Bartenders team up to create treats for Tales of the Toddy

By Elizabeth Pearce | The New Orleans Advocate
Photo by Matthew Mead

Forty-eight New Orleans bartenders. Twenty-four cocktails. Eighteen restaurants. One night.

On Dec. 18, New Orleanians are invited to the House of Blues to attend the ninth annual Tales of the Toddy, showcasing the talented folks working behind our city’s bars.

And in the midst of a season full of holiday treats, this is one night worth making time for.

In Tales of the Toddy, 24 bartending teams of two compete to make the best holiday drink. Additionally, fans can have their say, voting for People’s Choice Awards for best drink and dish.

Unlike other seasonal events that may be more restaurant focused, wine focused or even spirit focused, Tales of the Toddy is all about celebrating the creativity of the bartender.

Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, launched the event nine years ago to promote the New Orleans bartending community.

It’s a pool of talent that has grown so much in the past few years that Tuennerman has asked more “senior bartenders” (in experience, not age) to step aside and allow newer folks to have a turn.

Each year, they offer a twist on the format. This year, bartenders were asked to choose a partner to work with, then assigned a spirit with which to create a new holiday drink.

And that’s where the fun starts. Lizzy Fitzsousa, of Treo, and Lexi Winston, of Tiki Tolteca, are both competing for the first time and were assigned Reyka Vodka. They knew they wouldn’t make a traditional toddy. As Fitzsousa observes, “Hot vodka is horrifying.”

Their drink, dubbed the Ombibulous Gunpowder Dame, features flavors that complement the holiday season, including citrus, sage and gunpowder tea.

It’s also the first year for Brian Kientz, of Tujague’s, who spent several weeks working with colleague David Suazos to conceptualize and tweak their coconut- and caramel-inspired, rum-based sipper, Gringo Honeymoon. Its flavors were inspired by Kientz’s favorite Christmas cookies

For locals, Tales of the Toddy is a tremendous opportunity to sample the wares of some of the best talent in the city at an incredibly low price tag.

But go with a plan.

Just as you would not try to eat all of the po-boys at the Oak Street Po-boy Festival alone, you should not try to drink all of the cocktails without help. Tales of the Toddy is best experienced with a partner, someone to share drinks and observations with.

You also want to be ruthless in your drinking. If you sample something and don’t like it, don’t finish it.

This is because you will probably sample more than one drink that you will not only want to finish but will want to go back for a second (or third).

Try to be strong, go slow and make sure to eat from the myriad restaurants that are participating. Tuennerman advises folks to sip lots of Mountain Valley Spring Water, the official water of Tales of the Cocktail.

In addition to claiming victory over their peers, the evening’s winners receive a gift basket from Sazerac and a copy of the “French Quarter Drinking Companion.” Tales of the Toddy also donates $2,000 to the local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.

But when talking to the bartenders participating, it’s clear this night is about something more than just winning a contest.

“I’m excited to be there,” Kientz said. “I love being able to sample what everyone is putting down.”

Bazil Zerinsky, of Bar Tonique, doesn’t worry much about winning, focusing instead on “making a good drink to serve alongside the best bartenders in the city.”

In fact, her favorite part is “dressing up in silly costumes and getting to work a big party with my New Orleans bartender family.”

This spirit of camaraderie is best summed up by one of New Orleans’ most venerable bartenders, Paul Gustings.

Currently at the Empire Bar at Broussard’s, Paul has been serving New Orleanians for over 35 years at such institutions as Napoleon House and Tujague’s.

The man knows this town’s booze scene, and for him, Tales of the Toddy is a requisite part of his holiday calender.

“It’s not really a competition at all. It’s so much fun,” he said. “There’s so many drinks to try, and everybody goes there to have a good time. I would never miss it.”

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