Snoop Dogg, Cocktails, and Wrestling Matches: The Big Business of Booze Conferences

Maxime Belfand and Davide Segat serving Elyx cocktails at House of Elyx at Tales of the Cocktail.
Maxime Belfand and Davide Segat serving Elyx cocktails at House of Elyx at Tales of the Cocktail.Phil Hudghton

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By Mickey Lyons

Liquor sales are outpacing beer and wine sales globally, in large part due to the surge in cocktails and small-batch distillers. And if the cocktail is king, then its capital city must be New Orleans — or at least it is for one week every summer, when 17,000 bartenders, liquor producers, and drinks enthusiasts converge for the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference.

Much like any industry conference, Tales hosts seminars, demonstrations, and plenty of networking opportunities. But most trade shows don’t host celebrity events in dive bars or put on luchador matches. And very few would bring in Snoop Dogg to perform a private show for 850 people. When the business is booze, though, influencers and hopefuls use creative events and lavish tastings in the hopes of putting their products in the right hands.

Maxime Belfand and Davide Segat serving Elyx cocktails at House of Elyx at Tales of the Cocktail.Phil Hudghton

For larger liquor houses such as Absolut, Bacardi, and Jaegermeister, hosting massive concerts with scores of free beverages is a tactical move designed to remind bar owners about products they’re familiar with. But for many Tales attendees, the networking matters more. Maria Grau and Fritz Kuckuck own Spiritus Mundi, a small New Zealand-based importer. They traveled to Tales on a tight budget to learn about the newest trends in distilling and bottling. For Grau, “the U.S. is the benchmark in craft spirits right now,” so the week is about meeting people both in and outside of the official events.

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It’s not easy, though, to make a measurable impact, as Andie Ferman of St. George Spirits in California has found in her eight years attending the conference. In the past, St. George has hosted seminars and tasting parties to promote their brand but decided to forego that this year. Instead, Ferman brought four coworkers to the conference, noting that "human connection is absolutely key.” Each year, she makes sure to reach out to everyone whom she met at the event in the following weeks and months. That, she finds, is where “the stone in the pond becomes the ripple effect,” as bar managers order her products and she can begin to gauge the real sales created by all those exchanged business cards.

Lola Gegovic and Gerry Graham of Lot 40 agree. The Canadian whisky hosted two events at the conference: a “Detroit vs Chicago” bartender bowling party, and a “Dynamic Duo” session at Tujague’s restaurant, pairing cocktail historian David Wondrich with legendary New Orleans bartender Paul Gustings, to serve Lot 40 cocktails.

“There are millions of parties here in New Orleans,” said Gegovic, “so we’re focusing on creating a memorable experience for our friends in the industry.” These more intimate events, Graham believes, are the best way to drive buyers to their product, especially since his company's budget is "less than 5 percent of some of the major brands," he told NBC News.

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Some of the larger brands also focused their marketing efforts on the intimate rather than the flashy. Absolut created the House of Elyx for invite-only guests, transforming the already-opulent Latrobe House into a decadent, copper-filled oasis. Guests were treated to customized copper jewelry by Boston artist Sasha Walsh and strolled the mansion while sipping cocktails from massive copper goblets in whimsical shapes. They were offered full meal service, along with complimentary hair and makeup styling.

On the other end of the spectrum, Diageo’s Dogg House concert handed out hundreds of drinks from Bulleit Bourbon in tin cans, Don Julio Tequila in IV bags, and Tanqueray, for headliner Snoop Dogg’s ubiquitous gin and juice. Attendees from Singapore to Sandusky let loose and danced wildly, proudly hoisting branded souvenir mugs. From the serene to the silly, the events at Tales of the Cocktail are sure to influence what we drink and how we drink it in the years to come.