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HOMEIN THE MAGAZINEBACK ISSUES | MAY/JUNE 2013


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A City Built on Yesterday

The past and the future find common ground in New Orleans cocktails.

 

Story by Wayne Curtis
Photos by Rush Jagoe

 

Just outside the windows of Bellocq, a cocktail lounge between the French Quarter and the Garden District, Robert E. Lee stands atop a column with his arms folded. Streetcars from the 1920s clang past. Inside adornments include a vintage punch bowl atop an octopus, and a baby grand piano. The bar (named after a photographer of prostitutes) doesn’t so much have a specialty drink as a specialty category: the cobbler, the last mania for which was 125 years ago.

 

A local bumper sticker reads, “New Orleans: So Far Behind We’re Ahead.” And Bellocq offers some evidence for that. It’s got antique drinks and an emphasis on old-school hospitality. At the same time, guests can feel they’re trending into cocktail territory as yet untrod, one sip at a time. “We want to always be fresh,” says Neal Bodenheimer, a partner at Bellocq and a driving force behind Cure, a cocktail lounge that helped reset the standards for New Orleans cocktails when it opened in 2009. “We always want to challenge our guests, and by doing that, we’re challenging ourselves. It keeps everyone invested and engaged.”
While Bourbon Street remains a neon swamp of colorful drinks served in oversized plastic cups, elsewhere the city is seeing ferment and change in the cocktail world. Old New Orleans is being challenged. New craft cocktail bars have been cropping up steadily, and enough new bartenders have moved here to fill a string of Pullmans.

 

Which begs a question: Amid all this rumpus and unaccustomed embrace of the new, can New Orleans retain its proud links to its cocktail past, or is it destined to become not so much Disneyfied, as some fear, but a hipsterly Brooklyn-on-the-Mississippi?


A Culture of Drink
New Orleans has been a cocktail mecca since the 1800s, when this vibrant port city’s strong cultural ties to France ensured access to sophisticated Cognacs and wines. At the same time, other boats offloaded bitters and exotic fruits from the West Indies, whiskey came down the river from Kentucky, and pond ice was unloaded from tall-masted sailing ships out of New England. Add to that a penchant for mashing up diverse cultures (gumbo, jazz), and it’s no surprise that many outstanding drinks took root here: the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, Brandy Milk Punch and Brandy Crusta among them.

 

These iconic 19th-century drinks never fell out of fashion in New Orleans—the morning cocktail in particular has long been a matter of high art. What’s more, iconic bars in which to sip them have persisted against the odds. Classic New Orleans bars are immovable rocks in a fast-moving river of shifting trends.

The Old Absinthe House traces its heritage to the 1870s and still retains a slouchy dignity amid the frat-boy excess of Bourbon Street. Two classic hotel bars have been spiffed up: the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (where the Vieux Carré cocktail was invented in 1938) was expanded in 2011 while maintaining the space’s settled elegance. And the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel gleams like a newly launched 1940s-era ocean liner thanks to a post-Katrina rehab. In the heart of the French Quarter, the landmark Napoleon House endures, with peeling walls and faded art giving it the “before” look of a home-makeover show. It persists as an essential stop for Pimm’s Cups on a sweltering day.


Then there’s Arnaud’s French 75, a relative newcomer to the French Quarter (the bar didn’t open until 1979) with an authentically old-world sensibility—dark wood, quarter-sized white floor tiles, a French chanteuse soundtrack and a persistent nimbus of cigar smoke. For nearly a decade, it’s been presided over by the unflappable Chris Hannah, the skilled if taciturn bartender who daily demonstrates freakish reverence for classic cocktails and their antiquity. (“It’s mostly a stirred bar,” he says of the French 75. “It doesn’t say Mojito.”)

 

Yet visitors often misunderstand New Orleans by believing it to be a museum, a place where culture has been embalmed and propped for use as a backdrop for Facebook selfies. That’s not New Orleans. The culture remains alive and evolving here, whether it involves food or architecture or music. Today builds on yesterday, which, as it happens, was built on the day before.


Measured Change
While a handful of drinks like the Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz tend toward the sacrosanct—don’t expect to see a Gummi Bear Sazerac or an Apple Pie Ramos any time soon—bartenders who’ve been schooled in the classics here often venture off in unexpected directions. “It’s sort of a midway point between New York and San Francisco,” says Avery Glasser, who with his wife, Janet, owns Bittermens, a maker and importer of cocktail bitters, extracts and spirits. “San Francisco is fresh-market driven, and New York is about the classics. But New Orleans is in the middle—it has classics, but with a lot of seasonality. It’s an exciting place to drink.”

 

Early in 2013, the Glassers moved their business to New Orleans from Brooklyn after outgrowing leased space. Since arriving, they’ve been struck by the egalitarian nature of cocktails here. “In some cities, cocktails were a sign of high society,” Avery says. “But cocktails here were always something that were to be accessible to the masses. Our product is getting used not just in high-end cocktail bars but also neighborhood bars and fine-dining places.”
 
It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find great drinks in unlikely spots. Felipe’s is a quick-service quesadilla-and-burrito joint with two locations in the city. Among the first things you’ll notice is that limes are fresh-squeezed for every Margarita—a commitment to quality that spreads across its increasingly ambitious drinks list.

 

Toward Lake Pontchartrain in a scruffy residential neighborhood, Twelve Mile Limit sports a low ceiling, pool table and well-used couches, but owner Cole Newton serves up stellar barbecue, beer and a startling selection of top-notch cocktails, like the signature Baudin, made with bourbon, honey, lemon and Tabasco. The result is a neighborhood bar that got an advanced degree, then moved back home and put its feet up on the coffee table.

 

More sophisticated—and a magnet for Hollywood actors in town for shoots—is Sylvain, a bistro-bar named after a comic opera performed on the site in 1796. Always teeming, it’s attracted wide notice for its kitchen (think: braised beef cheeks, duck confit with black-eyed peas and bourbon), but also the creativity of its bar, with drinks like impeccably named General Tsour, made with Haitian rum, lemon and five-spice syrup. It’s best enjoyed during a sultry evening in the courtyard, as fine a place to plot a revolution as has been discovered.

 

A Sacred Cow
Here are some things you don’t want to see when you order New Orleans’ official cocktail, the Sazerac: Rocks in your glass. A fat wedge of lemon on the rim. A pour of bourbon in lieu of rye or Cognac. A Martini glass. A bitters label that doesn’t say “Peychaud’s.”


The good news is that none of this will happen if you stick to bars awarded the Sazerac Seal of Approval. That seal is bestowed upon places that have a record of adhering to tradition and quality, and still make Sazeracs that look and taste like those your great-grandparents would have sipped.
 
The Sazerac Seal was conceived by Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, the raucous, sprawling cocktail conference staged in the French Quarter every summer since 2003. Discouraged by sloppiness, Tuennerman saw the seal as a way of encouraging bars to maintain some standards when making the city’s favorite tipple.

 

So in 2010 she assembled a cadre of secret sippers, hammered out a set of criteria to define a well-wrought Sazerac, and sent the inspectors off to visit bars anonymously. The idea was not to punish those who made sub-par drinks, but reward those who excelled, and encourage others to follow their example. (head to imbibemagazine.com/MJ13 for complete list of approved bars—available May 1.) “I realized there was a need for preservation and education,” she said, adding that some places in New Orleans had sunk so far as to make them with Pucker and a maraschino cherry. “We need to keep them honest.”

 

Tuennerman and Tales of the Cocktail have been instrumental in creating more lasting change in the city by luring a wave of bartenders to pull up stakes and move south. “The New Orleans cliche has always been ‘I came here for Jazzfest and I decided to move here,’ ” says Todd Price, drinks columnist for the Times-Picayune. “For bartenders, it’s coming for Tales and then moving down.”

 

One new arrival, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the world’s leading tiki historian, first came to Tales in 2005, liked what he saw and moved here with his wife last year; they plan to open a tiki bar by the end of the year. “Tales has been great for opening a bar,” says Nick Detrich, managing partner at the forthcoming Cane & Table, the third bar from the Cure team. “We’ve got this huge talent pool we can hire from.”

 

Housed in a venerable French Quarter storefront on lower Decatur  Street, Cane & Table, which is slated to open in June (and is operating as a pop-up, Perestroika, during the transition), will focus on rum drinks from the colonial era to the early days of the tropical drink era. Detrich dug into history to build his cocktail list, researching Cuba’s rum drinks and experimenting with early orgeat recipes. He’s also been working on updates of classic punches and will offer bottled punches that can serve a table. “We’re planning to focus on the influence rum has had in the Americas,” Detrich says. “That sort of stuff fascinates me.”

 

Come and Stay Awhile
Another newcomer, SoBou, bucked the historic aesthetic when it opened in the French Quarter last summer. The cocktail-driven bistro—the latest from Commander’s Palace, the fabled Garden District restaurant noted for tradition and crisp hospitality—is surprisingly glossy for the two-century-old neighborhood of spalling stucco, with shelves of backlit apothecary bottles lining the dining room.

 

The bar quickly developed a following among locals and visitors for its creative, precisely balanced cocktails, including updated classics like bucks and fizzes made with housemade syrups and an array of bitters. Manhattan transplant Abigail Gullo heads the bar program. “There’s a real lack of pretense,” she says of New Orleans’ deeply ingrained cocktail culture. “This is what they’ve done for a couple hundred years—making cocktails, offering good service, enjoying life.”

 

And deep in the blue-collar turned artist/hipster neighborhood of Bywater, the restaurant Maurepas opened last year. Headed by bartender Brad Smith—a Minneapolis export—the cocktail program quickly earned a following for its culinary orientation, with cocktails like the Gent and the Jackass, which updates a bourbon sour with housemade paprika syrup and peach bitters.

 

Loa, in the boutique hotel International House in the Central Business District, has also been attracting cocktail pilgrims looking to sample the sometimes outlandish creativity of Alan Walters, a man who apparently has never met a leafy plant he didn’t want to put in a drink. Antique bottles filled with Crayola-hued infusions and syrups catch the eye, as does an eclectic assortment of spirits. Walters’ extensive cocktail list, grouped as New-Fangleds, Nieux Classics and Re-Visions, is like a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of mixology, featuring what he calls profoundly local flavors that include clover, southern Pine and Spanish moss.

 

Yet, like much of New Orleans, Loa nods to the past. Drinks are served in the remarkable vintage glassware that Walter collects, and the bar’s understated service reflects the city’s famous hospitality.

 

In fact, if there’s any one element that ensures drinking in New Orleans won’t be like drinking elsewhere, it’s that persistent graciousness that’s been as much a commodity in New Orleans as cotton. It’s always been a city of people coming and going (the port has been replaced economically in recent decades by a tourism and convention economy), so it’s had plenty of practice in catering to passers-through. “I hear time and again that bartenders find there’s an older style of service and an older way of engaging with customers,” says the Picayune’s Price. “And there’s a desire to adopt this style of service. I hear [new arrivals] say, ‘I can be the kind of bartender here I can’t be in New York.’”

 

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