Top 5 Takeaways from 2023 Tales of the Cocktail

Tales of the Cocktail returned to the city of New Orleans this past July 23-28 with an array of brand activations, a wealth of educational sessions, and plenty of opportunities to taste and sample beverages.

It’s difficult to cover everything the sprawling show offered, but here are my five top takeaways from this year’s event.

Authenticity is King

Tales’ theme this year was “Vitalize,” but it could have just as easily been “Authenticity.” From the brands to the education sessions to even the interactions between attendees, authentic experiences were the name of the game this year.

On the education side, I was able to sit in on a session titled “Designing A Sense Of Belonging: How Environmental Design Influences Wellbeing.” It covered how design choices can inform our ability to create a culture of belonging for those within our teams. Often an establishment is designed for the guest without much of a thought to the employees who will spend the most time in the space and are responsible for providing the guest experience. Being authentic with your team members starts right at the design level—it communicates your culture to your employees.

Authenticity in spirits has been growing for years as consumers demand spirits that tell a story and offer a quality liquid. Tequila Matchmaker, an app that matches consumers’ flavor preferences with the best tequila, held a seminar with Mijenta Tequila about the truth behind additives in tequila. Nothing is less authentic than artificial sweeteners, colors, and other additives, and with the Tequila Matchmaker Additive-Free program, you can keep track of which tequilas have been certified truly additive-free.

Artificial Intelligence Take Over?

AI was in a lot of discussions and even in some activations at this year’s event. Just how the technology will impact the industry remains to be seen, but brands had a few ideas, namely Marriott International with its All Kinds: The Algorithm pop-up bar.

The activation featured AI used in a number of ways, including an art gallery featuring human and AI collaborations as well as a robot that printed out poems on command using a user-supplied prompt.

The most interesting part of the pop-up, however, was The Algorithm itself, which asked users to input their preferred levels of five cocktail features: sweet/dry, high/low acidity, bitter/no bitter, spirited/easy drinking, and basic earthling bitch/space oddity. From there, the user picked the spirit base they wanted from whiskey, vodka, agave, gin, rum, or a surprise. The system then cycled through over 50 cocktail recipes to find the one that best matched the guest’s inputs.

artificial intelligence tales of the cocktail

In an industry where the most important asset is the people, this was an interesting way to combine bartenders, who were still making the cocktails behind the scenes, with AI. 

lyre's non alc cocktail

Non-Alc Dominated

The non-alc movement has made major strides in the last year, and this was obvious at Tales as well. A non-alc tasting room from Lyre’s was a nice early morning alternative to spirits tastings without sacrificing flavor or presentation.

Non-alc pop-ups from Ritual Zero Proof and Cut Above were also featured throughout the event.

These brands were out to show bartenders that there is nothing “less than” about the non-alc movement. On the contrary, the movement is about addition through inclusivity as well as adding incremental revenue to your bottom line.

Cash In On Holidays

Christmas and Halloween came early this year thanks to activations at Tales.

At the Wish You Were Here William Grant & Sons Portfolio Party, 10 of the best bars in Australia spent the night slinging drinks. One section of the party featured “Hendrick’s Holiday Cay,” which had a gift-shaped bar run by staff decked out in holiday gear as well as an igloo serving up boozy ice cream treats.

william & grant party tales of the cocktail

On another night, the Black Lagoon Halloween pop-up experience set up a ghoulish display in Anna’s with Halloween décor, a dark and moody playlist, and a cocktail menu with offerings like “Book of Blood” and “Hellfire Fizz.”

Black Lagoon halloween pop-up

The bottom line? Holidays can be big business for bars, and leaning into the kitsch can be a good strategy in the coming months.

Rum in the Spotlight

I feel like I have been writing this sentence for years, but is this finally the year that rum gets its spotlight?

Interesting rum blends (rum and mezcal anyone?) and global rum offerings were all over tasting rooms, and the new book, Modern Caribbean Rum: A Contemporary Reference to the Region’s Essential Spirit, took home the Spirited Award for Best New Book on Drinks Culture, History, or Spirits.

With the help of premiumization and an influx of new brands with stories and histories that rightly challenge the sugar-laden, pirate-infused trope so long associated with rum in this country, it seems like the spirit is finally being taken seriously.

Look for a deep dive into rum from Bar & Restaurant News this month, including an interview with Matt Pietrek, the author of the Spirited Award-winning Modern Caribbean Rum!


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