“Being that I’m a transplant to New Orleans, originally from New York, I was drawn to Louis Armstrong who was born here in New Orleans and settled in Queens with his wife. I knew him as Pops, and Pops was the elderly guy who was a real pillar of the community where kids would come and he would record them and he was just a wonderful historian for the neighborhood. Plus, he was a huge fan of my baseball team, the New York Mets. So I wanted to create a drink that was reminiscent of Pops, and something you could enjoy on a hot summer day, because most days are hot summer days here in New Orleans [laughs]. I played around with several ingredients and settled for Oryza vodka, which is made with rice right here in Thibodeaux, Louisiana; rice vodka. I also use agave nectar instead of simple syrup so it turns the drink a color that reminds me of red beans. Plus the egg white in the drink looks like rice, and the bay leaf that I put on top is one of the seasonings for red beans. Also, I use mezcal, which has a smoky flavor, not unlike the smoked sausage you might use in red beans and rice. Pops was known to drink Swiss tonics, too, so I wanted this drink to have some fizz as well.
Because mezcal can be a radical choice, the song I had in my mind all week as I was making this was ‘(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You.’ What I love about that song is how Pops looked at hardship, as something terrible that nevertheless is part of life.
I was fascinated with classic cocktails as a kid: Mai Tais, pink ladies and Rob Roys. When I got old enough to drink them, I found only a few people were making them anymore. I was a Montessori schoolteacher, taught drama, and when I went out to restaurants in New York, I noticed the restaurants were not offering cocktails like the specialty bars; there was a hole in the industry, so I found myself a new career. Then coming to New Orleans and working here, in the home of the American cocktail, I’m so happy. All I need now is a band that’s looking for a singer. [laughs]
There is a performance element to being a bartender and naturally you’re drawn to other forms of art that are performance-based, something powerful and strong. Just like alcohol, music changes people’s moods. It can have the power to bring back really great memories. Taste has that ability as well. You can taste something and be immediately brought back to something your grandmother made. Here at SoBou, I’ve created several drinks and some have music connections. I have a little ode to Collinses right now. The classic Tom Collins is gin and fizzy lemonade, a perfect summer drink, so I played off of that and did a Michael Collins, a hero of the Irish revolution, with Irish whisky. I also did a Phil Collins with Dutch-style gin with a little Cointreau and fizzy lemonade and the whole idea behind that is that Phil Collins has been married so many times that from now on, whenever he goes out on dates, he always goes Dutch. And the garnish of that drink is a song. I sing Phil Collins songs behind the bar, because that’s fun.
I’ve been to Oaxaca to study mezcal. It’s handcrafted, so labor intensive, and it predates the Spanish—it’s one of the oldest distilled spirits. A lot of people think Spain brought distilling to Mexico, but no. The distilling pots they used in Oaxaca are the same as the pots they used in China, like 6,000 years ago.
The difference between mezcal and tequila is that tequila is made of 100 percent blue agave. The piñas are typically roasted for three days in stone-clay ovens. Mezcal, you don’t have to use blue agave, there are many varieties, and instead of putting them in ovens, they bury them in a hole in the ground. They put volcanic rocks at the bottom, and light a fire with wood and debris, then brush away the debris and lay the piñas on top of the hot rocks, cover them with dirt and banana leaves and roast them in the ground for three days. That’s why mezcal has this smoky flavor, almost like scotch.”
Pops’ Smokin’ Fizz
- 1/2 ounce raw agave nectar
- 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime and lemon juice (mixed, or either-or)
- 1 egg white
- 3/4 ounce Vida mezcal
- 1 1/2 ounce Oryza rice vodka
- Sparkling water
- Bay leaf
- Combine all ingredients except water in a cocktail shaker or container and dry-shake (without ice) to emulsify the egg white.
- Add ice and shake vigorously.
- Strain into a glass, first adding two-fingers worth of soda water on the bottom. The soda will fizz up and create a nice, creamy head.
- Top off with a splash of soda water, and garnish with a bay leaf.