Periodista Tales

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Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 7 — The Bartender’s Breakfast

Continued from Part 6…

That night was the Bartender’s Breakfast, a big party for all the bartenders who had gathered in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. It was invitation only. You couldn’t buy a ticket to this thing. You just had to know.

I hadn’t scrounged a dimestore lead that day and I was sore about it. I needed to make it up to myself. All the key players would be at the Breakfast: Dale DeGroff and Ted Haigh, David Wondrich and Audrey Saunders. It was my last shot to get in their faces about the Periodista.

I kidded myself that that’s why I was going. I knew better. I was nobody—but I had a golden key. And when someone gives you a golden key, you use it.

There were two lines of people trailing out of the brick corridor that lead into the party. At the end of the tunnel was music and light, noise and laughter. I got in the shorter line. The one that was moving. A beautiful woman held a clipboard.

“Key, please,” she said.

I showed her the key. For a moment I was sure it was all a practical joke. She drew an X on the key with a sharpie and let me in. Out of some arcane instinct I licked my thumb and rubbed out the X before it could dry. You never know.

The Bartender’s Breakfast was the typical frenzy. There were stations set up around three long rooms. Celebrity bartenders were taking short shifts at various stations. Some less famous bartenders were taking longer shifts. Jackson Cannon was stationed next to Jim Meehan. They each had shakers in both hands and were shaking in step with one another. I exchanged a nod with Cannon, then moved on.

Audrey Saunders—owner and operator of NYC’s Pegu Club—was mixing drinks in a corner station. I wanted to talk to her, but she was three deep, so I went to the next room.

Beyond a crowd of vests and fedoras a live band was playing a mix of funk and hip hop. I saw Misty Kalkofen bussing tables. Misty was probably the most famous bartender in Boston. She had personally won more competitions at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail than anyone else I knew. Her team had been voted Best Bar in America at the Bar Room Brawl the night before. And she was bussing. Like a pro.

I wandered from station to station, bore witness to feats of spectacular mixing talent and mass cocktail production. Guests held whole pineapples filled with Corpse Reviver No. 2, delicate coupes green with Chartreuse and gin, tall glasses pink with Campari. In the back room, yet more beautiful women were operating vending machines that dispensed premixed cocktails in commemorative hip flasks, gummy cocktails, water bottles, t-shirts. Whatever you wanted.

As I drifted through the party I saw familiar and unfamiliar faces. Butler and Bunnewith were there, Ben Sandrof, the Eastern Standard team, the LUPEC ladies. Boston was well represented at this year’s Tales.

I thought about the previous night, when Drink had taken the prize at the Bar Room Brawl.

Then I thought about where I’d been just before the Breakfast. My mind had been stuck there since.

I’d found myself at dinner with some people from Boston. A few brand representatives, some industry types, a young socialite there to make the scene. I knew their names then, but wouldn’t an hour later.

Conversation got around to Drink’s victory the night before. That moment of sheer joy and celebration had carried me through the frustrations of my Periodista hunt. Never a sports fan, I’d felt suddenly what it meant to love a team. I was ready to say as much, when—

“Fuck Drink.”

I turned to see who was talking. One of the the brand reps. He was drunk on his own product.

“The crew from Drink won’t hang out with the crews from any of the other cities,” he said. “They’re just hanging with their little Boston clique. They think they’re better than everyone here.”

He paused. Made sure he had the room. Took a drink.

“They think they’re the cool kids,” he said.  “Shit, my boys on Lansdowne street are twice the bartenders of anyone at Drink. You think the Drink crew would give any of them the time of day? Hell, no.”

There was some murmuring around the table. Nothing audible.

I wanted to argue. I wanted to say that the Periodista had given me a glimpse into the heart of the Boston cocktail world. These people were never the in-crowd. They weren’t the cool kids, those whispered of in hushed tones as they walked the halls. They weren’t the beautiful people who gathered together on schoolyards to flex their adolescent muscles and vilify the awkward and brainy. These people were the awkward and brainy.

They were the history geeks, the science nerds. They were the kids sitting behind the portables at lunch running lines for the school play. They’d grown up, and under the tutelage of the ultimate outsider, Brother Cleve, they’d found a calling to rally around. The cocktail renaissance had provided it all: history, rule books, arcane wisdom—historical costumes. Only a mistake of happenstance and culture had turned the nerdy kids’ new obsession into the latest A-list trend.  Ultimately, this was a band of outsiders who had found a place to come inside after all those years.

I wanted to argue, but I didn’t.

Who was I to say that once outsiders come in from the cold, they don’t lock the door behind them?

Who was I to say anything when, gripping the golden key in my pocket, I finally felt like I was on the inside with them?

I walked the rooms of the Bartender’s Breakfast, watching smiles passed as handily as drinks and devoured just as quickly. Mine all tasted bitter. I left the party without talking to anyone. Without uttering the word “Periodista.” I walked out into the hot New Orleans night just as a warm rain began to fall.

To be continued…

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