time.

But perhaps most importantly, it’s a bartender’s event – that much is evident from the number of briefcases filled with tools of the trade spotted over the four days.

Everyone knows everyone else and their brother as it’s a fast-moving industry with people shifting jobs frequently. And although that sounds as if it could be a breeding ground for animosity, in fact the vibe is really chummy,] and given the look of many (tattoos, hair styles, piercings), you could be forgiven for thinking this is a surfers’ convention.

But what’s also interesting is that anyone with a passing interest in cocktails can get on board the Good Ship Tale for a relatively small price – this year, the package cost 600 pesos. On day one, around 200 bartenders, many who had come straight from work following a prolonged Saturday night, were bussed to Chascomus to chow down an elaborate asado. With heaps of drinks made by expert bartenders to try, only they can say whether it set them up for a day of industry talks 24 hours later.

However, no one I knew from the drink-making world failed to turn up what is for them bright and early in at 10.30am and with a menu of talks to choose from, cocktail guru and author David Wondrich brought the history of spirits to life courtesy of “Drinking the Americas from Punch to Prohibition,” mainly for painting a clear picture of just how boozy my fellow Englishmen were back in the day, and with good reason – they couldn’t drink sewage-infested water so naturally turned to grog for liquid sustenance.

He also started a small thought process, that led me to wonder how on earth the “new world” was ever discovered at all given that English sailors were given a nine-pint booze ration a day while at sea. Remarkable. What was also remarkable was my drinking rum punch that early in the day as part of the talk’s learning experience.

Another enlightening lecture come from Tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a former journalist who has spent the past 20 years researching the life and times of New Orleans-born Don the Beachcomber, the barman to invent and bring exotic tropical drinks to the US. In all honesty, I had no idea about the Tiki craze, the clothing, design, music, the very fact that a single drink caused a lifestyle trend instead of the other way round. Extremely enlightening.

Beachcomber was a smart guy, tapping into the fact that those who could afford to consume “proper” drinks only wanted gin or whiskey – rum was for bums back in the 1930s – and that bars couldn’t give the distilled molasses beverage away. So he invented elaborate rum-based drinks with equally elaborate names, thereby creating a multi-million dollar industry. He also whipped up the Zombie, a lethal and rather more macho drink with the challenge that men could only make their way to the end of two. Of course they rose to the challenge. But who knew the influence Tiki had wielded?

This sell-out event hit the spot all in all, for its fun mix of events and information. “We wanted to put the spotlight on Buenos Aires and bring people like Jeff here,” says Ann. It’s certainly raised the bar.

Tales of the Cocktail will be back in 2014.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on May 5, 2013.
Ph: Pick Up The Fork

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