One of the perks of the annual Tales of the Cocktail event is the parties. Big name brands like Pernod Ricard, William Grant and Bacardi throw epic events every year in a race to be the most fun and memorable. Yet, year after year it’s inevitably the Bar Fight Club that ends up capturing much of the attention.
The event started six years ago with spirits pro Steve Olson at the helm (it was known as the Bar Room Brawl back then), as a way to showcase the talents of bars around the country in a single competition. The goal was to see who could best re-create the look and feel of their bar and serve the most delicious cocktails of the party.
Luckily, no fists actually fly in order for a bar to take home a win. Instead, attendees vote for a People’s Choice winner, and each team has 15 minutes to present three cocktails to the all-star judges lineup, featuring Charles Joly, Tony Abou-Ganim, Jackson Cannon and Bridget Albert. Bars are scored on teamwork, presentation and quality.
When The 86 Company (and co-sponsors Del Maguey Mezcal) took over the event three years ago, things got even rowdier, partner Simon Ford says. “We wanted to bring back the raw edge to a cocktail competition and this was a perfect chance to do so.”
The team underestimated how quickly the event would skyrocket in popularity. The 86 Co. was a fledging spirits brand at the time, so they opted for a mid-sized venue, a space that immediately proved too small. “Close to 2,000 people showed up that night, and we couldn’t get them all into the party, which broke my heart,” Ford says. “The bartenders from Employees Only, several friends and the team from The 86 Co. were quick to do their best to bring the party outside.”
They hired a couple of musicians to play to the gathering crowd and brought beer and punch from inside to the masses. “We took all of the t-shirts that we planned to give the people that attended the party were given to the people outside instead. Everyone from The 86 Co. left their own party to be outside with the people who couldn’t get in.”
This spirit of inclusion is one of the main reasons why the event is an annual highlight. The creativity and drive of the bartenders holds center stage, while the typical “brand experience” takes a backseat. “We keep it simple,” Ford says. “We just want people to have good drinks and enjoy great music at a fun party. Bonus if there’s no line at the door or the bathroom.”
The other perk? Seeing how far each team goes to recreate the look and feel of their bar. Every year, the stakes feel higher. Last year, Harvard & Stone brought a carpenter with them to construct a replica of the Hollywood bar, while Herbs and Rye brought confetti cannons and San Francisco’s Trick Dog (the crowned champions) served sherry out of a suspended watermelon keg. Whimsy and playful trash-talking abound as guests mingle from bar to bar, making a truly memorable experience.
This year’s lineup is one for the books, thanks to the new addition of a handful of international bars. With hundreds of places around the country (and beyond) expressing interest in participating, the selection process can be a trying task. “Year over year it’s truly overwhelming to see the number and caliber of bars that want to compete,” Ford says. “We like to showcase bars that do things uniquely and differently, because Tales of the Cocktail is a global stage and for many people who attend this is their only chance to see some of these bars, let alone under one roof.”
In that spirit, this year we’re most excited to see what kinds of tricks the stellar lineup pulls. The 86 Company crew feels the same way. “To see The Aviary’s unique service, White Lyan’s no-ice, no-citrus drinks execution, The Pastry War and Candelaria with their love for all things agave and the good old-fashioned party bars of Extra Fancy and Black Pearl rounded out with ABV, one of the best new bars in the country? To say we’re excited is a massive understatement,” Ford says.