Every year in mid-July, bartending's best and brightest descend on New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, a five-day booze schmoozefest that's a bit like South by Southwest, but with even more alcohol.
Liquor companies transform hotel rooms into elaborately decorated temporary tasting rooms, while bartending experts and historians host seminars on topics like "Physiology of Shake," "The Art of the Drinks Trolley" and "86'd: Tales of Social Responsibility." Alcohol flows all day long--from the early morning Absolut Bloody bar to the Angostura orange bitters pool party.
Boise bartender Michael Reed of Mai Thai has been attending Tales, as he calls it, for the past four years. He sees the festival as an opportunity to brush up on industry trends and techniques, and to glean inspiration from his peers across the globe.
"I'll always take someone from behind the bar [at Mai Thai] that hasn't gone to give them a little bit of inspiration that, you know, there is a world out there that takes bartending seriously and they actually make a really good living at it," said Reed.
When Reed comes across an exciting new spirit at Tales--anything from Del Maguey Mezcal Vida to Old New Orleans Crystal rum to Paolucci Amaro CioCiaro--he returns to Boise and lobbies the Idaho State Liquor Division to start carrying the brand in stores.
"Every year I come back and I always have like 15,000 things I want to bring in," said Reed. "I'll be able to get some of them and others I won't because they'll never find them."
One of Boise's newer craft cocktail bars, The Mode, also sent two bartenders to this year's Tales of the Cocktail. In addition to attending an "absolutely amazing" class on garnishes, Mode General Manager Brian Livesay said he was most thrilled to hear the industry's top innovators speak.
"There are people in this profession that are really pushing the envelope in terms of flavors and visual appeal, so it was inspiring to just look at that and see what is out there and then come back and figure out ways that we can do that and push the envelope here within these legal and financial parameters," said Livesay.
Both Livesay and Reed lamented the fact that most of the trends and techniques discussed at Tales of the Cocktail are technically illegal under Idaho laws.
"A lot of things we learn we ju st can't legally do--like batching and certain types of foams and suspensions and bitters and vermouths," said Reed. "We've been trained on how to make our own vermouths and I can't do it."
In early 2013, Idaho's Alcohol Beverage Commission raided a couple of Boise bars for barrel-aging cocktails in violation of a long-standing liquor law that states: "It shall be unlawful for any licensee to sell, keep for sale, dispense, give away, or otherwise dispose of any liquor in the original containers or otherwise than by retail sale by the drink."
According to Reed, that basically means Boise bartenders can't manipulate a spirit before it's sold to a consumer--so no pre-batched or barrel-aged cocktails, no infused liquors, no house cordials.
"The way they interpret [the law] is I can't do anything except a point of sale," said Reed. "Once you order the drink then I've got free-rein to do a bunch of different things, but there are some things that require preparation, especially if you want to deal with time constraints. If you want to wait 45 minutes for the drink, then fine."
Though ABC contends the law was put in place to protect consumers, Reed said all it does is damper innovation and creativity.
"You're going to have a few people that try to cheat and do things, but honestly, those people are going to try to do it whether or not there's a law in place," said Reed. "But for a lot of us who are trying to do new things or stay within contemporary mixology paradigm, you're putting a shackle on us."
Livesay agrees that Boise cocktail bars are "very tied down" in terms of how they can play with spirits.
"Maybe we can update the laws? Maybe we can get a little bit of flexibility, because all we're trying to do is offer up some new and interesting products and offer new things to Boise and to this part of the country. Things that are able to be done in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York--these larger markets where the rules are a little bit more flexible," said Livesay.
But it's not all bad booze news. Both Reed and Livesay also noticed a promising new trend at this year's Tales of the Cocktail. The craft cocktail scene seems to be moving away from what Reed calls the "Portland bartender" vibe--suspenders, mustache, tie, vest--and trying to foster a more laid-back ethos.
"They don't want the new cocktail movement to die so they don't want the new cocktail movement to be perceived as a trend. ... They really want people to maintain a palate for flavorful spirits and craft cocktails," said Reed. "And one of the things they're trying to do is they're trying to bring the fun back into it."
Livesay agreed, adding: "For the last few years, the high-level bartending has been ... very serious and kind of old-school, and I feel like people are starting to relax a little bit and starting to have more fun. The pendulum is kind of swinging back. It's time to just enjoy the drinks--still make good drinks and still take drinks very seriously, but not take ourselves so seriously."