Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | July 14, 2009

A Different Look at Tales

Daniel Hyatt, who writes at The Alembic’s blog, has quite a different take from most I’ve read about Tales of the Cocktail. He laments how crowded bars were, making it impossible to get any well-made, fancy cocktails. Instead he reports an over-emphasis on getting sauced and paying in to expensive workshops sponsored by top brands of spirits. Not surprisingly, this experience wasn’t one he loved, leaving him questioning the state of the cocktail and cocktailian bartending culture.

I return with a real sense that this “cocktail thing” may just be a bit out of control. We’ve stopped being servants and craftsmen and become authors, artists, chefs, and technicians. Do we need degrees or crowns?

Some of the best things in life, as in gastronomy or mixology, require little hermeneutics or decoding. They just present themselves as they are, satisfy, and then resonate. The way a walk in the park might stick with you better than an art history exam.

For my part, I still appreciate immensely the hard work and rich creative resources of my colleagues. I maintain a deep respect for experimentation and innovation, love to be challenged, and wholeheartedly give credit where credit is due.

That being said, I come back humbled, wishing only to throw some thick chunks chilled melon into a glass with a small sprig of fresh herb and a healthy dose of blanco tequila and a twist of lime, set it carefully on a cocktail napkin on a clean bar top, smile and be smiled at. Either that or a shot and a beer. It’s your dime.

I wasn’t at Tales of the Cocktail. If I was, there’s probably a decent chance I would have fallen into the hedonistic revelry that Dan found objectionable. But I can also, from afar, read his critique and perfectly imagine what caused it and why it has produced such a strong (and thoughtful) response from him. His words definitely resonate with me, especially given that while it’s not a side of contemporary cocktail culture that I’ve seen at all, it doesn’t surprise me that it might exist. The bartenders I’m friends with or ones I’ve only briefly met as their customers have pretty much always been friendly, down to earth, purveyors of satisfying and interesting cocktails. I haven’t seen many egos or people that sought celebrity. But put a few hundred people in a bunch of seminars and that dynamic may well change for some.

I’ve never been to The Alembic, which is by all accounts one of the Bay Area’s top cocktail stops. But I do read their blog and respect their work a great deal. To wit, Dan’s conclusion that a simple and tasteful cocktail can be matched up alongside a beer and a shot, depends solely on the mood of the person partaking it is something I can relate to. Love the fancy and the fine, love the simple just the same.

I’ll be curious to see what some of the non-pro cocktail bloggers have to say about this side of Tales.



  1. I respect this gentleman’s opinion. Personally, I did not attend Tales this year, but from what I heard via Livestream of some of the workshops and the comments on twitter, I came away with a whole different impression.

    I saw professionalism at its highest. The experts speaking were courteous, were not out of order, or sauced.

    Being familiar with New Orleans and Louisiana culture, as a resident of this fine state, I think what Daniel came away with was perhaps, a smidgeon of the party/celebratory culture of New Orleans itself. Louisiana is a state with many different layers. New Orleans is a whole other world! The atmosphere year-around , especially in the heart of the city, where the conference was held, is one of celebration, occasional drunkenness, and perhaps the permission for those who may not ordinarily party so hard, to lose a little more of their inhibitions than they had planned. Plus, you must realize that New Orleans at any given time, may be hosting a half-dozen such-sized conventions, and everyone wants to visit the bars downtown at the same time.

    I can agree with Daniel that my ideal scene when going out is not one in a crowded bar with someone slinging $1 shots of whatever they happen to want to get rid of. It would be in a nice, comfortable speakeasy-type of bar where fine crafted cocktails could be enjoyed on the merit of the cocktails themselves, atmosphere, and the company respectively.

    I encourage Daniel to come back to New Orleans on other occasions, to visit the city for the sake of the city. I am sure he would encounter some of the same from time to time, yet my hope would be that he would begin to perhaps understand the culture there. I also encourage him to come back to Tales of the Cocktail 2010, and take advantage of the awesome minds that are doing some marvelous things.

    Some of us are writers, some of us are bartenders, and some of us are just wanting to learn more about creating a fine cocktail…. we have a fine opportunity to get together to intellectualize our respective craft…but the doing of the craft in our day-to-day world, is exactly what I think that Tales of the Cocktail is all about.

    • Thanks for chiming in Jeff. I took Daniel’s comments to be less about the specific sessions and more about the behavior out of them. Also, I don’t think he was knocking New Orleans at all; it sounds like he had a great time and found fantastic places to eat and drink away from the conference.

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