Monday, July 30, 2012

The feeling of punch-drunk absurdity that sometimes overwhelms my senses at the Tales of the Cocktail convention came on most strongly this year when I interviewed the dignified Count Branca, owner of Fernet Branca, and actor Ted Lange, the "Love Boat" star and author of one of television's most famous depictions of a bartender, on the same morning. It was a dizzying trip from high to low culture. Both men couldn't have been nicer, and Lange, to my surprise, knew a fair share about the bartending art. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find out what the man who was Isaac liked to drinks. Having been flown in by Disaronno, he was duty bound to declare the liquor he favorite tipple.

Here is my account of the two meetings in the Times:

Cocktail Convention Cruises Into Extreme Waters

By Robert Simonson
NEW ORLEANS — Tales of the Cocktail, the annual New Orleans convention where serious drinkers talk seriously about drinking for five continuous days, is an event of extremes. The stern-browed people you see holding forth about the many expressions and applications of anise-flavors liquors in the morning may be the same ones you see sipping whiskey-flavors sno-cones by theHotel Monteleone rooftop pool in the afternoon, and then behaving spectacularly badly at the Olde Absinthe House on Bourbon Street at 1 a.m.
Tales, which concluded on Sunday night, is an event where both Count Edoardo Branca, a six-generation member of the the Italian family that owns the cultish digestif Fernet Branca, and Ted Lange (above, far right), who played Isaac the Bartender on “The Love Boat,” are both welcome, and both accorded a certain kind of respect as figures of some distinction. The adulation of the count, however, comes from mixologists, who admire the family’s dram to the point of fetishization. (The Branca camp estimated that 10 bartenders had shown them their Fernet tattoos.)

“The bartenders here teach me other ways to drink Fernet Branca,” said the count, who is as handsome and dapper as you expect a young Italian count to be. “I drink it neat. But the bartenders say, ‘O.K., now drink this.’ I have a cocktail and think, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is amazing.’ ” The formula, which has remained the same since 1845, is a well-protected secret, known to only a few. So, is the count one of them? “Actually, not yet,” he said. “I have to grow up a little.”

There were few bartenders at the Disaronno tasting event that featured Mr. Lange, but there were plenty of excited civilians, many lined up to take a photo with the actor, who was wearing a “Love Boat” T-shirt bearing the likeness of his younger self. Since that show ended, Mr. Lange has kept up with both the cruise and cocktail businesses, while pursuing a career as a playwright on the side. (His latest, “Lady Patriot,” opens at Hudson Backstage Theatre in Los Angeles in September.)
He knows a little bit about serving a drink, too. “If you watch the first season of ‘Love Boat,’ you can tell I know very little about drinks,” he said. “Then I went to bartending school before the start of the second season, so I could have some authenticity. So I learned how to peel a lemon and free pour and about napkins going in front of the customer.”
Isaac was way ahead of the mixology curve in one particular way. The creators of the show suggested that Mr. Lange shave his signature mustache, reasoning that someone in the food services industry would not have facial hair, but Mr. Lange held firm. Today, a mixologist without a beard or muttonchops is the exception.
The bartenders at Employees Only certainly use up their share of mustache wax. The Greenwich Village bar, which last year won a Spirited Award (Tales’s annual industry awards) as World’s Best Cocktail Bar, did a pop-up version of itself in the French Quarter bar One Eyed Jacks. There were music, dancing and about a million people. In one corner was a tattoo artist. If you were willing, he would give you an impromptu tattoo in the shape of the Employees Only logo. At least one person took him up on it.

In this crowd, taking on another tattoo isn’t asking much. It’s like slapping another bumper sticker on your car’s rear fender.

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