2018 Tales of the Cocktail: Pursue Happiness

Navy Strength in Seattle won the 2018 Spirited Award for Best New American Cocktail Bar. Image: Navy Strength. All other images property of the author unless otherwise noted.

If you’ve never heard of Tales of the Cocktail, have never attended a Tales, or have only a passing familiarity with the festival, you may not know that this year’s event almost didn’t take place.

For several years, rumors about financial transgressions and mismanagement had swirled around Tales. Blogs, articles, message boards, social media and comment sections were awash with scandalous claims. It can be difficult to separate truth from fiction when it comes to rumors, innuendo and conspiracy theories. But it’s an indisputable fact that Tales founder and former executive director Ann Tuennerman decided to ride in last year’s Zulu parade in blackface.

That morning during Mardi Gras, Mrs. Tuennerman posted a Facebook Live video of herself in the traditional Zulu costume. The post was accompanied by the caption, “Paul G Tuennerman interviewing me on Mardi Gras Morning from the Zulu Den. As he said ‘Throw a little Black Face on and you lose all your media skills.’ He did his best as the interviewer.” The caption was removed but the damage had been done.


Mr. Tuennerman, former co-owner and chief business officer of Tales, resigned amid the backlash. He did, however, return to the organization. Just months after his resignation, Mrs. Tuennerman had reinstated him.

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Bacardí senior portfolio ambassador Colin Asare-Appiah, chairman of the Tales of the Cocktail Diversity Council, resigned his role, as did others on the council. And by September of last year, the Tuennermans announced that they would “be transitioning away from their roles in producing the world's renowned cocktail event, Tales of the Cocktail, effective immediately.”

If You Rebuild It…

It seemed that Tales was doomed. But then Gary Solomon, Jr. (president and co-founder, Solomon Group) and Neal Bodenheimer (co-owner, Cure, Cane & Table) purchased the conference from the Tuennermans. Caroline Nabors Rosen, former executive director for the John Besh Foundation, was installed as executive director for Tales.

The Solomon family is known for their philanthropy, so it came as no surprise (and with a healthy dose of relief for many) when it was announced at the kickoff toast that Tales is now a fully non-profit organization, had created a grants committee, and had committed to awarding $250,000 in grants in its first year of restructuring.

But reforming an embattled organization, promising that Tales can do better, and giving back aren’t the only stories that emerged from this year’s conference. Strap in—there’s a lot to unpack.

A Booze-free Bash

Tales veterans will tell you they’re ain’t no party like a William Grant & Sons party. These bashes are legendary for their over-the-top special features, big energy, and impressive list of cocktails featuring, of course, brands within the WGS portfolio. Those serving drinks from the many bars at these events have always been very generous with the flow of alcohol.

So many people were surprised—some outright shocked into disbelief—when it was announced that the opening Tales of the Cocktail party would be alcohol free. Hendrick’s, Monkey Shoulder, Glenfiddich, Sailor Jerry, Milagro, Reyka… The WGS portfolio was all there at Mardi Gras World, but not at “full strength.” Rumors spread quickly, with Tales attendees saying that they “had friends who were there who promised” there weren’t just mocktails at the party. They were just that—only rumors.

Tales of the Cocktail 2018 William Grant & Sons A Night You Won't Forget party Monkey Mixer truck

It was an interesting concept which has been met with both acceptance and skepticism. Some applauded WGS’ zero-proof party, which was titled “A Night You Won’t Forget.” People have become more comfortable talking about responsible service, substance abuse and sobriety in our industry. William Grant & Sons took a risk—and took action—with their alcohol-free event, a risk that deserves recognition.

But others felt the WGS party was an overcorrection. There are those who believe the zero-spirit movement represents a threat to our industry. If we go too far too quickly in one direction, will we be responsible for killing this business from the inside out?

Spirit-positive Soirées

William Grant & Sons went alcohol free for the opening night party. But other parties certainly celebrated spirits and cocktails.

Industry bowling tournament Ode to the Bowl returned to Tales for its seventh consecutive year. Sponsored by Campari, Tales attendees enjoyed shots, cocktails, punchbowls and food.

Jameson Love Thy Neighborhood Block Party at Tales of the Cocktail 2018

Jameson showed Tales the love on Wednesday evening when they took over the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. The Jameson Love Thy Neighborhood Block Party featured amazing cocktails, delicious food, great music, cornhole, and some of the best bars from around the nation. Austin, Chicago, NYC, Miami, Nashville and San Diego were just some of the “neighborhoods” that represented.

Sweet Liberty at the Jameson Love Thy Neighborhood Block Party during Tales of the Cocktail 2018

Tequila Cazadores pitted Miami against San Francisco on Thursday night. Round three of Bartender Boxing’s second year in operation featured SF and MIA bartenders throwing punches at one another, low-calorie Cazadores cocktails created by the boxers, and authentic Mexican food. Miami boxers won 6 bouts; San Francisco bartenders were victorious in five.

Tequila Cazadores Bartender Boxing at 2018 Tales of the Cocktail
Image: Mark Tomaras
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Friday appeared to be disco night. Grey Goose hosted Disco Noir and Amaro Montenegro teamed up with House of Yes for “Go Deep into the Night at the Pre-Prohibition Disco” experience. Disco Noir was all about dancing to disco while enjoying Grey Goose cocktails. Montenegro and House of Yes took over One Eyed Jacks with Employees Only for a party fueled by signature cocktails, mind-bending performers, and music that got everyone moving.

Saturdays are Spirited

Tales veterans will also tell you that Saturday is dedicated to the Spirited Awards. The awards recognize the best American and international bars, bar teams and bartenders through multiple awards categories.

2018 Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail

This past Saturday was huge for Miami and London. Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Co. took home the Spirited Awards for Best American Bar Team and World’s Best Spirit Selection. Broken Shaker Miami at The Freehand won Best American Hotel Bar. Both are in Miami, Florida.

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The American Bar, located inside The Savoy in London, won Best International Bar Team, Best International Hotel Bar and World’s Best Bar. Happiness Forgets earned Best International Cocktail Bar; Sager & Wilde won Best International Restaurant Bar; Coupette took home Best New International Cocktail Bar; and Dandelyan grabbed the Spirited Award for World’s Best Cocktail Menu. All are in London.

John Lermayer at Sweet Liberty
Image: Stian Roenning

Beloved bartender, world ambassador for cocktails, pursuer of happiness, and co-owner of high-volume cocktail haven Sweet Liberty, John Lermayer, was awarded the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously. We lost the legendary Lermayer on June 7 of this year at the age of 45. Tears were inevitable but those who knew him best urged those at the Spirited Awards—and everyone in the industry—to honor Lermayer’s memory by pursuing their happiness. In a touching tribute, those in attendance at the Spirited Awards were asked to join in a moment of silence during which they were urged to picture what makes them happy and commit to pursuing it. A chorus of “There’s only one John Lermayer” sung to the tune of “Guantanamera” broke out throughout the Orpheum Theater.

For the full list of 2018 Spirited Award winners, click here.

Pursue Happiness

If I had to sum up the underlying message of this year’s Tales in just two words, I would choose the words emblazoned in neon that hang inside Sweet Liberty: pursue happiness. But more accurate would be health, wellness, inclusion, diversity and career longevity.

Bartending is no longer “just a job.” Sure, there will always be those friends and family who ask a bartender in their life what they’re going to do for a “real” job. These days, however, those incidents seem to be dwindling in frequency. Bartender is a vocation, a career.

As several Tales speakers pointed out, however, longevity in this industry means more than deciding it’s your passion and your calling. Tending bar, much like owning a bar, restaurant or nightclub, is stressful. It’s hard on people physically, mentally and emotionally.

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Experts hosted sessions to provide bartender and operator Tales attendees the best advice for making this a viable career. Boiled down to their essence, the messages were simple but impactful: watch what you eat; don’t drink to excess; stand correctly behind the bar; take care of your body; take your mental health seriously; if you need help, seek it out; if you see someone struggling, ask if they’re okay; if a guest, co-worker or peer is harassing someone, make the target of that harassment safe—don’t remain silent.

And, of course, pursue happiness.

For a Pursue Happiness pin, please visit Mover & Shaker. All proceeds from the sale of this pin will go to educational funding for John Lermayer’s son, Radek Lermayer.

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