I touch down in New Orleans at 4am UK time. The local time, judging by Louis Armstrong International Airport, is 1998. Preparations for my first night in the US haven’t gone to the simple plan. Drink through flight one, sleep through flight two worked except for the sleeping part, so everything starts from a skewed perspective and skews further.
A cab heads for the French Quarter passing essentially everything I currently know about New Orleans – the river, the Superdome, Tremé. It skirts some spectacular lightning storms too. Maybe they’ll clear this ludicrous steamy atmosphere. The cabbie says he’s not busy as the summer’s too brutal for folk to stick around and this is the third time I’ve had this warning from a local already.
Emerging onto the streets and, in its look and feel, New Orleans is unlike anything I’ve come across in a US city before – indeed, it is often referred to as more of a Caribbean city than a US one. The second thing you notice – after the steam – is that Saturday night New Orleans smells. It smells wonderful, and then catastrophic, and then acceptable, then suspicious again, and then like a bin full of sick, and then of drugs, and then of spices. If you don’t like the smell you’re in, just keep walking; there is a new one coming along in around four paces.
It’s one of only a handful of places in the US that allows drinking in the streets and it makes for a spectacular scene – not always in a good way. The pleasures and perils of drinking spill onto every corner. Being guided down the neon explosion of Bourbon Street it’s hard to know where to rest your eyes. It’s rude to stare, but there’s so much to stare at – so much flesh and excess and joy and tack and gyrating and mess. And booze, of course – luminous Hurricanes, ‘huge-ass beers’ and Daiquiris swilled from plastic pipes resembling bongs. Is there really another gear reserved for Mardi Gras?
We repair to a dive bar where they’re cooking up a crawfish boil for the bartenders coming off shift. The crawfish, potatoes and sausages are being tortured in an enormous steel bath out the back and it’s the best smell since the last great smell two blocks ago, just before the two abominable smells. The bar owner introduces me to his live crawfish and warns me never to pronounce the ‘e’ in Orleans again.
I try to get someone to define a US dive bar for me as it’s a description that’s obviously worn as a badge of honour, unlike with pubs at home. I don’t get a satisfactory explanation but conclude that I like a US dive bar better than a UK one because you get freshly cooked seafood and friendly faces instead of crisps and surly alcoholics. Then, as if to make me feel more at home, I’m warned not to walk two blocks in any wrong direction or I’ll definitely be stabbed, or shot.
Taking renewed care to walk in the correct direction, I find my first official Tales of the Cocktail event. I am late to the event, it is late in the day and late in the week. It is in a very smart hotel, there is a lot of whisky and a jazz band and air conditioning and a lot of people who are very well dressed but also wear the haunted expressions of those who have already been doing this for a week and need to get back to their normal lives. It dawns on me that my body clock is fast approaching breakfast time and that whisky, no matter how rare and exalted, is not the breakfast of champions.
It is only day two for me. For Tales survivors, it is the end of a long week of buying and selling, teaching and learning, posturing and positioning. I seek to squeeze the last drops from the festival at the famous Pig and Punch party. It’s soon apparent that I have arrived at this party four hours too early and I stride off to explore the city. It’s soon apparent that it is far too hot to stride anywhere and, like everyone else, I beat a hasty retreat indoors to drink and be air conditioned.
The Old Absinthe House boasts a 200-year history serving the likes of Oscar Wilde, P.T. Barnum, Robert E. Lee and Liza Minelli, but they aren’t in today so I make do with propping up the bar and supping reasonably priced beer and maniacally priced bourbon (I guess there’s a tax for drinking bourbon on the corner of Bourbon Street). The TV in the corner is screening sport – from this distance it looks like The Hunger Games may already be a real thing in the US but fortunately there’s plenty more to distract. From the ceiling hang eerie, empty American football helmets and on the back wall is a digital read-out that appears to provide the correct date of birth for underage drinkers looking to hoodwink the bar staff about being 21. The walls are plastered with thousands and thousands of business cards stapled there by drinkers. The bar’s motto is apparently: ‘Everyone you have known or will ever know, eventually ends up at the Old Absinthe House’. It’s a chilling warning. I leave before some dickhead from my past arrives.
All the punch is now gone and the people who drank it have been swept away by a sousaphone
To Latitude 29, the Tiki den for Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, where I am warned off starting the day with a Zombie. Not wishing to admit that I have already started the day, I opt for a Latitude 29, which is the perfect accompaniment to an incredibly positive conversation with a man in a Hawaiian shirt sipping from a glass like a goldfish bowl while Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk plays in the background. I enjoy drinking in a Tiki bar as only someone who usually lives in a perma-cloud in a pathologically grumpy country can.
Returning to the Pig and Punch party you can sense the city swinging back into gear again. All the punch is now gone and the people who drank it have been swept away by a sousaphone. In the aftermath I join some other air-con refugees in a nearby house where the informal rolling business of Tales continues even at this late stage in the week. Producers talking to distributors, talking to bartenders, all looking for opportunities, all talking in the jargon that every industry protects itself with. It’s impressive that amidst all this drinking, late-night carousing and early morning antacid munching, many new relationships and deals are forged. It’s a week long piss-up, but it’s a high-functioning piss-up.
Moving now with purpose towards dinner we duck in and out of bars on Frenchmen Street where every third person seems to be blowing a brass instrument, before diverting to a warehouse dedicated to hot sauce (I like hot sauce but I cannot envisage any scenario that would require or excuse 400 slightly different varieties). As befits The Last Supper of a cocktail festival, dinner at Cane and Table (a ‘rum and rustic colonial cuisine’ joint) is as much about exploring and dissecting the drinks menu as it is the food it washes down.
And so to the Erin Rose Bar for the first time. The Hotel Monteleone may be the official hub of Tales of the Cocktail but the Erin Rose is undoubtedly where you will find more drunk industry folk sculling pints and Frozen Irish Coffees (like an extra-thick McDonald’s shake except with mystery booze and caffeine – served from a slushie machine). Just to hammer home the diversity of cocktail culture on offer in New Orleans we shift from here to The Sazerac Bar in The Roosevelt. This is where the politician Huey ‘The Kingfish’ Long used to enjoy a Ramos Gin Fizz but the crowd we’re now with (which includes, I am excited to find, an official Disney mixologist) is working to the theory that the bar holds some claim to making the original Sazerac, so that’s what we go with. On this probably mistaken basis I drink mine in a reverie as if it’s The Original Sazerac before we’re all kicked out for closing time.
Anyway, it has long passed the hour when one is in need of a bar made of African walnut surrounded by Paul Ninas murals – let’s get back to the Irish bar with the alcoholic frozen coffee.The last bout in the Erin Rose is frantic and frazzled but a great advert for the American people at play. I can’t be sure if this bar at this time represents in any way a cross-section of the US drinking population, but if it does, their positivity and curiosity and diversity make a fantastic case for drinking in US bars with strangers. I discuss family relations with an LA barman, how everyone despises North Texans with a North Texan, and round off the day on politics and race relations with a Baton Rouge cop, who makes axes in his spare time …
The bar staff call a fake last orders at around 3am just to flush out anyone who doesn’t really intend to have gout by sunrise. By sunrise I have suspected gout and pins and needles in my face but it’s OK, by teatime I will be in Charleston where I’m told they used to hang the pirates rather than hail them, so that’s got to be a more sedate city, right?