A Conversation with Ann Tuennerman, AKA Mrs. Cocktail
How she makes her Sazerac, why you may be drinking Spanish brandy soon and how she overcomes fear
Founded in 2002 by Ann Tuennerman, Tales of the Cocktail has grown from a small gathering of cocktail lovers into the world’s premier cocktail festival. Less known is the good cause behind Tales of the Cocktail, which is the primary fundraiser for the New Orleans Culinary & Cultural Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting, promoting and growing the cocktail industry in New Orleans and around the world. Since 2008, it has invested more than a half million dollars in programs like the Cocktail Apprentice Program, the Seal of the Sazerac and a new health and wellness program for members of the hospitality industry.
Tales of the Cocktail takes place July 15–19, 2015.
Edible New Orleans: Is there any one cocktail that has your heart?
Ann Tuennerman: That is an easy question and it has to be the Sazerac. It’s because it truly is history in a glass. We were the ones who campaigned to have it made the official cocktail of the City of New Orleans, which it is now.
Edible New Orleans: Thank you for that. That’s one of my bragging points about our city.
AT: We were the first city to have an official cocktail! It is kind of refreshing sometimes to see that it’s basically unchanged since 1874 and enjoyed by generations of people.
It is a welcoming drink for visitors to New Orleans. You have to have a good one, though, and all good things are worth waiting for. I’ve never been to Cape Cod but when I go I want to have a lobster roll. A good Sazerac, a good poboy, a good crawfish boil—you have to wait until you can have a good one.
Edible New Orleans: Herbsaint or absinthe?
AT: Herbsaint. My Sazerac is traditional with New Orleans ingredients. I find Herbsaint a little milder. A Sazerac is a drink of precision—you really can’t freehand it as much. Too much absinthe or Herbsaint and it’s overpowering.
Edible New Orleans: What else?
AT: Two sugar cubes. Too much sweet and I don’t like it. It should have some good bite to it as a good sipping cocktail. I’m usually fine with dropping the lemon in it. I’m not particular either way about that. I do like a little Angostura and a little Peychaud’s. I usually use Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye. To me—my opinion—there is no such thing as a chamomile Sazerac or a celery Sazerac. That is something different. A Sazerac is a Sazerac.
Edible New Orleans: Is it true that you rarely finish a drink?
AT: Did my husband say that?
Edible New Orleans: Yes.
AT: It’s about quality, not quantity. I like little sips of everything. If I’m with a group and they order 10 drinks, I’ll have 10 sips.
Edible New Orleans: I guess you would never make it through Tales of the Cocktail otherwise.
AT: We do say water is our most-consumed beverage. Last year we went through 25,000 cases of Mountain Valley. I also think that as New Orleanians, we know how to pace ourselves. We get through Mardi Gras, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Patrick’s, Jazz Fest. Stanley Clisby Arthur says we are the home of civilized drinking. Drinking is kind of woven into the fabric of what we do. Another quote I like is, “Bartending is a craft, not a lifestyle.” Somebody has to remain in charge.
Edible New Orleans: Did your parents drink cocktails?
AT: Not that much, honestly. My family members were big cooks. I honestly remember my dad drinking Taaka and us getting, like, New Orleans magazine in the mail—you know, back then. Again, that’s when Taaka was premium. My mom—we used to say “pass the cork over the bottle.” She was a light drinker—but she would drink margaritas or seabreeze or something like that. It was more about the food than the drink, and we ate really well.
Edible New Orleans: You’ve held Tales on Tour, where you take Tales of the Cocktail on the road, in a number of cities: Buenos Aires, Vancouver and Mexico City. How important is it for a city to have its own cocktail culture?
AT: It is important because it helps you to define and articulate a culture. The cocktails in San Francisco are very different than the cocktails in New York.
Edible New Orleans: I like that Tales of the Cocktail is completely different in its seminars and parties each year, but feels the same in its warmth and hospitality each year.
AT: People call it a big family reunion. That was calculated. I never wanted to have an event that it was OK to miss.
One, it makes it interesting work. Two, the audience evolves. What people want to learn about is different each year and I don’t pretend to know what that is. I attribute a lot of our success to the fact that it is a collaborative process. All of our seminars are selected by committee, not by me. Thirteen years ago people weren’t asking about sustainability or finding investors. It is the industry’s event and we just organize it. My husband says we like our content fresh like our cocktails.
Edible New Orleans: The venues and parties are pretty fresh too. Brands seem to bring their A-game.
AT: Three or four years ago at the World War II Museum, William Grant & Sons wanted to have the world’s freshest Ramos Gin Fizz. So they decided to have a cow out there that you could milk for your Ramos Gin Fizz. One presenter told me the other day that he lost his wedding ring milking that cow.
Yes, brands definitely bring their Agame. The world’s most influential bartenders and mixologists are all here in one place. Last year we had people from 35 countries, so now it’s gotten kind of competitive. It isn’t just about being over-the-top, though—if it wasn’t authentic the attendees would recognize that.
Edible New Orleans: You must see trends emerge.
AT: You can see trends—this year we have two [seminars] that happen to be on Spanish brandy.
Edible New Orleans: The rest of the U.S. is a little bit of a cocktail dead zone during Tales because the best bartenders are here.
AT: Yes, some bars close entirely. At one bar, the manager hired a new employee and made her sign a contract saying that she would work during Tales. Dram in Brooklyn—this was really cute—a couple years ago, they 86d cocktails during Tales. They were just serving beer and shots. It is kind of always a joke: “Don’t go out drinking in London that week or New York or wherever because everybody is here.”
Edible New Orleans: Some people actually move here following Tales of the Cocktail—Jeff Berry and his wife, of Latitude 29. Wayne Curtis. Tales of the Cocktail has significantly shaped the cocktail scene here.
AT: Visitors used to only think of New Orleans as Bourbon Street. I think that we have been able to shift that. For us, the classics never went out of style and I think Tales of the Cocktail has brought us a lot of attention for our cocktails, instead of only our food. Sara Roahen has a great quote about the Sazerac: It “never had a coming of age or falling from grace in New Orleans.” Now you couldn’t get one in New York, but here you could still get one. One major shift is that brands see New Orleans as important now.
Edible New Orleans: We have a lot of cool, local brands coming out of New Orleans. What are some that you really like?
AT: Chilled magazine is doing a piece on Emily Vanlandingham of Locally Preserved. I always say she is going to be the next local Martha Stewart. All these cocktail support companies that are great: El Guapo Bitters, Cocktail & Sons, Emily’s syrups. All of these have different purposes in a drink. I’m also excited that NOLA Brewing is going to start making spirits.
Seeing industries be able to start here and make a living here is really exciting to me. They don’t have to move out of town to make a living and provide for their families. We have the industry to support it and that is really exciting to me.
Edible New Orleans: You’ve always seems very generous with your knowledge when people reach out to you for an opinion or guidance.
AT: I enjoy that kind of stuff and I have a few little philosophies. If somebody asks you asks you to dance, you should always say yes because you never know how that’s going to develop. I really enjoy meeting new people and about hearing about what they are doing. Honestly, I think you can have an idea and believe in it and birth it. And I like to stay current on what is happening in the industry.
But it is funny that you say that, because at the same time I’m just a public school girl from New Orleans East.
Edible New Orleans: I read in one of your interviews that you believe that it doesn’t matter where you are, an education is always possible, or something along those lines.
AT: Yes, I do believe that you can learn anywhere and, honestly, I am very grateful for that education now. I went to Sherwood Forest, Livingston and Abramson. They were rough schools, but I am very comfortable in an atmosphere of mixed people and cultures. I think you can learn wherever you are if you just put your mind to it and maybe have a little bit of support. Neither one of my parents went to college and they wanted my sister and me to go to college—I have a degree from UNO, not from Columbia, but that is OK. I feel like I have a good degree and nothing to be ashamed of. Clancy DuBos says that UNO built the middle class in New Orleans and I believe that is a correct statement.
One of my friends said his mom told him when he was going to college that she didn’t care what he majored in—just pick something you like to read about. If you like to read about it, you are going to study it.
Edible New Orleans: What books have been important to you?
AT: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. That book really made an impact on me because the only way to move through something you are afraid of is to do it. I had a fear of open-water swimming, so I said I’m going to go do triathlons. I had a fear of dancing, so I took dance lessons and got through that fear.
The author talks about how we are all so risk-averse. She says that nobody tells their kids when they are going to school to go out, enjoy, explore. Instead, it is “oh my, be careful.” We’re taught this.
Somebody told me the other day that her kid was taking swimming lessons. The instructor told the parents not to say the child does not know how to swim in front of them. Instead of saying here is my child and she doesn’t know how to swim, you should say that she’s so excited and she’s going to learn how to swim.
This book says say yes to everything that is happening to you. When you think about it, it’s like, what is the worst thing that could happen?
Edible New Orleans: When you have a finished another successful Tales of the Cocktail, do you celebrate with a cocktail or a nap?
AT: We usually celebrate with beer. You need to change it up every now and then.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
COLLECTING: Hotel keys and door hangers
READING: My Absolut Life by Michel Roux
DRINKING: Lillet on the rocks with a little orange slice; Pimm’s Cup; anything with cucumber, basil, cilantro or grapefruit.
BELIEVING: That Hubig’s Pies are coming back
GUILTY PLEASURE: Popeye’s biscuits
GO-TO HANGOVER CURE: Roast beef po-boy and French fries
FAVORITE QUOTE: Everything is OK in the end. If it is not OK, it is not the end.