Second Acts: Cocktail Queen

Ann Tuennerman once ran a dog-biscuit bakery. Now her conference on cocktails attracts thousands of bartenders and revelers every year 

by Amy Zavatto
ann tuennerman leaning against a bar image
Tuennerman borrowed $125,000 and used all her savings, including her 401(k), to relaunch Tales of the Cocktail in 2006.
Photograph: Rush Jagoe

By the time she sold Three Dog Bakery three years later, Tuen-ner-man was brewing a new idea. Inspired by a coffee-table book about historical New Orleans bars, Obituary Cocktail, by local photographer Kerri McCaffety, Tuenner-man came up with the concept of hosting cocktail-based walking tours. “So many famous spirits and cocktails were invented here,” she says, “and there are stories tied to them.” She teamed up with Gray Line tours, hired Joe Gendusa, a tour guide with a reputation as a great storyteller, and started the business in 2002.Over the next year, 200 to 300 tourists a month paid $24 to sip cocktails and hear stories about classic drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Sazerac and visitthe city’s glorious watering holes: Napoleon House, the Monteleone’s Carousel Bar and Ar-naud’s French 75 Bar. The events were so successful that they sparked yet another idea: What if the tours became part of an annual gathering that celebrated spirits, cocktails and bartenders from around the world and that educated professionals and cocktail enthusiasts about industry trends and crafting recipes? With classic cocktails getting a dust-off in popular culture and the word mixologist entering the lexicon, Tuennerman felt the time was right to launch Tales of the Cocktail.

“I cold-called the top 10 mixologists in the country,” she says. She persuaded them all to come and also convinced a liquor company, Southern Comfort, to sponsor the conference for $20,000, enough to reserve space in the Hotel Monteleone and pay for airfare and rooms for her star mixologists.

That first year, about 200 attendees were given free entrance to the one-day event. “Everybody had a great time, and it was small, but they all said, ‘This is terrific! You need to do this again!’ ” says Tuennerman. “And I said, ‘OK, great. We will!’ ”

Each year the conference got bigger. But as it started to stretch beyond the ballrooms and Carousel Bar of the Monteleone, Tuennerman’s decade-plus first marriage began to slip. “In June 2004, my husband told me he was done,” she says. “Despite the fact that I had been the breadwinner for some of that time, I was scared.” She responded by taking action: She bought her first house on her own—a little fixer-upper in the Lakeview neighborhood—and got to work making it a home.

Then Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans on August 29, 2005, nine days after the conclusion of the fifth Tales conference. Tuennerman’s house survived, but flooding left it uninhabitable. Through her mixologist contacts, she landed a three-month marketing gig in New York City, working for a coffee company. She rented an apartment there and tried to rebuild her life. “I’d go to the bank or the cell phone store and wouldn’t be able to do this or that because I’d lost all my documentation,” she says. “I’d wind up having a meltdown in public.” She had her New Orleans house gutted and planned to rebuild when she returned. But her dream job—Tales—appeared to be over. The sponsor that had supported the conference since its inception pulled out. “I had a serious cry—not the little-tears-down-your-face kind but the what-are-you-going-to-do panicked kind,” says Tuennerman. “And then I thought, Well, we’re just going to make it happen.”

When she returned to New Orleans on January 1, 2006, the first thing she did was move the event up a month so it wouldn’t coincide with the anniversary of Katrina. She also changed the business model: Tales would now charge an entry fee. She found several sponsors, and she completed the paperwork to turn Tales into a nonprofit organization whose mission would include preserving New Orleans’s unique drinking and dining culture and hosting educational programs for bartenders.

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