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Columnist Simon Ford (right) co-hosted last year’s Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail.

If you are a cocktail enthusiast, it is highly likely that you have attended or at the very least heard of the cocktail calendar’s number one event of the year, Tales of the Cocktail. It is a gathering of spirits experts, distillers, bartenders, cocktail geeks and seasoned drinkers — learning, networking and partying together in New Orleans. Having trouble envisioning it all? Picture the Aspen Food & Wine Classic but substitute the mountains for Creole cottages and Colonial Spanish architecture and replace the chefs with bartenders — then add 24-hour drinking. You get the idea.

Basically, if there is something you want to learn about cocktails and spirits or there is a bartender or distiller you want to meet, the chances are high that your wish will come true should you head down to The Big Easy. Roughly 20,000 people will attend this year’s festivities — taking place from July 17-21 — making it the largest global gathering of bartenders. It is truly an international event, with bartenders attending from each of the seven continents.

One of the big events at Tales of the Cocktail is The Spirited Awards, the bartender equivalent of The James Beard Foundation Awards. On July 20, over 1,000 people will cram into a ballroom to find out who wins awards that include “World’s Best Bartender” and “Best New Bar in the World.”

Last week, the nomination forms went live (they are available until the end of March). The nominations will then be voted on by a panel of international judges, all of whom are highly respected in the cocktail industry and known for their reputations as traveling Bon Vivants, having sampled a drink or two at bars around the world. The list of judges includes Dale DeGroff, Angus Winchester, Dave Wondrich, Steve Olson, Doug Frost and Gary Regan, to name a few.

Last year there were around 700 nominations for the 18 awards and London led the way by winning six of them. The U.S. usually does pretty well, however, with New York’s Employees Only, The Pegu Club, Milk & Honey, Death and Co, Eleven Madison Park, The Clover Club and PDT having all won awards. Other parts of the country have also done well. Last year, San Francisco’s Slanted Door took the award of “Best Restaurant Bar” and The Varnish in Los Angeles represented the U.S. for “Best Cocktail Bar,” ensuring that the awards were not limited to London and New York. Bars from Paris, Houston, Melbourne and Victoria were all in the running last year and the bar at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast has taken two awards for “Best Bar in the World” in the past. Their latest project, The Dead Rabbit in New York, opened on February 12 and so I expect that they will receive a few nominations for “Best New Bar” this year. As you might expect, the judges travel frequently and know a thing or two about bar talent.

So why do I bring up these awards? Well, I admit to a bit of self-promotion, as I have been the Chairman for the past three years and co-hosted them last year with Zane Lamprey. The main reason I bring them to your attention, however, is that they serve as a great guide as to who is setting the standards in the drinks industry and a go-to for where you can find cutting edge cocktail programs and superb drinks. So, follow the awards this year and find out who gets nominated — you will find some of the brightest talent in the spirits industry and if you fancy yourself an expert, please let us know and nominate your favorite bars and bartenders.

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