Lu Brow, the bartender at the Swizzle Stick Bar, drops several lime wedges into a cocktail shaker and squeezes the last one to test their juiciness. She arranges her measures and ingredients around the shaker like a chef preparing her mise en place. She adds a precise amount of Cointreau followed by Plymouth gin. She shakes in one dash of Angostura bitters. With a wooden muddler, she gives the limes a few twists. A scoop of ice goes in. She caps the shaker, raises it to eye level and rocks it back and forth. Then she grabs a chilled cocktail glass and strains into it the Pegu Club, a bracing drink from the days before America tried to outlaw alcohol. Meanwhile, on Bourbon Street, another bartender pulls a lever and fills a plastic cup with sweet, potent slush.
In New Orleans, where we insist on good food, why don’t we demand better drinks? Even our signature Sazeracs are too often as sweet as sno-balls. We’re settling for Lucky Dogs at every dinner when we could be having trout amandine. “I’d like us nationally to be known for well-made cocktails as much as we are for food,” says Brow. “Not a Hurricane. Not a Hand Grenade.”
Across America, drinkers are demanding better cocktails. Drinks less sweet than soda pop. Drinks made with fresh citrus instead of sour mix. The kind of well-balanced drinks that almost vanished during Prohibition but have made a comeback in recent years. “People got so used to having fresh, seasonal, big flavors on the food side,” says Dale DeGroff, the former bartender at New York’s Rainbow Room and the author of The Craft of the Cocktail. “That prepared them for what has happened on the beverage side: the culinary cocktail.”
Chris McMillian, the bartender at the Renaissance Pere Marquette’s new Jazz Bar and a recognized master of classic cocktails, blames the convention business for holding back New Orleans’ drinking culture. “It’s the same reason we don’t have Dixieland jazz clubs on Bourbon Street,” he says. “The 30-something conventioneer, they want to go to Razzoo and the Cat’s Meow.”
In other cities, customers ask for better drinks. In New Orleans, McMillian thinks the bartenders must teach their customers why well crafted drinks are superior. “You don’t make fun of the guy who wants a Cosmopolitan,” he says. “You try to make the best version they’ve had. Gain trust.”
“People aren’t demanding better, because they haven’t seen better,” says Neal Bodenheimer, bartender at the Delachaise. The New Orleans native who returned a year and half ago after working in some of New York’s top restaurants will test the local interest in well-made cocktails when he opens Cure this fall. At the renovated 1904 firehouse on the corner of Freret and Upperline, Bodenheimer will take the cocktail craft to its highest level. The menu mixes classic and cutting edge cocktails made with fresh juices, homemade tonic and vermouth and then chilled with oversized ice cubes that won’t water down the drink.
“In my opinion, the bar business doesn’t function properly here because of video poker,” says Bodenheimer. The bar’s cut of the video poker take helps places that make inferior drinks stay open, but he will rely solely on the quality of his cocktails, and the customer service skills he learned working for legendary restaurateurs like New York’s Danny Meyer, to keep Cure in the black.
McMillian hopes once more customers taste well-made drinks, they will raise standards across the city. “They have to say, no, I’m sorry this is not a good Margarita,” he says. “Send it back.”
Is New Orleans’ reluctance to embrace the cocktail craze just another example of the city’s healthy skepticism towards trends from the coasts? “How could something that’s better be a passing fad?” asks DeGroff. He worked with the Marriott chain on a program to replace sour mix with fresh juice at all of their hotels, and he has also seen mainstream chain restaurants take an interest in making better cocktails. “When you can have the best, why go back to sugar water?”
McMillian agrees, “Everybody pretty much appreciates better.”
Take Up the Shaker
You are guaranteed to get a good drink at Tales of the Cocktail on July 16-20. The annual conference has become a required event for master mixologists, historians of the cocktail and anyone who enjoys a drink. Events range from cocktail dinners to demonstrations by the world’s leading bartenders. For more information, visit TalesOfTheCocktail.com.
Food and Drink Under Glass
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SouthernFood.org) opened last month in the Uptown end of the Riverwalk Mall. The initial exhibits explore Louisiana cuisine, the White House kitchen and African-American foodways. On July 21 at 10 a.m., the Museum of the American Cocktail (MuseumOfTheAmericanCocktail.org), which shares the same space, opens its doors and its tasting room. The museum documents two hundred years of cocktail history.
The Delachaise: 3442 St. Charles Ave., 895-0858.
Swizzle Stick Bar: 300 Poydras St., 595-3305.