Tales of the Cocktail: What Went Wrong?

All photos by Amanda Schuster.Even though it took place during some of the most sous-vided-gym-sock days of New Orleans summer, Tales of the Cocktail was something all of us - media, cocktail educators, spirits brands, consultants and cocktail enthusiasts - looked forward to every year. At a certain point, like any annual independent festival such as South by Southwest or Comic Con that started with a bunch of nerds nerding about their respective nerdy things and grew into its awkward teen stage, it simply got too big and gangly. Drinking and schvitzing stopped being fun when it meant fewer, well, nerdy things and more expense tacked onto expenses (not to mention threats of fines for seemingly minor offenses) and waiting on long lines. When the scandal broke last spring that the festival’s founder, Ann Tuennerman and her husband Paul, had exhibited some seriously poor media judgement as so-called pillars of the drinks community (more on that in a bit), it seemed the entire operation might go down in flames. Along with declarations of heartache were audible sighs of relief. Miraculously, last summer, with a symbolic bandaid over the boo boo and considerably fewer of the regular attendees, brands and participants, the show somehow went on. Then last week, another seemingly strange decision was made by the Tuennermans, and the villagers were on the attack.

So what happened?

TOTC was founded in 2002 by Ann Rogers (later Tuennerman) when the modern cocktail renaissance was still in its infancy and New Orleans tourism was at a low point, especially during the sweltering summer months. It started as a historical walking tour of the city with a small group of spirits experts, historians and writers who were based in different locations as a way of gathering in one place and convivially sharing information.

After Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the city in 2005, there was an understandable emphasis on New Orleans restoration, and, as the cocktail community and the festival itself expanded, so did the mission of Tales to function as an annual, non-profit charity festival (a huge difference from other large festivals) over the course of a few days to include a roster of seminars, parties and other internal events to support the city and the movement of the cocktail industry. Its “ground zero” the Hotel Monteleone, an elegant and expansive landmark hotel with a rooftop pool, hundreds of guest rooms and conference areas that happens to also be home to the historic, revolving Carousel Bar, which became the TOTC central meeting place.

Fledgling cocktail bartenders from around the globe out to make their big break would travel to New Orleans for the opportunity to participate in its CAP (cocktail apprentice) program, working tirelessly behind the scenes to prepare, serve and clean up for seminars, tasting rooms and events. Independent drink brands seeking more traction from the cocktail community would attend as sponsors to expand their industry presence. An all star roster of historians, experts and enthusiasts lent their expertise during seminars and tasting events and attendees could expect a high level of education from them. It was certainly a place that launched countless careers, built up dozens of obscure brands and fostered lasting relationships within the community, including a few marriages. I can say here without hesitation that I wouldn’t even be in a position to write this article as a successful drinks writer if it hadn’t been for the opportunities Tales of the Cocktail presented to me over the years, including meeting Adam Levy in 2009, the founder of Alcohol Professor.

So why write this article? Why kick something when it’s already down? Why be so ungrateful and ungracious?

Because along the way, things went very wrong and people got hurt. They got hurt in ways that are not simply manifest of the typical problems associated with a small brand struggling with growing pains. It was more than just a few careless public comments that built the storm of outrage. That was recent. What has festered within Tales of the Cocktail as a, quite frankly, abusive organization with a blatant disregard for the community it claims to support, had been taking place for years and there is value in discussing them so they don’t happen again.

First, let’s revisit what happened this spring. There is no better way to explain it than by using  Ann Tuennerman’s own words in a letter to the TOTC community:

Earlier this week, I rode in a Mardi Gras parade with the Zulu organization, in which participants, both people of color and of all races, traditionally wear blackface makeup, and shared photos of myself in costume on social media. I now recognize how deeply offensive this is to many, and I am sincerely sorry. It was a naive and inconsiderate action, the consequences of which have made it clear that I have much to learn. Regardless of anyone’s intentions, we all have to take responsibility for our actions, especially those of us in positions of authority. As an industry leader, I assume full responsibility for my actions, and am ready to listen to all those who I have angered and hurt in the process.

What this letter doesn’t address anywhere is the what drew attention to her participation in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a.k.a. Zulu Krewe, parade - the caption in the instagram she posted of herself, smiling, in blackface: “Paul G Tuennerman interviewing me on Mardis Gras from Zulu Den. As he said ‘Throw a little blackface on and you lose all your Media Skills.’ He did his best as the interviewer.”

I repeat, nowhere in the letter does Tuennerman make any reference to the insulting caption, and this is indicative of the way the organization does business. They have exhibited a history of admitting to problems without actually addressing the real problem. For instance, in 2012 when bartender Jenna Bredesen accidentally drowned during a pool party at a house that was to be the setting of an event the next night. While the very sad and unfortunate incident was acknowledged, it was promptly dismissed, with no formal public statement or even a consideration for a memorial or a similar gesture the following year. It is extremely tragic that someone - a person with a name (that is nowhere on their reporting from that summer's event) and a family - died, yet following such an incident, this would have been a good time for TOTC to ramp up efforts to promote better awareness for important health and safety issues aside from stern warnings not to hold unsanctioned events.

Back to the offending Instagram post. That post itself was promptly deleted, except, of course, in cyberspace, everyone can still hear you scream. You can read more about the incident here in Times-Picayune and you can read a 2009 article about the Zulu Krewe’s history here courtesy of writer and historian Wayne Curtis for the New York Times. What mattered here was not Tuennerman’s willing inclusion in an understandably easily misconstrued facet of a New Orleans tradition. It was definitely poor judgement to participate as a high profile industry leader considering the optics. However, it was her actions surrounding this participation and what began to unfold as a complete failure, not only from her, but the entire organization, to show genuine sensitivity toward the community she was representing in the days, weeks and months that followed.

A second letter with more apologies came days after the first one, in which Tuennerman discusses how moved she is in letters and words of support in the wake of her actions. Nowhere does it mention what must have been an even bigger slew of angry messages and threats she must have received or any way to acknowledge the reasons why anyone would have such a negative response. The email closes by mentioning the then upcoming gloves off Facebook Live discussion invited by local bartender Ashtin Berry, which many hoped would be a constructive way to air out grievances and work with the community surrounding the issue:

As I stated in my public apology, the question of fair and equal representation for bartenders of color at Tales of the Cocktail and in our industry in general has been raised. On Monday, during our live session on Facebook, my intent is to listen to insights from those in our industry who have been confronting issues of racial discrimination and insensitivity for years. Our hope is to better understand how Tales of the Cocktail might become a platform for fostering much-needed diversity within our industry and, we hope, a model for other industries to emulate.

For those who are still not convinced, we hear you and we are determined to win your support through concrete actions that make change a reality, not a slogan. We are all in this together.

Is this a sincere apology for the insensitivity of the hurtful Instagram post coming from a place with a genuine desire to work toward cultural healing? Or is this all a scramble to retain 15 years worth of brand sponsorship and community participation?

Unfortunately, this Facebook tête-à-tête didn’t offer too many resolutions or satisfactory conclusions other than the impetus to form a council within Tales to address these concerns (read: other people do most of the work). Tuennerman’s husband Paul, whom many cite as the key offender in the incident since it was his quotation she used as the Instagram caption, soon stepped down as a controlling partner and director of Mojo 911, the LLC company that operates TOTC (the non-profit is operated by a separate 501c3 company called New Orleans Culture and Culinary Preservation Society or NOCCPS), but it was also clear this act was symbolic at best. He still had a financial stake. He still could “consult’ from the sidelines.

A Diversity Council was formed as a means for Tuennerman and key members of the cocktail community to discuss racism, sexism, sexual assault and other serious issues that have plagued the industry and the festival in particular and work toward ways to improve them. It has since been reported that only one meeting was ever held, at Tales, and it was amid a sea of cameras as members filed in, including its most high profile member, its president, Bacardí (a major sponsor which holds one of the biggest opening parties of the festival each year) Senior Portfolio Ambassador Colin Asare-Appiah.

On September 21st, without consulting the diversity council or, it seems, anyone else in the community, Ann Tuennerman reinstated her husband to his controlling role in Mojo 911. Following this action was a conference call to the diversity council (it begs the question why even bother calling them at all if this was a remotely okay thing to do?) and Asare-Appiah immediately resigned in what has been reported as a highly emotional state. Others soon followed. It seemed the reason it even took 14 years to address diversity concerns at TOTC was the same reason actions could be taken without its input.

Says Jackie Summers, a member of the council who was in on the call: “The purpose of forming a diversity council after the blackface incident was to provide racial sensitivity guidance, and help develop equity in the industry. For the many people who felt Paul’s stepping down was symbolic, it is equally symbolic that he was reinstated within the year, without soliciting the advice of the very council formed to avoid such errors. It represents both the missed opportunities to right a wrong, and puts the actual value placed on the opinions of the aggrieved into perspective.”

That 2015 Schedule L  990, though

Coinciding with this incident going public was what appeared to be damning evidence gathered by members of the community who had been questioning the non-profit status of the controlling company, especially given the Tuennerman’s very public purchase of a luxury yacht and their extensive worldwide travel during the down months. How could owners of a non-profit afford such luxuries? Enter the Schedule L of the 2015 990 form for Mojo 911, found on public record. It clearly states that both Tuennermans received $844,760 each in “Professional Fees” in the roles of Director and Executive Director. There was an ensuing online uproar and Ann Tuennerman officially resigned from her role as Executive Director, yet at the time, it was unclear, perhaps deliberately, whether the Tuennermans would still have a controlling role from the sidelines. Now it has been reported they are selling their shares in the company and have named Melissa Young as the current president, which begs the question, is it not unusual for outgoing leaders of anything to name their own successor? You can read that resignation statement here and how TOTC later addresses the financial rumors here. Also, here’s an interesting take from spirits writer Chuck Cowdery.

It was later stated by TOTC that what seems like some pretty large profits for a non-profit were channeled back into the organization. Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult to trace this claim. Furthermore, the public statement does not address the TWO lines of “professional fees” listed by the LLC, only one.

I consulted someone in the non-profit sector familiar with similar financial reports. She examined the whole report and mentions that people named as Executive Director change throughout the document, including Ann Tuennerman herself but also others, therefore making it confusing to trace who exactly was the recipient of Professional Fees and where they ultimately went. It’s possible the profits went back into the organization, but also entirely possible they didn’t. Says my source, “It may also be worth noting that the entity named (1) Mojo 911, which received $844,760 in Professional Fees according to Schedule L of the 2015 990, is also noted as Executive Director of the organization… but that could also be the fault of the accountant.” What she does state unequivocally is that it is highly unusual, from any perspective, for an LLC attached to a non-profit to declare 60% of funds as compensation for profit. The most she’d ever seen was $250,000.00, but it is expected that the amount actually be $0. It’s also important to note that it’s unusual for a non-profit to funnel its money into an account that is taxable and then spend it on necessary items for the non-profit.

Business As Usual?

Now, running the world’s biggest cocktail event takes work. Sure. Very hard work. Work that deserves compensation. That’s still an eyebrow-raising amount. Also, considering so many members of the community have been urged to donate their time and money to what they were told was a non-profit. In fact, when submitting forms for seminar proposals, I’m told there is an option to tick a box that the proposed seminar would be donated rather than paid out. There are many instances I have recently learned about where speakers, in lieu of payment for their expertise, months after invoices were sent, were instead requested to consider their fee as a donation. Said LeNell Camacho Ana in a Facebook post which she has granted me permission to quote: “Many of us have worked our asses off for this event over the years only to be disrespected in some way or many, bitched about it among ourselves, but did not collectively speak up… My last year attending [more than 10 years ago], I co-facilitated 3 seminars, hosted a Spirited Dinner, judged [Spirited] Awards, and who even remembers what all. Anne [sic] made many of us beg her for speaker's fees for MONTHS, arguing that it is a non-profit and we should donate our fees although that was not our agreement and many of us took on personal expenses to be there. (Holy hell, I donated a case of Red Hook Rye my first year.) She has been all about herself FOR YEARS under the guise of helping NOLA and us.” (It should be noted Red Hook Rye was a private barrel selection for the now closed LeNell’s Boutique in Brooklyn. At the time it was already considered a rare whiskey, now the remaining bottles in the marketplace sell well into thousands.)

So TOTC made their statement, the Tuennermans both resigned. Why are people still so pissed? It’s over, right? Says Summers, “Trust takes a lifetime to build and only a moment to break. In a political climate where literal Nazis are roaming the streets, with incidences of racial violence on the rise, every act is political. In the same manner racists feel justified by the current administration, so do racists in the hospitality industry feel emboldened by the actions or inactions of industry leaders.”

It might also have something to do with how business at TOTC was conducted in the first place.

Alcohol Professor was a Tales sponsor and hosted a tasting room in 2014. In early 2015, I was surprised to receive a string of threatening emails from Ann Tuennerman herself, coming after me because Adam Levy, who controls all AP finances, had not yet paid the bill he felt he was unjustly charged for - spirits that had been poured in the tasting room showcasing the winners of the New York and Berlin International Spirits Competition. The producers had already ordered and paid for the spirits poured at the tasting room yet TOTC wanted to charge him again for these same spirits even after he showed proof the spirits had come from the producers’ inventories, already paid. Adam in the end paid the bill upon my urging after Tuennerman threatened to put him in collections and I was going to be stripped of press credentials and blacklisted from the festival, even though I applied as a freelancer who writes for more than one publication that covers Tales. I was to be “punished” for someone else’s behavior. I know I’m not the only one who experienced such a shakedown, in fact, I know of far worse instances. That is why Adam would not give his money to sponsor any TOTC event ever again.

How can it feel good and justified to wake up every day and know that part of it is spent conducting business in this manner?

It had already become increasingly noticeable that certain high profile brands, along with many smaller ones, were quickly disappearing from the festival and their names were not even allowed mention. Accusations of holding “unsanctioned events” where TOTC did not directly profit from anything from a private party held by a brand who had already paid to be there to a small breakfast meeting with a member of the media were something that filled the air (and our email boxes) all week. I was informed by a New Orleans bartender that bars were even pressured not to sell drinks made with blacklisted brands in the weeks leading up to, during and right after TOTC.

The costs for smaller brands to hold events was increasing - thousands of dollars for a table in a tasting room, more for co-hosting a Spirited Dinner (cocktail pairing dinners held at different venues throughout the city on Tales Thursday). Though I am told it could be as little as $250 to hold a tasting, that tasting would be in a remote room at the Monteleone for 45 minutes in the early morning hours when most attendees were still sleeping off after parties. The price increases depending on chances of visibility. I am also told by a publicist who represents several small spirits brands that if her clients chose to participate, she felt compelled to warn them they could “...expect at some point to be yelled at by someone in the office.” Drinks writer Camper English examines the ROI of participating at Tales here on SevenFifty Daily.

Guiltless Dissociation

This year Speed Rack, the all-female speed bartending competition founded by Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix to raise funds for breast cancer awareness (read more about it here) that independently takes place in different cities, made a conscious uncoupling from the competitions it holds surrounding TOTC. Initially, following the Zulu Krewe incident, Mix and Marrero made the decision to pull Speed Rack from Tales on Tour in Edinburgh in April, though out of respect for the contenders, sponsors, community and the charities it funds, the event was held as its own separate (and successful) entity at the same time. In a statement, Mix and Marrero say, “Speed Rack is, and always has been, about so much more than providing a platform for women in our community. Speed Rack is about supporting all who have fought to be heard, and those who, despite the many positive changes we've seen in our community and in our culture, still have to fight to create a better world for each generation that follows. We all must be vigilant against the most insidious forms of discrimination and marginalization.” As of last spring, Speed Rack has officially disassociated itself from TOTC moving forward. Adds Marrero, “Due to my  experience with Dames, I was hesitant to have SR anywhere near Tales for fear of IP issues.”

What experience with Dames? This year, the founding members of Dame Hall of Fame - Lynnette Marrero, Meaghan Dorman, Kitty Amann, Misty Kalkofen - were compelled to resign from their roles because it was increasingly apparent the purpose of their mission was becoming lost. The annual luncheon held at and trademarked by TOTC since 2012 was created as a way of sharing a meal with women in the spirits business and discussing the journey they made to contribute to the industry. In the resignation letter drafted by Marrero and Dorman, it is stated that it became clear their vision for the event did not align with the values of TOTC. “We feel it’s important to publicize these struggles to the wider community in the light that there is an emerging pattern around lack of true empathy and understanding around these sensitive issues from TOTC leadership.”

Mix has this to add: “Tales has always been a highly discussed and highly controversial event. There have been a slew of things over the years that had turned my head in disapproval (too many to go into) but then I also had really enjoyed Tales as well, especially years ago. Really, before everything happened with Paul and Ann and the "Blackface Incident" I was already not going to go to Tales last year. I was over it and all of the over-scheduled, over-crowded, seen-it-before events that seemed to just spend hundreds of thousands for no good reason.

Speed Rack was the first, and to my knowledge, only organization to officially disassociate with Tales last year after that incident and I certainly hope to see more brands do so. Silence on the issue is a form of compliance with what's going on, none of which is OK.

I will not be going back to Tales next year or probably ever under its current running. Some people say New Orleans really needs the summer tourism and I really hope we can get business down there in different ways, but I don't know any city in the US that doesn't need to see better numbers in July in their bars.”

There’s so much more that can be said. The reason I am saying it, and others are saying it, is because even though the founding members of the TOTC organization are gone, there is little evidence as of press time that any real changes are going to take place with Tales 2.0 if, as Mix states above, the head office is almost entirely made up from the same staff and the Tuennermans haven't yet sold their shares in the business. What it feels like instead is Tales 1.1. What is shamefully and regrettably misunderstood by them and others supporting them is the value in discussing what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. The bar community is founded on hospitality, serving the people, after all. A public call for sponsorship and share-buying was made by the head office, days ahead of “suggestion box” type tweets. What about the bar industry, past speakers, brands or members of the media? Is there any real desire to work with them to build a festival built on goodwill and empathy? It is vital that there be a true reckoning with issues ranging from finance to public safety to diversity and content. Changes we can all agree upon must be made so we are inspired to return and there is once again a value in attending both in investment and in the spirit of upholding the drinks industry as a whole. Not to mention, it just isn’t fun. The fine city of New Orleans deserves better and so do we as a drinks community. Says Leo DeGroff, “I’d like to continue supporting the city somehow another 15 years. If something like Gary’s [Regan’s] Cocktails in the Country could come up in its place, I’d be happy to support it.”

Meanwhile, Bar Convent Berlin comes to Brooklyn next June, just in time for something new. A bit to ponder - perhaps it will serve as a good example for something fresh in New Orleans 2019?

UPDATE: As of February 21, Tales of the Cocktail has been sold to the Solomon Group and New Orleans bar owner Neal Bodenheimer of Cure and Cane & Table, with Caroline Nabors Rosen named as executive director, with the intention to operate as a fully non-profit organization. We hope the new organization can work with the community to implement changes in all departments to better serve the community.