Tales of the Cocktail Attempting to Recover from Tale-spin

Image: Tales of the Cocktail

Tales of the Cocktail, the multi-day spirits and cocktail bacchanal held in New Orleans each summer, is in deep crisis mode according to multiple sources. Trouble has supposedly been brewing for years but took an ugly turn this spring when Paul Tuennerman, husband of Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Tuennerman, shared a since-deleted video on social media in which he interviewed Ann while she was in blackface. Ann had participated in a Mardi Gras parade with a New Orleans krewe, an organization that seeks to maintain the history of Carnival celebrations, and blackface is apparently one of the Carnival traditions.

Several communities were outraged, and rightfully so. The reaction was instant and almost uniform, particularly for what was seen as an incredibly insensitive caption: “Paul G Tuennerman interviewing me on Mardi Gras Morning from the Zulu Den. As he said ‘Throw a little Black Face on you lose all your Media Skills.’ He did his best as the interviewer.” The people at the top of an international cocktail conference appeared shockingly cavalier (not to mention offensive and disrespectful) about such a racially charged topic, and the crowd roared.

The Tuennermans apologized, Paul Tuennerman vacated his role within Tales of the Cocktail, and Ann Tunnermann organized a diversity council whose purpose wasn’t entirely clear, but which consisted of people with their hearts in the right place and plenty of experience in the world of spirits and cocktails.

And then last month, Ann Tuennerman reinstated Paul Tuennerman, apparently without a single word to the diversity council. In one act, she undid whatever healing had taken place.

Social media exploded. Colin Asare-Appiah, one of Bacardí’s key ambassadors and the head of the diversity council, wrote an open letter resigning over the move. Questionable financial documents appeared and then disappeared on various sites; speculation exploded; frustrations and complaints resurfaced; both Tuennermans resigned, turning the event over to a key player, and are now apparently looking to cash out.

Various spirit companies are rumored to be looking for ways to create a combine that would pass legal muster and allow the event to continue. Others are rising to the defense of the organization and its founders. But some long-simmering resentment, mostly about the flow of profits and where they ended up, has boiled over into full-fledged fury, and many of the better-known bartenders who contributed to the success of the event are choosing sides.

Tales of the Cocktail grew from a tiny gathering of journalists and bar folks to mark the first year of a walking tour of the same name into the behemoth it is now. The multi-day event is a major contributor to the economic well-being of New Orleans during a time of year when tourism is slow. Putting on events in New Orleans is no easy task, and for outsiders who don’t know which levers to pull or where they are, it’s nearly impossible.

Whatever happens in the near future, a significant amount of people will likely pass on Tales (now causally referred to as “Tales 2.0”) in whatever form it takes in 2018. Some have already started directing their attention and energy towards Bar Convent, the annual Berlin show that is heading to Brooklyn, NY, next year.

This is not the end of Tales, but the next steps for whoever lands in leadership roles are crucial. A key complaint amidst this unraveling scandal is how much (or how little) grant money was actually flowing back into the community. Included in that complaint is the allegation that Tales leadership leaned hard on participants to, among other things, kick back their honoraria to the non-profit organization that ran the event. Failing to gracefully allow people to benefit directly from the hard work involved in hosting and participating on a panel is no way to generate good will; when bad things happen, those people aren’t likely to help out at all. Chickens, meet roost.

Bartenders and other key people who were central to the growth of Tales of the Cocktail want to know that things will change moving forward.  They want Tales to be transparent and generous, and beneficial to all participants – not just the event organizers or insiders who allegedly skim the cream and leave the thin milk for the rest, or the brands that spend the most.

Change may or may not come, and the commercial aspects of Tales will probably guarantee that it sails on, but a lot of people are now just wondering, “Who needs this?”