Thoughts On Tales Of The Cocktail 2.0 From Industry Insiders

Tales of the Cocktail 2.0 under the new ownership of the Solomon Group and Neal Bodenheimer was the big talk of the industry for 2018 as they aimed to keep the festival going and regain the trust of the people. I was told an unconfirmed stat felt right, that attendance was down 60% for 2018. Tales certainly felt more intimate, kind of like a throwback to the old school days when parties were themed “Fancy Pants” (shout out Tobin Ellis) and not massive portfolio parties.

Over the past several months, I have gotten to know Neal and got to spend some time with both Solomon’s, Gary Jr. and Sr., down in New Orleans and my personal experience has honestly been extremely positive. I truly felt that the entire group has been honest, transparent and willing to take constructive criticism and feedback. However, there are two examples that I witnessed down at Tales that really stood out as noteworthy to me.

During the festival, Neal and I both joked in acknowledgment that the other was “everywhere” as exchanged nods and smiles filled with both respect and exhaustion. If I was tirelessly trying to hit as much as possible, I couldn’t imagine how much Neal was running around as the new head of TOTC. While I went to his highly celebrated bar, Cure, which is a bit of a hike outside of the Quarter, Neal suddenly appeared and I asked if he was there to say hello to Jim Meehan and Wayne Curtis. The truth, was he was not there to spend time with either of the industry legends.  Neal dropped all of this Tales duties to go to Cure because one of his Apprentices was officially becoming a Bartender and to him, that was more important than the festival. Respect Neal!

My second story is about the generosity of the Solomon family.  These are not people from the industry, they don’t know the people and the players. As this was their first Tales of the Cocktail, it became apparent to them that the entire community was still mourning the loss of friend and mentor to so many, John Lermayer. As there were countless celebrations, both public and private, to remember John, the emotional culmination was the presentation of the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award at the Spirited Awards Ceremony.  The Solomons were so moved to learn about John’s legacy that they got in stage and made an unplanned donation of $10,000 from the Foundation to the GoFundMe page that was set up in honor of his son.

During Tales of the Cocktail, we had many conversations about the new ownership and many folks that decided to sit out have been asking for our thoughts.  So we have compiled some comments from thought-leaders in the industry on their thoughts about Tales 2018.

Industry Thoughts on Tales 2.0

Simon Ford, The 86 Co.

Tales of the Cocktail 2.0 is off to a flying start. The announcement of the grants helped firmly establish the new founders commitment to support the community and causes that matter to the industry. That alone was an amazing but they also managed to put on a pretty decent cocktail festival in s short space of time and the atmosphere at it was that great hospitality feeling that I have come to enjoy when the best of the best of the indusrty gather together and share ideas, stories and cocktails.

Given the short amount of time that the new founders had to put together this years festival I think they did a great job of getting everything together to give the attendees the education and events they crave. The bells and whistles were absent but no one seemed to mind as what is important about Tales of the Cocktail was captured. There was great education and enough events to keep everyone satisfied. Next year Neal and Co will need to ramp up though as I think that people will be returning in their usual numbers and they will need to be prepared for that but I have every bit of faith they can do it based on what I saw this year.

in many ways I think that John Lermayer helped save Tales of the Cocktail this year. The competitive nature of the industry seemed absent and the collaborative and hospitality side of the industry came out strong with many people working together to make this yeas Tales as good as it could be and at its core the event acted as a sort of memorial to John with his larger the life presence being felt throughout the week. The TOTC team were so gracious and helped put together a really nice set of moments in memory of John and given how much John is loved by the industry I think everyone really appreciated it. That in turn showed how amenable the new TOTC is to supporting the needs of the industry and we all saw that. That will garner support form everyone to help bring Tales to its next stage in development next year. I know that myself will be back and Fords Gin will certainly be throwing some events to be a part of the festivities.

Ezra Star, Drink

I was one of those people waiting to see what the new Tales leadership would do, and was very pleasantly surprised. It seems that 2.0 was the reset the event needed to bring it back to its foundation. It seemed like the Disney-land feeling that had been happening at Tales in the past few years, where people were showing up to basically have bartender spring break, was put aside and the event has been redirected towards what it’s always been, an event for bar industry people to meet, learn, and share their knowledge and experience. Going forward I would love to see more things with people from smaller markets like Iowa, Kansas, etc that are often under represented in the leadership of and events organizing.

Brooke Arthur, Partner, House Spirits Distillery

Tales of the Cocktail 2018, year one, was an absolute joy to be a part of. There was a feeling of celebration in many different aspects of the festival. From announcements that invigorated a much-needed restoration of guard for the attendees, to the glorification of a great loss in our community, to the Spirited Awards and beyond. Times are a changing, and the TOTC foundation showed up.

I can’t thank all the women and men who gave me the honor of standing next to my mentors as a 2018 Dame in the Hall of Fame, but will try by bringing the House Spirits Team there to further engage in 2019.

Dev Johnson, Principal Bartender, Employee’s Only

My experience this year was a good one. I thought the Solomon Family and the board of directors did a great job of picking something up that could have gone to the wayside and keeping it alive. Not only alive but vibrant and fun. At one point during entry to the awards, people are outside sweating through their suits and it’s taking too long to get everyone in and the Tales Foundation tells the people at the door checking wristbands to pull the tables aside and let everyone in. Done. The awards started on time, everyone was happy and they were paced well, unlike past years when you felt like you were pushing yourself through a dragging ceremony.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year with our community, a number of friends lost to us, and paradigm shifts throughout. Tales has been a staple for a lot of us for many years. I’m glad it didn’t disappear. There was a lot of love and I believe those that needed to be there this year were there.

Lynne House, National Brand Educator at Heaven Hill Brands

This year’s Tales reminded me of why I fell in love with TOTC in the first place. While the days were action packed, events were more intimate and there was a true sense of community. Dame Hall of Fame returned to its splendor and was a true celebration of women in the industry. Events felt more inclusive. The focus on education and social responsibility was truly appreciated. I will definitely be back next year.

Shelby Allison, Co-owner Lost Lake and Co-founder, Chicago Style

Through Chicago Style, I got to have some insightful conversations with Neal and Caroline as they organized this year’s Tales — they had big aspirations and I was not disappointed. Our industry needs change, and we need direction, and I’m so grateful that a giant like Tales of the Cocktail is not shying away from that responsibility. The energy was different this year (did you see Gary Jr and Caroline working that hot, sweaty line at the Spirited Awards?), and I’m very excited to see how Tales will continue to be a compass for our entire community.”

Kelsey Ramage, Founder of Common Sense and Co-Founder, The Trash Collective

I was initially apprehensive about coming to Tales this year, I think along with a lot of others, we needed to see serious changes being made and to know if it was worth it for us to return next year. We chose this year to take more of an observational role, to take in some of the seminars and be less involved in various events which was great to finally just participate and enjoy. We saw so many positive changes happening, from the FREE Green Dot seminars, to more gender balanced presenters, the new leadership being present and asking for our feedback. Iain and I have decided to both return next year and to contribute to making Tales even better next year.

Aaron Polsky, Harvard & Stone

I think Tales truly felt for the first time like it was run by a hospitality professional, almost like people were told to err on the side of letting people into events rather than keeping people out. I also felt that the Spirited Awards had the highest production value by a long shot, I would guess because the Solomons had probably been to the Grammys and Oscars in the past. I loved it and hope it keeps getting even better.

Daniel de Oliveira, Senior Brand Advocate, Romano Beverage

Tales was definitely different this year, but in the best way possible. It was turning into nothing but high fives and two minute conversations with people who were looking around the room to see if there was anybody more important they should be talking to. This year, there were spaces where you could sit, relax and have actual conversation. These weren’t places where you had time slot, it was a come and stay as you please. I don’t do the big parties anymore, and definitely don’t do dry parties that’s for sure. Coming in this year, I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought the new owners did a fantastic job. After 10 years of going to tales of the cocktail, I’m looking forward to year 11.

Samantha Casuga, Bartender, The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog

As someone who was a CAP last year, and again this year, I witnessed a really great change. Our program was in jeopardy if Tales of the Cocktail were to not return, halting a platform for bartenders from all over the world to experience what is a career/life changing journey. Fortunately we returned for another year, and were able to convey the importance of this program to the new owners.

From the aesthetic, to the Foundation’s ethos, and to their general interest and care for what we do I really feel like we are in the right direction. The Solomon family were incredibly lovely, and truly opened their ears and hearts to us in the hospitality industry. I could not sing their praises enough.
The new owners came into our world not completely aware of what they were getting into, but their excitement, compassion, and commitment are what will continue to make them valuable members in our community.


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