Tales of the Cocktail Survival Guide

Tips for staying upright at Vancouver's booze bacchanal.

Plans have a way of contracting in direct proportion to the number of drinks consumed. What sounds brilliant before a night of carousing has begun—hey, let’s have three different Bronxes at three different bars!—begins to feel imprudently ambitious when re-evaluated from a comfortable perch aboard a barstool. We’re already here, so why not stay?

A similar phenomenon is responsible for Tales of the Cocktail‘s return this month to Vancouver, B.C., the first city selected to host what amounts to an exhibition game for the renowned cocktail conference that overtakes New Orleans every July. To drum up interest in Tales’ signature event down south, organizers plotted to stage capsule versions in cities across the globe, complete with celebrity bartenders, scholarly seminars on alcohol-dilution science and sweetened vinegars, industry-sponsored parties, and fancy dinners accompanied by copious amounts of booze. Rather than stretching the event over five hazy days, as it’s done in New Orleans, the shot-sized Tales would open on a Sunday night and close by Tuesday. The “Tales on Tour” model was rolled out last February in Vancouver, and worked so well that it made decent sense to park the road show, at least for the time being.

“It was always meant to be one stop and move on,” says Paul Tuennerman, who created the conference with his wife, Ann. “But on the last day we looked at each other, and it was like, ‘How can we not come back?’ We wanted a second date.”

This year’s wee Tales will follow much the same format as 2011’s, with the addition of “spirited dinners,” a New Orleans mainstay for which the city’s top restaurants partner with liquor-brand ambassadors to develop multicourse dinners featuring a dram with every dish. At the Granville Room, for example, a juniper-crusted roast rack of lamb will be paired with a Last Word riff made with Beefeater 24 and hopped grapefruit bitters; the Waldorf Hotel is serving a tiger-prawn flambé with an Appleton rum punch.

Eight dinners are on the schedule, all but one starting promptly at 7 p.m. The next day’s seminars also run simultaneously, so drinkers must decide whether they care more about liqueur filtering or oak-aged rum—or nursing their hangovers. “Tales on Tour” doesn’t assail its guests with the drumfire of boozy options that defines the New Orleans bacchanal, but a first-timer still risks becoming overwhelmed: Three cocktails is the seminar standard at Tales, and most presenters greatly exceed it.

Tickets are now available at talesofthecocktail.com. To help Seattle drinkers make the most of their first Tales, we asked Tuennerman and a pair of Vancouver bartenders how to approach the event. Their wise suggestions:

Spit! You’re on your own when you’re slurping your way through drinks stiffened with bitters at Tales’ Valentine’s Day farewell party, but every seminar table and tasting room is equipped with spit buckets. Jay Jones, a bartender at the Shangri-La Hotel and the Tuennermans’ onsite event coordinator, recommends using them. “You don’t have to finish every drink,” he cautions. “Some people, myself included, will probably enjoy the entire thing, but you don’t have to. The next free drink is never far away at Tales, so there’s no valid rationale for wolfing . . . It’s a party, but we want to keep a leash on it.”

Tuennerman says the decade-old event has had remarkably little trouble with drunken misbehavior: “We’ve never really had an issue.” Perhaps that’s because if you finish every drink you’re handed, you don’t have the wherewithal to scale a telephone pole or run naked down the street.

Drink water. What makes sense in hot, humid New Orleans, where the specter of dehydration is a constant companion, is also sound advice in rainy Vancouver. “Pace yourself and drink lots of water,” Tuennerman says. “It’s meant to be a learning experience, not a drunken experience.”

Don’t play favorites. Most drinkers have opinions as strong as their cocktails, but Lauren Mote of Kale & Nori says it’s a mistake to build an itinerary around biases. Rather than sign up for seminars and dinners featuring spirits you love, she suggests, concentrate on topics and tasting rooms which initially don’t seem appealing. “First-timers have to try everything,” she says. “Some people only like to drink vodka, and everything else gives them a headache. Remember the people hosting this are experts in their field.”

On one end of the snobbery spectrum, Jones suspects, a few attendees will hesitate to register for a tequila seminar because the spirit doesn’t have the cachet of whiskeys. “Tequila gets a bad rap because people have bad experiences in Mexico,” he says. “The best part is discovering something new.”

Share your badge. I always believed the reason names weren’t printed on Tales identification tags was that registrants didn’t want strangers to hold them responsible later for their drunken indiscretions. Jones provided a less-cynical explanation: The badges are made to be shared. Tales doesn’t care if a dozen drinkers go in on a single all-access pass (a $195 proposition that includes everything on the Vancouver calendar except a Spirited Dinner), so long as the purchasers take turns using it—an especially good deal if prospective attendees have different work schedules, Jones points out. “Share the badge,” he says. “We’d love to reach as many people as possible.”

Marvel at British Columbia’s arcane liquor laws. While Vancouver bartenders can now order most of the spirits they need, provincial taxes mean they don’t come cheap. A 750- milliliter bottle of St-Germain that retails for $29.53 in Washington costs $70 north of the border. Laws have strongly influenced the local cocktail scene, since bartenders have had to devise their own syrups, bitters, and herbal tinctures to supplement their liquor supplies.

“They don’t have a wealth of premium spirits, but it’s made them better, because they have had to become creative,” Tuennerman says. “Vancouver is one of those unrecognized cocktail cities.”

Mote says many voids have been filled by fresh ingredients. “Seattle residents will be delighted with the amount of local products,” she promises, thinking perhaps of the apple juices used by The Keefer Bar or the Granville Room’s maple syrup.

Tales has organized a bar crawl allowing attendees to sample Vancouver cocktails in their native habitats. Unlike last year, the 23-bar hop will extend over the entire festival, so drinkers won’t have to cram all their visits into one night.

Jones is confident the city will again impress. “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong,” he says.