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By Bryan Dias, NOLADrinks

New OrleansFor a city that knows how to do drink and food festivals, with one, seemingly, happening every week, this past weekend may have been one of the biggest. No less than three events took place, all of which were first-timers in town, beginning last Thursday with Top Taco New Orleans. Following that was the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, almost surprising we hadn’t had one of those before, on Friday and Saturday. The icing on the cake, or should I say, garnish on the drink was The Bloody Mary Festival on Sunday afternoon.

With all that drink (and food) to take in, it was certainly a palate’s delight. Though, it was also a challenge to cover it all! Bravely, we stepped up. Top Taco New Orleans, which took place at Spanish Plaza, was a tremendous success and a complete sell-out. The event raised over $20,000 for the terrific organization, One Heart NOLA, that helps foster children and families in need.

Shane Finkelstein, proprietor of Elmwood’s Nacho Mama’s, organized the event and worked for months to pull it all together. He had some help from friends who started the concept in Denver a couple years ago and they were on-hand to help out.

Top Taco NOLA featured live music, agave distillate (Tequila and Mezcal) based cocktails, and, of course, tacos. It was also a competition where both judges and attendees selected the winning drinks and tacos. The categories, for which there were judges’ selections and people’s choice picks, were traditional taco, creative taco, traditional margarita, and creative cocktail.

Over 40 restaurants, some were paired with bars while others did it themselves, participated. In many instances, brands of Tequila and Mezcal served as sponsors and suppliers. The food and drink presentation as well as the booths themselves, were terrific. Many had music, ornate décor, and interesting characters providing hospitality. The event also utilized the Creole Queen riverboat as a VIP area and there was also a stage featuring live music all evening long.

I had the distinct pleasure of serving as one of the cocktail judges for the event and was surprised at the quality drink and food across the board. Many restaurants were ones you might expect, meaning Mexican and Latin cuisine focused spots, such as Araña, Juan’s Flying Burrito, and Mizado. Others, were, perhaps, more surprising – Vincent’s, Patois, and Bayou Burger. There were too many highlights to list. But, you can see the winners here.

Up next in the trio of NOLA festival newbies was the New Orleans Bourbon Festival. This was a multi-day event that actually kicked-off on Thursday with various Bourbon paired dinners taking place around town. The event, which concluded on Sunday with an awards brunch, was organized by serious Bourbon enthusiast, Tracy Napolitano. He is a well-connected guy in the Bourbon world and it showed with the folks and brands he pulled in to participate. The New Orleans Bourbon Festival also had a charitable component with proceeds benefiting St. Michael Special School.

The heart of the event was a two-night grand tasting on Friday and Saturday evenings that took place at the Sugar Mill across from the Morial Convention Center. The tastings featured numerous Bourbon producers ranging from the big guys – Heaven Hill, Jim Beam – to small, craft producers such as Wilderness Trail Distilling and Boone County Distilling. For a list of the bevy of Bourbons, check here.

The event was tastefully done and also featured food and live music. A very nice part of the tasting events was that they were not too crowded. It created an opportunity to chat with the producers, brand ambassadors, and others on-hand while sipping some truly excellent Bourbon selections. Many folks brought out the “good stuff” giving us a chance to taste many things we hadn’t before (again, too many to list).

Saturday during the day presented another highlight of the event and something that made it more unique – a full slate of educational seminars. This is where many of the industry’s heavy hitters came out (though most were also milling around the tastings, too.) Famed producers such as Fred Booker Noe III and Eddie Russell led seminars. The slate of learning opportunities was impressive.

I attended three of these and all were very informative. First was a “State of the Industry” talk led by noted author and blogger, Chuck Condrey. Next up was a “Women in Bourbon” panel discussion with Master Taster and author, Peggy Noe Stevens; “The Bourbon Babe” and journalist, Carla Carlton; and author and professor, Susan Reigler.

The learning for me wrapped up with a chat on “Bourbon’s New Orleans Connection” with historian and author, Michael Veach. This last one was particularly intriguing with its local angle and, perhaps, startling revelations such as the name “Bourbon” may actually derive from Bourbon Street here in NOLA as opposed to the long-purported story that it comes from Kentucky’s Bourbon County! More on that down the road…

Capping off the weekend’s “festing” was Sunday’s Bloody Mary Festival. This sold-out happening took place at famed music venue, The Howlin’ Wolf. If you’re into “Bloodys” – traditional and creative – this was the event for you! The garnishes alone were something to behold, ranging from the solid (it’s only cliché because it works!) okra and celery to kimchi pickled carrots.

This event was put on by the Bloody Mary Festival group that puts on similar events around the country. Since this iteration featured 12 local spots, it obviously had a clear NOLA flair. The range of styles – from presentation, to weight of the drink, and the mixers used – was impressive. You might think, “how many Bloody Marys do I need to taste?” Well, all 12 worked quite well for us and, it seemed, everyone in attendance.

This event also featured live music and some non-Bloody offerings including confections, ginger beer, and kombucha. Attendees were broken up into two two-hour groups where you could roam from table-to-table sampling the cocktails, read the ingredients, and chat with the folks behind the Bloody Marys. By going about it this way, it made it pretty easy to taste them all in a lively, yet not-too-crowded environment. A couple hours was more than enough to get through them all and discuss favorites.

The event was also judged by a group of industry folks who selected both traditional and original recipe entrants. Attendees also got to weigh-in with a People’s Choice selection. Each category named a winner and runners-up. For a list of winners, see this post here.

In our view, there wasn’t a “dog in the bunch.” Some favorites were Sylvain with their somewhat lighter and very fresh mix along with the aforementioned kimchi pickled carrot garnish, Bar Tonique with their bacon-infused option, and Mid-City Yacht Club in the original recipe category that was, simply, just a great cocktail. Overall winner, Ruby Slipper Café came away with both the People’s Choice award and was the top judges’ selection in the traditional category, as well.

All three of these first-time-in-NOLA events were great successes. Sure, they probably had some bugs here and there but these were minor in scope and, most likely, will be sorted for next year’s versions. On that front, given the attendance and reception each of these events received, it’s hard to imagine that any of them will be “one-and-done.” I hope that’s the case – we’ll be back!

~ Bryan Dias, NOLADrinks

“For a city that knows how to do drink and food festivals, with one, seemingly, happening every week, this past weekend may have been one of the biggest.”