The 7 Best Cocktail Festivals Around the Country
Lots of people love to drink when they travel, but now some are traveling to drink
Remember the sour, artificial taste of Apple Pucker? Shudder. Neon-blue drinks? Being served a “martini” that was actually a chocolate syrup–filled concoction too sweet for a five-year-old’s palate?
Oh man…the 1980s, ’90s and very early aughts were not our best decades for drinking.
Thankfully, those days are long gone. Today’s mixologists are true cocktail connoisseurs, deeply versed in not only the flavors and variations of spirits, but their history and cultural significance as well. Not only are they highly knowledgeable, but they also make a mean drink. From bourbon lounges to tiki havens, scores of bars and restaurants are now serving thoughtfully composed cocktails that range from traditional to eclectic.
These spirit savants are also taking their craft to the masses at cocktail-centric celebrations around the country. These festivals are a chance to gain some serious knowledge—from the histories of drinks to how to run a bar—but they also offer memorable experiences, from incredible meals, pool parties, and barbecues to walking tours and private tastings.
If you like to drink when you travel, maybe it is time you travel to drink. Here are some of the best cocktail events in the year to come:
Where: San Francisco
When: August 20-23, 2015
San Francisco is the birthplace of the Pisco Punch and the Mai Tai (okay, technically that’s Oakland, but close enough), and the bartenders here are among the best in the world. If your home mixology game needs a boost, consider buying a ticket to the Classic Cocktail A-Game: The Art, Stories, and Up-The-Sleeve Tricks presented by Sipsmith Gin. The seminar will be led by great bartenders who can answer questions and talk through trends and techniques, not to mention mix up something delicious. Eat Drink SF also features tastings of more than 70 brands, including dozens of interesting boutique labels, nightly parties, and cooking demos. This year, there’s also a Cheese Monger’s Cave. We don’t know what that is, but we assume it’s a giant cave filled with cheese (a.k.a. paradise).
Where: Kansas City, MO
When: September 10-13, 2015
Nicknamed POP Fest, this event raises a glass to both the Midwest's currently exploding cocktail scene, and the history of its cocktail, food, and music culture since the Jazz Era. Local bartenders Doug Frost, Ryan Maybee, and Brandon Cummins founded the festival, and the main event—the Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition—has evolved into an up-close-and-personal showcase of the country’s most creative mixologists. Participants at POP Fest will enjoy four days of educational seminars by world experts, after-hours jazz and music parties, a Crown Royal BBQ Bash, and a high-energy, multi-city cocktail smackdown.
Where: San Antonio, TX
When: January 14-17, 2016
Now in its fourth year, the San Antonio Cocktail Conference has been named one of Fodor’s Travel’s top three drinks festivals to attend. Expect 40+ chefs, incredible musical acts, seminars, tasting suites, and, of course, parties featuring cocktails from the country’s best mixologists. A documentary will premiere this year about women in cocktail culture, and the festivities will include the annual Stroll on Houston Street, an outdoor party that covers two blocks in downtown San Antonio. Guests can sip drinks from nine venues with live music, including an 18-piece orchestra. Tickets range from $45 to $325.
Where: Louisville, KY
When: February 26 and 27, 2016
In its fourth year, this event is targeted at hard-core bourbon enthusiasts. Tickets range from $135 to the $215 VIP package, which we strongly suggest whiskey lovers buy as it includes all events, including Saturday’s bourbon tastings at which you can meet the distillers, eat delicious dishes paired with rare whiskeys, and take home specialty foods that feature bourbon.
Where: Miami, FL
The first Miami Rum Renaissance Festival was held in 2009 at the Shore Club Resort on Miami Beach, and it attracted just over 1,000 people for a two-day, poolside tasting event. The festival is now the largest gathering of rum producers, experts, professionals, and consumers in the world, with more than 13,000 attendees annually. For 2016, the organizers have obtained a special waiver from the government to bring in rum products from all over the world—even those without approval for distribution in the U.S. market. It’s Miami, so expect late-night pool parties, sun, sand, and the best daiquiris you’re ever going to have. Tickets are an affordable $50 a day or $100 for a three-day pass.
Where: Aspen, CO
When: June 17-19, 2016
A longstanding showcase for haute cuisine, rising chefs, and vintners from around the globe, this elite soirée in the mountains has evolved to include mixology and cocktails. It’s not cheap. The weekend ticket will cost you more than $1,300, not including Aspen’s high-altitude hotel rates and the flight costs. However, there are extreme perks, including entry into the Grand Tasting Pavilion, which features over 300 epicurean and lifestyle brands, and a late-night Southern brunch with Gail Simmons and country singer Kasey Musgraves. The full program will be announced in December.
Where: New Orleans
When: July 2016
The mothership of cocktail-focused gatherings, this non-profit event takes place every July for a full five days. Though it draws largely industry attendees (bartenders, brand reps, journalists, etc.), it also offers great opportunities for the everyday enthusiast. We suggest the party, a fundraising barbecue hosted by a group of philanthropy-loving bartenders called the Bon Vivantsin Washington Square Park, complete with amazing food and craft-cocktail punches served from giant trashcans. It’s somehow classy and hilariously rowdy at the same time, plus the group has raised more than $140,000 for needy causes. Tales of the Cocktail also hosts smaller, annual events in other months, like Tales of the Toddy in winter and a Daiquiri Fest that’s launching in August/September 2016.
More good reads from T+L:
• Best Whiskey Bars in America
• Savory Drinks Are Flavoring London’s Cocktail Scene
• 12 Wine Destinations to Add to Your Bucket List