In the mid-nineteenth century, the French Quarter was a working-class neighborhood, filled with immigrants who sold their wares at the French Market. Work started before dawn and ended midday when the market closed. Back then, your main meal was taken around 2 p.m, which is a long time to wait to eat when your previous refreshment was breakfast before sunrise. A savvy butcher’s wife, Elizabeth Kettering Begue, decided to start offering full meals to the hungry workers when their shift ended, and in doing so, she created the concept of brunch. In 1863, she opened her restaurant in what is now Tujague’s and called it Begue’s. In 1865, the Tujague family opened a restaurant just a few doors down from the formidable Madame Begue. After her death in the early twentieth century, they bought the property from her daughter and moved their restaurant into its current spot. So while the restaurant has been in business for 160 years, it has done so in two different locations.
A bartender pours a milk punch at Tujagues Ann Tunnerman worked in New Orleans radio and television marketing for much of her professional life, but she found her passion when she created a cocktail tour of the French Quarter in 2001. To celebrate the first anniversary of her business, she invited notable cocktail aficionados to come and speak about cocktail history and dubbed the event Tales of the Cocktail. People had such a good time, they asked her to do it again. Since then, Tales (as locals call it) has grown to be one of the largest spirits industry conferences in the United States, bringing bartenders, tastemakers and brand representatives to New Orleans each summer. What started as an afternoon affair has become a weeklong celebration of the power of spirits.
Ann’s original goal may have been to highlight the importance of the New Orleans cocktail scene, but the effects of Tales exceed merely honoring the city’s drinking legacy. The economic impact of the event on New Orleans is considerable. It lures thousands of participants and has generated millions of dollars, both of which are especially valued coming in the summer, when tourism is slow. But more importantly, Tales has directly and indirectly changed drinking in New Orleans.
As Neal Bodenheimer, proprietor of Cure, observed, “I don’t think Cure could exist without Ann. I wouldn’t have found so many like-minded people to staff the bar if she hadn’t stirred up the community.” Local bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg notes that Tales is a resource for bartenders across the country who find out what folks are up to in other regions. “We learn about cool products, new techniques, how to save space behind the bar,” she says. “Without Tales, you wouldn’t have these kinds of cocktail programs in other cities.”
Ann is just as proud of her impact on the national scene as she is of her local achievements. Tales has facilitated the launch of two cocktail-based companies: El Guapo Bitters and Cocktail & Sons Syrups. Ann remembers that when she first approached El Guapo owner Scot Mattox about selling his bitters at the Tales Bitters Market, he was surprised. Though he had been making his own bitters for some time, it had never even occurred to him to turn it into a business. Now he sells his products through Amazon and distributes them across the globe. Max Messier received similar encouragement for his line of cocktail syrups. Ann is enthusiastic about both of these brands not only do their flavors reflect southern Louisiana, both companies are based here. In the past they might have had to leave the state to succeed, but not anymore. Ann feels that Tales has helped lay the groundwork in this town to support these kinds of businesses and that it gives locals an international market in which to pitch their spirits products. As she says, “I always want Tales of the Cocktail to be a bloodline back to New Orleans. When I started I didn’t intend to change the industry; I just wanted people to understand our stories.”
Ann has also tried to give back to the industry. Tales of the Cocktail is actually a nonprofit, and it has supported bartenders with tuition reimbursements for classes that help them run their business as well as offering a medical fund if someone needs a hand with bills or support while recovering from an injury. “People don’t realize that we are paying it forward, being good to the people who are good to us,” Ann says. “I like being able to help people out.”
Tales of the Cocktail is entering its fourteenth year and has expanded its reach with traveling conferences around the world. But at its core, it is still a locally created event. Ann hopes it becomes her legacy, her gift, to the city.
Tujague’s bar is the oldest stand-up bar in New Orleans, and no, that doesn’t mean they do comedy there. In the past, many bars did not offer seating, instead running a brass rail under the bar on which men could rest a foot. Once you know that is how bars used to be built, you start to see that style everywhere. You can tell if a wooden bar was built during that era because there’s no lip for a stool to scoot under. Stand-up bars tended to cater to a more working-class patron who didn’t need fancy seats. The bar here is actually older than the restaurant, brought over from France to New Orleans in 1856 and ensconced in the building years later. Its polished sheen is only exceeded by the shine of the mirror behind the bar.
Tujague’s still retains its roots as a place where men packed into have a few drinks after a long day, and though there are two tables where you can sit, this is still a bar where most folks stand to drink. Bartender Richard Odell enjoys working behind the stick at a place without stools. When people sit, he notes, they are planted and often prevent others from accessing him If everyone is standing, there is an easy give and take, and people don’t feel like they have their own special spot they have to protect.
It’s good to have this method of crowd control in place. Tujague’s receives a steady stream of drinkers, some who have stopped in because of its storied past, others merely because it’s the closest door that’s open. One minute Odell can be pouring a whiskey and Coke, another he can be mixing up the bar’s signature drink, the Grasshopper. If you do order one, make sure to toast the portrait of the man in the white linen suit who surveys the bar. That’s Philbert Guichet, the man who invented the drink. Once you’ve tried the Grasshopper, it’s time to move onto other classics. Though Odell says he’s equally happy to make a highball as he is to make something more complicated, you owe it to yourself to order one of the standards here and place your foot where countless men and women have rested theirs while they raised their glasses to a long day’s work, done well and now, done.
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