The Past, Present and Future of Cocktails

We head to the European debut of Tales of the Cocktail to get the inside track on what's new in the world of highly refined boozing

Feature by Peter Simpson | 03 May 2017

It starts on a Sunday afternoon, soaring over rolling hillsides at the kind of height that doesn't quite constitute flying, more like 'extended jumping'. A soundtrack plays in our headphones, extolling the virtues of said hills, and of delicious Jura whisky. We are trying to sip on the afternoon's third cocktail while wearing a bulky virtual reality headset, while also trying not to accidentally elbow the people around us. We are investigating what the future might hold for our favourite cocktail bars – frankly, we hadn't expected to take flight quite so early.

Tales of the Cocktail is an annual drinks industry meet-up in New Orleans, where bar staff, booze brands and other movers and shakers meet up to swap ideas, size up the competition, and have themselves a merry old party. The Edinburgh edition this April was the first iteration of Tales in Europe; in many ways Edinburgh is the ideal city for this kind of thing, being easy to navigate and get around while also stuffed to the gunnels with great cocktail-makers and drinkmongers. 

Those local producers are out in force at Tales' opening event, showcasing the best of Scotland's booze brands. We catch up with the lovely lads from the equally lovely Porter's Gin in Aberdeen, head into the fourth dimension at the aforementioned Jura stand, and discuss the finer points of light-based marketing with the excellent Leith-based gin distillers Electric Spirit Co. Turns out that an enormous neon sign is great branding, even at a daytime event in an enormous well-lit room.

So to day two, and a chance to take the customary look back before plodding forward. We're discussing the origins of some of the original and best New Orleans cocktails, with Philip Greene (a relation of Antoine Peychaud, who invented the Sazerac cocktail back in the 1800s) and bartenders Chris Hannah and Chris McMillian. There is whisky on the table at 10.30 on a Monday morning, and as we're here for some first-hand insight into the classics, it would have been rude not to partake. 

NO's bar scene is a thriving melange of influences and styles, much like the city itself, with the cocktail biz tracing its roots back to a host of rival pharmacists in 1830s New Orleans. The Sazerac – cognac or rye with bitters, in an absinthe-rinsed glass – was the first shot in a half-medicinal, half-recreational war that created some cocktails that could be due for a comeback. There's the Hurricane; described by the panel as "not particularly good", it's an iconic New Orleans serve that came about when a prohibition-era speakeasy needed to find a way to get rid of loads of rum and opted to just chuck it all in a glass with some passion fruit and lemon.

There's the Roffignac; Hannah's version features cognac, orange bitters, raspberry and apple cider vinegar, and is named after the 10th mayor of New Orleans. That mayor, by the way, introduced the city's street lights and fire brigade, before dying at home in France after 'apparently' suffering a stroke while simultaneously examining a loaded gun. Seems legit.

There's also the Vieux Carre – signature cocktail of the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, it has rye, cognac and vermouth in it – and the Ramos Gin Fizz. The Fizz's main defining characteristic is that it needs to have the absolute piss shaken out of it; back in the glory days, teams of shakers would be on the books in New Orleans bars just to get the thing emulsified. The thing that all these cocktails have in common is their comparative simplicity – lots of alcohol, and one or two ingredients to make the spirits pop, is a much more appealing concept than a load of dry ice dickery.

And that's a philosophy that carried over into Tales' panel on creating new signature drinks to join the established canon. Tom Walker from New York cocktail bar Fresh Kills introduced his award-winning Maid in Cuba cocktail – a sort of combination of a mojito and a daquiri, featuring rum, lime, absinthe and cucumber – by stating the importance of a straightforward name when coming up with a cocktail. If you've ever been to a bar, looked at an esoteric drinks list and confused it for a train station departure board, you will feel his pain.

The panel then ran through what amounted to a manifesto for cocktail-makers that, as an interloper on behalf of you lot, gives plenty of hope for our future nights out. Drink names that make sense; simple drinks that don't rely on gimmick ingredients or ludicrous preparation (we're looking at you, Oslo bar that serves a cocktail in a miniature bathtub); proven formulae that everyone knows, but with one or two elements changed. The kind of thing that you could conceivably ask for in a different bar and not be laughed at.

Of course it's 2017, so the social #numbers your drink can pull in are important too – as the panel said, if you make a good-looking drink that gets out on Instagram, it'll probably catch on. But the closer to the panel, the Point Blank cocktail from New York bar maestro Naren Young, showed off all of the above perfectly. It's made with whiskey, vermouth and lemon bitters, with a secret weapon in the form of St-Germain elderflower liqueur. It's simple, it looks good, it doesn't require a lot of faff, and it's bloody delicious. 

Elsewhere over the course of Tales, the programme of one-off bar takeovers offered plenty of glimpses into the future – a Lucky Liquor takeover highlighting zero-waste bartending, focusing on creating great drinks without throwing too much away, while the Kyrö distillery in Finland presented a one-off collaboration with the Bon Vivant that was a mash-up of Finnish and Scottish flavours. 

So taking a step back from the Cash Rules Everything Around Me vibe of some of the presentation, the future of the cocktail scene becomes a bit clearer. After the nitrogen-fuelled excesses of the 2000s, smart bartenders are steering the ship back towards the classics of the past, but it's a fully laden ship full of modern ingredients and techniques. We received some real-life corroboration for our mad theory at our Eclectica Experiment event with Black Bottle last month; with five bespoke whisky cocktails, it was the ideal opportunity to a) get back on the cocktail horse and b) work out whether we had been talking rubbish the entire time.

These were fantastical creations, and they were each brilliant in their own way, but you know which one was the best? The cocktail that was basically just smoked tea, whisky and cola. Simple, straightforward, but with an unexpected twist. The future will not be televised, and it won't be in virtual reality either. It will be bloody delicious, though.