It’s almost time for another Tales of the Cocktail, the weeklong festival celebrating the art of drinking and drinks, which kicks off Tuesday, July 19. People in the booze industry are getting packed and ready to head to New Orleans.
This will be my sixth or seventh (who can remember?) time attending, and I’ve picked up a few habits or rituals along the way that make Tales a better, more enjoyable experience. If you want to sail through Tales like a pro, here are my tips.
When you collect your things from the baggage carousel at Louis Armstrong Airport, hop in a cab and head for the French Quarter, check in to your hotel, throw on a fresh pair of shorts and head straight to the Erin Rose, an industry dive bar just off Bourbon Street, for the first of many frozen Irish coffees. Although the recipe is a closely guarded secret, rumor has it that there is no actual Irish whiskey in said frozen Irish coffee; they say the base spirit is in fact brandy. These babies are so popular that management at the Erin Rose had to install a second frozen-drinks machine a couple of years ago to keep up with demand, and they bring in a third during Tales. The drink is as good as it sounds, and in New Orleans, no one will bat an eye if you pick up one for breakfast. And if you’re hungry, the po’boy shop in the back of the bar cranks out some excellent sandwiches, which is a good thing to remember late at night because the French Quarter is sorely lacking in good, late-night eats. 811 Conti St., New Orleans, LA 70112; 504-522-3573; erinrosebar.com
The Lobby of Hotel Monteleone
Do not — I repeat: do not! — attempt to pass through the lobby of the venerable Hotel Monteleone if you are in a hurry. The lobby of the Monteleone is the beating heart of Tales of the Cocktail. This is a place to run into old pals, meet people, chat for a while (a long while), browse the cocktail books for sale in the festival bookshop and cocktail must-haves from Cocktail Kingdom, and be drawn into the gravitational pull of the Carousel Bar for a couple of revolutions of the revolving bar or as long as it takes you to finish a Bloody Mary. Bring a bathing suit; there’s sure to be a brand-sponsored pool party at some point on the roof. 214 Royal St., New Orleans, LA 70130; 504-523-3341; hotelmonteleone.com
French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s
One of the world’s best bars, run by one of the world’s best bartenders, is the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s. You would be remiss not to drop in and cozy up to the bar to have one of Chris Hannah’s whimsical versions of some classic cocktails. One year, Hannah was playing with a bottled milk punch, but you can never go wrong with the bar’s namesake, a French 75. Extra pro move: Order a plate of the souffléed potatoes. You will never be the same, but be forewarned: You will experience feelings of extreme inadequacy with your own potato-making skills afterward. 813 Bienville St., New Orleans, LA 70112, 504-523-5433; arnaudsrestaurant.com
The Alibi/Old Absinthe House
Did you lose someone? Are you trying to run into someone? Chances are, they are at the Alibi, particularly if it is after midnight, or the Old Absinthe House during the day (or if the Alibi is impossibly full). These are both rowdy dive bars. No one remembers a lot about why they love these places, but every bartender in the world who has been to Tales reveres these places with a fierce passion. You will order Miller High Life, and you will like it. At Alibi, you might order some chili cheese tots, and you will like those, too. Don’t be fooled like I was one year by the antique signs on the wall at Old Absinthe House advertising absinthe frappes. If you order one, they will hand you a rather large pour of straight absinthe in a rocks glass with a few melting ice cubes, and it will completely ruin your night. Don’t be like me. The Alibi, 811 Iberville St., New Orleans, LA 70112; 504-522-9187; alibineworleans.com. Old Absinthe House, 240 Bourbon St., New Orleans, LA 70112; 504-524-0113; ruebourbon.com.
After a week of cocktails and seminars and lavish parties, everyone who is left standing on Sunday night heads straight out to the edge of the Bywater to a little wine shop with a tropical paradise of a garden out back. Here’s how it works if it’s your first time: Pick out your bottle of wine (rosé or something sparkling is always a good choice) and go stand in line. While you are in line, you will be tempted by the selection of cheeses; give in and pick up a few. When you get to the counter, the staff may ask you if you are staying. You say yes. Then the staff will ask you if you would like to make it a cheese plate; again, you say yes. Pay for your selections, take your number, pick up a bucket and fill it with ice, grab a few mismatched glasses and head to the backyard. Good luck finding a table, but eventually something will materialize, especially if you’ve spent enough time making friends at the Alibi. When it arrives, the cheese plate will be a towering pile of toasted crusty bread, and your cheeses artfully arranged among little piles of dried fruits and nuts. If you’re still hungry, there is a little window in the garden to a kitchen that takes orders right from the window. I’m a sucker for the delicious pastas: light, flavorful and seasonal…and probably more vegetables than you’ve seen in New Orleans all week. 600 Poland Ave., New Orleans, LA 70117; 504-948-9111; bacchanalwine.com
Here’s the super-duper, extra-bonus-points pro move that will make you by turns the envy and the scourge of all your fellow plane passengers on the way home. Leave for the airport an hour earlier than you need to and take a cab straight to the Warehouse District and Cochon Butcher. Donald Link and his crew know their way around some smoked meats. One year, celebrity power couple Jay Z and Beyoncé were next door having lunch at Cochon, while I almost missed my flight waiting for the last muffaletta to come out of the kitchen. And here’s what you order: the muffaletta, piled with meats cured in-house, cheese and olive salad, and get that bad boy to go. See where I’m going with this? Straight to the airport. You will have a bag that smells like a smokehouse in your cabin luggage, and you may even still have half a sandwich when you get home (great for breakfast the next day and the best souvenir ever), but you will be so much happier than if you had to shell out $12 for a crappy in-flight “snack box.” 930 Tchoupioulas St., New Orleans, LA 70130; 504-588-7675; cochonbutcher.com