If you want to be a truly dedicated patron of the alcoholic arts, you’ll have to travel. Great spirits, great drinks and the great people who make them can be found in every corner of this country, and today there is an array of amazing events celebrating booze from coast to coast. Here’s my top 10 list of festivals, parties and events any self-respecting cocktail fan should make it to in the coming year.
PARIS OF THE PLAINS COCKTAIL FESTIVAL
Sept. 10-13, 2015, Kansas City, Mo.
Founded by a trio of top local bartenders and now coming up on its fourth edition, Paris of the Plains turns KC into the center of the drinks universe for a week each fall. It’s got all the expected components of a great cocktail festival—seminars on everything from the science of barrel-aging to Spanish wines and how to use them in cocktails; parties like a Crown Royal-sponsored barbecue feast; and a mixological throwdown between four teams of Midwestern bartenders. In addition to drinks, the festival supports the local music scene, with nightly concerts in a variety of genres. It’s also got the most bang for your buck: An all-access pass costs just $228 and gets you into all the seminars, parties and competitions for all four days.
PORTLAND COCKTAIL WEEK
Oct. 17-23, 2015, Portland, Ore.
If you are (or want to be) a bartender, you can’t miss Portland Cocktail Week. The annual event is like a family reunion for mixologists, with talent from all over the country descending upon the City of Roses. This event does a fantastic job of striking a balance between education—days are packed with hands-on classes in different “majors” ranging from advanced cocktail-making to the business of running a bar—and fun—evenings feature nonstop parties, dinners, indoor-soccer tourneys and more. Portland Cocktail Week is mostly for pros only, as working bartenders get to attend for free, but mere enthusiasts can apply for a festival pass to get into all the “after school activities” and sit in on seminars when there’s room.
SAN ANTONIO COCKTAIL CONFERENCE
Jan. 14-17, 2016, San Antonio
Attend the San Antonio Cocktail Conference to do good by drinking: 100 percent of the profits for this Texas throwdown go to a group of charities benefitting children in need. It was the first event of its kind in the Lone Star State, but it attracts some pretty amazing talent. The 2016 schedule is still in the works, but this year’s edition included a talk on the appeal of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon by legendary distiller Dave Pickerell, a guide to creating your own signature cocktail with top bartender Jonathan Pogash, a decadent feast pairing oysters with Champagne and sherry, and more.
GOLDEN STATE OF COCKTAILS
Jan. 24-26, 2016, Los Angeles What started three years ago as a gathering of mostly Southern California bartenders has blossomed into an event of national interest, attracting such legendary names as David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff and Lynnette Marrero in 2015. The focus here is also on education, with daytime events open only to bartenders and others in the hospitality industry, though there are plenty of parties, bar crawls and dinners open to the public after the sun goes down. And no matter where in California you want to go, Golden State of Cocktails can help: There are “preview” events set for San Francisco this October and San Diego this December leading up to the main event in LA in January.
Feb. 23-27, 2016, Louisville, Ky.
Kentucky is the capital of the bourbon world, and for a week every February, Louisville’s Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts becomes its beating heart. If you want to meet the maker of your favorite American whiskey, you probably can here, with sessions featuring loads of master distillers telling their stories and mingling with fans. The tasting room here is a sight to behold, especially if you can get your hands on a VIP ticket to access the extra-special bottles of the really good stuff.
APRÈS SKI COCKTAIL CLASSIC
March 3-6, 2016, Aspen, Colo.
After a day on the slopes, there’s nothing better than a mug of something warm and alcoholic, and this is a festival dedicated entirely to hot cocktails and other post-skiing libations. There are sponsored Hot Toddies each morning, with tasting rooms, seminars, cocktail dinners and parties filling up the rest of the day. (You can actually ski at this festival, but you certainly don’t have to.) The highlight of the event is The Great Après Ski Pub Crawl, a raucous tour of Aspen’s top bars, preceded by a set of boozy pre-crawl brunches.
MIAMI RUM RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL
April 15-17, 2016, Miami Where better to learn about rum than the beachy paradise that is Miami? The centerpiece of this annual bash is the three-day Grand Tasting, featuring more than 200 rums from both the nearby Caribbean and around the world, representing more than 30 countries. There are also expert-led classes, of course, along with a set of Island Lifestyle exhibits offering art, tiki gear and more. The festival also just happens to coincide with Miami Cocktail Week, which organizes a VIP party at a different local bar every evening.
Spring 2016, Denver
DSTILL is the college radio station of booze festivals, celebrating the small, independent producers who push the industry in its most interesting directions. Its showcase tasting features dozens of top craft spirits brands, plus cocktails made from them by Colorado’s finest bartenders. The 2015 edition also included a concert from indie singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff; a high-powered panel of women distillers, bartenders and chefs; and a workshop on American whiskey starring six craft distillers.
June 8-12, 2016, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
From bar takeovers by the likes of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Martin Cate, to an expo of Easter Island head mugs and midcentury furniture, The Hukilau is the ultimate glorification of tiki. Its headquarters is the magnificent Mai-Kai, a tropical bar, restaurant and music venue that’ll be celebrating its 60th anniversary during the 2016 event. The line-up won’t be announced until October, but there are bound to be lots of surprises: This summer’s Hukilau featured a three-hour cruise (get it?) hosted by Dawn Wells, AKA Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.
TALES OF THE COCKTAIL
July 20-24, 2016, New Orleans
If you can only make it on one big booze trip per year, Tales should be tops on your list. It crams so much activity into five days that you can’t possibly make it to everything you want to see. There are hundreds of seminars and classes, dozens of tasting rooms and thousands of the best bartenders, distillers, authors and other experts in the business. Despite the constant, sweltering heat of New Orleans in the summer, it’s an unending fete from early in the morning until…early the next morning, featuring unforgettable parties, incredible spirits dinners and lots, lots more.
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.
IF YOU CAN’T MAKE IT TO A FESTIVAL, GET TO A GOOD BAR