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Tales of the Cocktail festival returns to New Orleans July 18-23

The drinks conference features spirits, bartending topics and more



Prohibition is considered a failure, lasting 13 years while spurring speakeasies, bootlegging and other dodging of laws forbidding manufacture and sale of booze. But the law wasn't entirely misguided.

  "Prohibition needed to happen," says food and drinks writer Sarah Lohman. "We were pretty drunk as a country. We drink far less alcohol today than we did in the 1820s and '30s — by a multiple of four. (Prohibition) wasn't entirely a bad thing."

  While Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it was replaced with laws that for decades shaped what alcohol Americans produced and drank.

  "Laws government put into effect after Prohibition favored large companies and banned home fermentation," Lohman says. "The only thing not affected was wine. Small wineries never went away. (Home) beer brewing was banned until the 1970s."

  In recent decades, changes in laws have opened the door for small-scale brewing, fermenting and distilling operations, spurring new drinks and cocktail trends. Lohman discusses home brewing and fermenting in a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail (July 18-23).

  Now in its 15th year, the annual conference draws bartenders, spirits writers and the largest industrial and small craft distillers to New Orleans. The week features lavish parties hosted by global liquor brands and tasting rooms for all sorts of spirits, and there are seminars on everything from bar business practices to esoteric topics in liquor production and history.

  Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, is writing a book based on a 1910 cookbook that included recipes for making fruit wines. She's made rhubarb, red currant and elderflower wines at home. In the seminar, she'll talk about making several alcoholic beverages, including kombucha (fermented tea), mead (made from honey), kvass (made from rye bread), kefir, a Russian fermented milk beverage, and more. Some fermented drinks may have been discovered by accident (such as mead) and others have risen to public knowledge via unusual routes, such as kombucha, which was associated with health food movements in the 1970s, she says. The seminar, which she co-hosts with Eamon Rockey, covers fermentation of the beverages and their use in drinks. Some low-alcohol items popularized through home fermentation have made their way into cocktails as mixers, Lohman notes.

  Spirits writer and editor of Chilled Magazine Lesley Jacobs Solmonson and her husband co-wrote a book simplifying cocktails called The 12 Bottle Bar. They selected the core spirits and liqueurs necessary to set up a home bar that is stocked to make hundreds of classic cocktails. She's now working on a book about liqueurs, which are produced in almost every nation in the world. While Solmonson recommended an orange liqueur (such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier) for a basic bar, the new book explores exotic flavors, such as South African Amarula, made with the fruit of the marula tree. Fjallagrasa is an Icelandic liqueur made with lichens.

  At Tales, Solmonson will give a presentation at an opening event Tuesday at the Museum of the American Cocktail inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. She'll discuss the rise of American independent distillers. Solmonson wrote a book about the gin renaissance, driven by the release of two nontraditional varieties — Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick's — both different from the classic London dry gin style. With the rise of independent producers, there are now all sorts of flavor profiles, she says — from floral to spicy to woody to herbal.

  "Now when someone tells me they don't like gin," says says, "I tell them, 'I can find a gin you'll like.'"

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