At Cocktails’ Biggest Conference, the Discussion Turns to Not Drinking

Cocktails lined up at the William Grant party at Tales of the Cocktail 2019.
William Grant & Sons

Each July, Tales of the Cocktail descends on New Orleans, unleashing a seven-day event that attracts some of the best bartenders from around the world as well as some of the biggest brands in the spirits industry. It’s quite possibly the biggest week of the year in the business.

As you can imagine, there are a substantial number of cocktails served at the event. Tasting rooms serving libations open as early as 9:30 a.m., and a “Grab and Geaux” stand in hotel lobbies allows attendees to snag small cocktails for the road on their way to the next event—where there will likely be even more alcohol.

That said, not everyone attending the conference is drinking alcohol.

Diageo’s portfolio party, on Friday, July 19, had a “Jazz Feast” theme and was held in the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center, complete with live music and free cocktails from Diageo’s biggest brands, such as Smirnoff, Don Julio, Tanqueray, and Johnnie Walker. Suntory threw a “Nonstop to Osaka” party with nonstop whisky highballs.

And while those bacchanalia were underway, Jesse Hawkins, founder of The Mocktail Project, was mixing up mocktails—a popular term for nonalcoholic cocktails—just a few blocks away off Bourbon Street.

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Welp, our wheels are on the ground and we are coming for you #talesofthecocktail Tomorrow evening, with the support of @brownforman we are hosting a mocktail pop-up bar from 6pm-8pm at the New Orleans Athletic Club 🥃🥃 So, if you're in #NOLA come find us!! We have a pretty special mocktail recipe ready for your sipping pleasure. . . But, enough about us! This post is about Team @oldforester And the amazing work they are currently doing at Tales of the Cocktail. Just being candid, never in my wildest dreams did I believe that one day I would have the privilege to work with the likes of @jackiezykan & @apeisthesht from #teamoldfo just 5 short years ago. It is sometimes hard to believe that it wasn't all that long ago when I made the personal choice to have my last drink and yet, here I am, on my way down to Tales of the Cocktail and I am doing it to help share our mission of creating a better drinking culture. . . So why the Team Old-Fo Post? Well, helping to create a better drinking culture and raise awarness for Mental Health Issues in our industry is exactly what they are doing this week at Tales! Rather than hiring in bartenders for this years event their team decided to jump behind the bar themselves. With the money saved, and other crafty ways to raise awarness, team Old Forester is making a contribution back to @mentalhealthamerica To help riase awarness & support for those in our industry & outside who struggle with Mental Health Issues.

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The mocktail bar was part of this year’s “Beyond the Bar” series, a content track at the conference focused on bartender wellness, which includes supporting abstention from drinking. Along with Hawkins’s mocktail bar, there were sessions tackling sexual harassment, fitness groups for cycling and running, and even a session on how to reduce the waste your bar creates, making it more eco-friendly.

The series launched in 2018, when Caroline Rosen became executive director of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, the organization behind the conference. “I think the beautiful thing about Tales is, it is something that was truly created by the spirits and hospitality community. That’s really the benefit. That’s why I believe it’s so important to this day,” says Rosen. “When we had an opportunity to come in and step into this next chapter of Tales, what we did is we sat down with a few stakeholders across the world. I think that one of the bigger things that we continued to hear was, we need to be able to support the full bartender.”

Rosen says that now, more than ever, people are considering being a bartender as a lifetime career. As such, it’s important that bartenders feel supported and able to take care of themselves and their community.

“We wanted to create something that was interweaved throughout everything we did at Tales, and that was ‘Beyond the Bar,’ where we looked at everything from tough conversations around sexual harassment to inclusivity, sustainability, health, and wellness,” Rosen explains.

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“When you cease to dream, you cease to live.”—Malcolm Forbes. I personally didn't even know what Tales of the Cocktail was in 2017 when I launched TMP, why would I? I didn't come from the hospitality industry. In 2018, A dear friend and supporter of our mission mentioned that I should look into going to this amazing event one of these years. One year later @brownforman & @chambordchannel asked if we would host a pop-up bar to help provide an alternative option for this years Tales. The immediate answer was yes! I don't know where this mission is going to lead me over the next year, five or ten, I just know that we are not going away! The time to start thinking about being mindful & inclusive for those who don't imbibe, or just pausing to take a break from imbibing is now! We met some amazing folks last night while at our event: @listenbar & were both in attendance, along with many familure faces like @bourbonbarrelfoods & even a couple of old buddies along the @kentuckybourbontrail We may leave #nola tomorrow but, our very first tales experience will always stick with us. We shared conversarions with sober curious attendees. Those in recovery. Mental Health advocates. Non-drinking bartenders. Bartenders that did imbibe. We even had one attendee walk up to our bar and ask; "Can you please make myself and four other mocktails for my friends and myself? They have had way too much to drink and we came to your event especially to get off our feet and take a break from drinking." It's that above story why I love this project so much! It brings everyone togetger snd provides an option for ALL. Whether you do, or you don't imbibe, we were all sharing the same space, talking, laughing, connecting. Mocktails really are for everyone!!! Now it is time to go find some coffee & pastries for us. See y'all back in KY next week. #shareamocktail

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Sometimes those conversations also include the choice to not drink. A former traditional bartender, Hawkins started the project after deciding to be permanently sober. “Cocktails and mocktails are the exact same thing, it’s just another ingredient. Adding a spirit to a recipe is just another layer, another addition,” Hawkins told a crowd of roughly 30 people at his mocktail gathering. “The mocktail project is very simple: It’s about creating spaces where cocktails and mocktails can coexist and really helping to create a safer, more-inclusive drinking culture.”

Another person who made a similar decision is Mark Goodwin. This past year, he founded The Pin Project, which offers a wearable pin that bartenders and patrons alike can put on when they want to let others know they’ve chosen to not drink that day.  Goodwin received a grant from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation in 2018 to get the project going.

“It was a whole bunch of little conversations with friends and family in the industry that sort of led to the big idea,” Goodwin says. “I was finding myself going to work with every intention to not drink, and then a friend comes into the bar and wants to buy you a shot or your other bartender’s friend comes in, and they just pour a shot for you—it’s this awkward thing, so you just do it.”

The Pin Project
Emily Price/Fortune

What’s now a pin started out as a tattoo of sorts that Goodwin would draw on his arm with a Sharpie at the beginning of his shift as a visual reminder of the promise he had made to himself. The pin serves as not only a visual reminder to the person wearing it, but also a nonverbal sign to those around them that they’ve chosen to not drink for the evening, hopefully preventing situations like those accidental, sometimes peer-pressured shots.

Rather than give the pins away, Goodwin charges $15 for them as a way to give the pin value, and have those who wear it make a conscious investment in its purchase. The proceeds from the pin go to connecting mental health and substance abuse counselors with people in the service industry who need them.

The idea isn’t for the pin to be worn just by permanently sober people—although it certainly can be—it’s also meant for people who might just want to take a night off from drinking, or even those who are doing something as simple as picking their friend up from the airport and need to stay sober to do that safely.

“It’s just been so incredible to see this tiny, little small baby of an idea resonate with so many people,” Goodwin says. He’s also no longer working alone—several other bartenders have joined in on the effort.

A spirit-free option at the Hendrick’s station for Tales of the Cocktail’s opening party.
William Grant & Sons

That idea of supporting those who want to stay sober is resonating with larger brands as well. The Mocktail Project’s installation was sponsored by Brown-Forman, the parent company of Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s. Last year, William Grant & Sons—the group encompassing brands such as Hendrick’s, Glenfiddich, and Sailor Jerry—was one of the first major brands to enter the space: It made the bold move to throw an opening party for Tales of the Cocktail 2018 with no alcohol.

“The reason we did the party is we wanted to prove that we can come together as an industry and have fun, and we don’t have to drink to that,” says Charlotte Voisey, the head of ambassadors for William Grant & Sons, who originally proposed throwing the spirit-free bash. “We’re starting to talk a bit more about these issues right now and doing away with the peer pressure that has existed a long time in this industry to drink. You don’t have to be a night owl and drink every night. All those clichés that used to surround the idea of what a bartender is—it doesn’t have to be that way.” 

The theme of the party was dubbed “Spirit Free and Dreaming.” Voisey says the brand decided to go to an extreme to prove that point. “There are a lot of people who don’t drink in this industry,” Voisey says. “We talk about diversity and inclusion; they’ve been excluded this whole time from all these events because the focus was always on consumption rather than conversation.” Brands like Hendrick’s and Glenfiddich were still at the party in their full glory—just the alcohol wasn’t. A dozen bars were set up representing each of William Grant & Sons’ labels, along with elaborate spirit-free cocktails inspired by each one.

A mocktail menu by Chicago bartender Julia Momose.

While Voisey says the initial reaction from the industry was that of surprise, in the end, people came and had a great time. “People would say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’ or ‘That’s great,’ but very few people asked why, because everybody knew why, and that’s the whole point,” Voisey says. “Everybody knew the message we were trying to make and that it was an important message.”

This year, alcohol returned to the launch party, which kicks off the first night of Tales of the Cocktail. However, at every bar, the brand offered a nonalcoholic option as well. That decision seems to be on par with how Tales is operating now as a whole. While spirits will continue to be the focus of Tales, going forward, it will also continue to support those in the field who choose not to drink.

“Anyone who’s passionate about being in this industry, we want them to have a home here,” Rosen says. “It’s really important for us to, again, go back to the sense of why we started ‘Beyond the Bar.’ That’s supporting the whole bartender.”

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