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

In the midst of it all, friends introduced her to Paul Tuennerman. A blue-eyed bachelor from Florida who worked as an executive in the food industry, he was immediately smitten. “I was 45 and driving around in my Italian sports car,” Paul says. “I wasn’t looking! But I’m the luckiest SOB out there. Ann is the most tenacious person I know. She thinks she can will anything to happen. The woman is tireless. She works till 11 or 12 every night and is up at 5 am.” Within a few months of their first date, she asked him to lend her $15,000 for Tales, and he agreed. (They married in 2007.)

Tuennerman cashed in her 401(k) and dumped her entire savings—$80,000—into relaunching Tales. She also took out a $100,000 line of credit and borrowed $10,000 from friends. Despite the city’s devastation, 4,000 attendees showed up in 2006—500 more than pre-Katrina. In 2008 she introduced an apprentice program in which up-and-coming mixologists could work side by side with industry stars like Dale DeGroff, Gaz Regan, Audrey Saunders, Simon Ford and Jim Meehan. And she established a scholarship program: One $5,000 grant is funding the creation of an online database and smartphone app that will let bartenders quickly hunt down recipes. She also wrangled a declaration from the Louisiana legislature making the Sazerac the official cocktail of New Orleans.

Tales’ impact now reaches way beyond the city. It has become a professional society, and that was “way overdue,” says DeGroff. “Tales has given a community to this growing, worldwide profession. Pre-Prohibition, there were 1,500 spirits; today there are 6,000. You need so much more education now.”

Tales has also been financially rewarding for Tuennerman. In 2007 she made $35,000, and she was deep in debt. But by 2011 she had paid back everybody she borrowed money from, including her husband, and cleared the line of credit. She has three full-time employees and pulls in a salary of $85,000. “One thing about New Orleanians—don’t underestimate us,” Tuennerman says, laughing. “We’re gonna be OK. We’ll figure it out, dust ourselves off and come back. That’s how we heal.”

AMY ZAVATTO writes about food, wine and spirits. She’s the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending.

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