New Orleans celebrates the art of the mixed drink at the annual Tales of the Cocktail event, which this year had more than a ‘Boardwalk Empire’-themed link to Atlantic City.
NEW ORLEANS — Halfway between the vice of Atlantic City and its famed Boardwalk, and Las Vegas and the Adult Video News Awards, lies New Orleans and Tales of the Cocktail.
A week-long celebration (this year’s took place July 20-24) of potable vice, the annual event brings together the world’s best booze, brand ambassadors, bartenders and mentors — even Ron Jeremy and his rum — for a sleepless week of education, competition and all-night congregation around the art of the mixed drink, and all culminating in last Saturday night’s Spirited Awards (July 23).
This year’s theme was Boardwalk Empire and as the HBO series’ opening credits — bootlegged by Pernod-Ricard, to feature their bottles of Beefeater and Jameson washing up against Nucky Thompson’s wingtip spectators — flashed upon the stage of the Mahalia Jackson Theater, nominees and presenters in wide ties and suspenders, and tattoo-baring flapper dresses filed inside. Entering through the theater’s unmarked back door, hidden from prying eyes of their ticket-holding peers, a red carpet led VIPs to a guarded elevator, then to the balcony lobby where champagne awaited.
But as the lights dimmed and bar shuttered to signal the show’s start, the liquor never stopped flowing. Celebrated guests drank at stage-front tables while cigarette girls in fringed brassieres and sequined hot pants walked the orchestra aisles for the next three hours, bending at the knee to proffer flasks of Chivas, bottles of absinthe and nips of Becherovka, as emcee Billy Harris, backed by a big band and showgirls, offered his best Eddie Cantor impression between passing out awards for the best new spirits and bars, menus and cocktail-related writing.
In step with the night’s homage to the 1920s, the award for World’s Best Cocktail Bar went to the owner-bartenders of New York City’s Employees Only.
A tribute to that bygone era when speakeasies sprouted in the shade of temperance, Employees Only is hidden in plain sight on Hudson Street in the West Village, the entrance masked by a tarot reader’s parlor. Two of the bar’s owners, Dushan Zaric and Jay Kosmas, were even this year nominated for Best New Cocktail Book, entitled Speakeasy.
However, cocktail historian David Wondrich, who won that category for his book, Punch, explains, cocktails did not define the Boardwalk Empire era, straight liquor did.
“There’s a whole mythology of Prohibition and cocktails, but Boardwalk Empire isn’t much about cocktails, it’s about drinking,” he says. “They didn’t drink out of fancy cut tumblers, like the show used — those are modern — but they drank a lot of booze.”
According to Wondrich, the simple mixed drinks that did exist during Prohibition more closely resemble the complimentary beverages — Screwdrivers, Jacks & Ginger — flowing freely to slots and table players in Atlantic City casinos today.
“It was simple drinks, it was booze and ginger ale, gin and orange juice,” adds Wondrich.
To their credit, at a spirits dinner for the brand Russian Standard held at New Orelans’ Eiffel Society two nights earlier, Zaric and Kosmas paired their meal with straight drinks and chasers in lieu of cocktails, the only one of 25 dinners held that Thursday to do so. Though Zaric admits it had less to do with the speakeasy era and more about accentuating the flavor of the food.
“Except for [having] Margaritas with Mexican food, cocktails don’t complement entrees,” Zaric noted, believing it’s best to pair straight spirits and cuisine of the same origin instead, when consuming food and liquor together.
Expressing that philosophy in his dinner pairings, vodka was paired with caviar over a vermouth granita; poke tartare was served with pisco followed with cranberry-tomato juice, steak with whiskey and ice water.
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An authentic, Prohibition-era atmosphere will be replicated Saturday night, reminiscent of the time when Nucky Johnson ruled Atlantic City and Al Capone’s reign over the underworld was in its infancy. Those in attendance are encouraged to dress the part ....
With Sunday’s debut of Boardwalk Empire fast approaching, let’s look back on the period during which the series takes place, specifically the year 1920, the dawn of the Prohibition era.
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