On any given night in New Orleans, while many operators are catering to the thousands of people who roam Bourbon Street’s neon-lit entertainment corridor, other mixologists are finding inspiration from this ancient city’s roots. The cocktail and food scene in New Orleans is being driven by a mix of innovation and historical drinks reverence.
French and Spanish colonial roots still define New Orleans, a deeply historic city with narrow French Quarter streets, vintage streetcars and rich culinary traditions showcased at more than 1,100 restaurants across the metro area, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB). Some 7.5 million people visited the city in 2009, down slightly from the 7.6 million who visited in 2008, but up drastically from the 3.6 million who visited in 2006, according to the NOCVB. In the five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region the Crescent City has rebounded with new confidence and drink ideas.
In the drinks scene, the craft cocktail movement is one of the key new trends, and it has arrived in a big way in the Big Easy. New bars have opened across town to showcase the artisanal methods of mixologists while more restaurants now feature ambitious cocktail programs than ever before. New Orleans is now home to the Museum of the American Cocktail, and each July the city hosts the Tales of the Cocktail festival, which drew 17,000 attendees this year, according to the NOCVB. New Orleans is also in the midst of a major revival in its own storied drinks traditions, with cocktails like the rye- and bitters-based Sazerac and the frothy Ramos Gin Fizz getting a new lease on life.
Shaking Up a Scene
To see how new cocktail trends and classic New Orleans click, just veer a few steps off Bourbon Street to French 75, the elegant bar connected to Arnaud’s Restaurant, one of the city’s French Creole dining institutions. Here, customers order traditional New Orleans cocktails alongside the singular creations of Chris Hannah, a mixologist who researches forgotten drink recipes in the city archives and makes his own cocktail infusions. “When people come here they want the full experience, so I explain the history of their drink and its evolution,” says Hannah.
A similar passion for finely crafted cocktails inspired Neal Bodenheimer to open his bar Cure in the city’s Uptown neighborhood last year. “It’s all about the exhausting pursuit to make a perfect drink and give our customers a perfect product,” he says. “It’s the little details that go into every cocktail to get the fullest expression from it.”
Also shaking up the scene is Bar Tonique, a petite, brick-walled cocktail den at the edge of the French Quarter where owner Ed Diaz insists on using house-made ingredients, from bitters to tonic water. But while fine fixings are important, Diaz emphasizes that good service remains paramount.
“It’s about how you set up your bar to serve customers quickly, how prepared you are to deliver,” he says. “You still have to concentrate on bartending and remember that you’re serving people, not cocktails.”
Chris McMillian, a veteran mixologist who specializes in traditional New Orleans cocktails at Bar Uncommon in the 272-room Renaissance New Orleans Pere Marquette Hotel, says it’s exciting to watch the drinks scene develop here. “We’re seeing a whole proliferation of places that are creating cocktail programs and looking for people to run them,” says McMillian. “That’s new for New Orleans and its fun to be part of it.”
As the quality of New Orleans cocktails has improved, the creativity behind them has accelerated too. For instance, mixologist Alan Walter has turned the bar at the French Quarter restaurant Iris into a laboratory for unique drink experiences. For an original drink called the Velour, Walter mixes an array of aperitifs with his own homemade Alabama peach nectar and Louisiana pecan bitters. It’s representative of a culinary approach to cocktails that Walter says provides limitless inspiration. “The number of interesting liqueurs out there is vast, but it still pales in comparison to culinary ingredients you can use in cocktails,” he says.
Uncorking with Creole
Of course, the traditional accompaniment for Creole cuisine is wine, and the years since Hurricane Katrina have marked an unprecedented period of rebuilding for the city’s serious wine programs. Because of the prolonged blackout after the disaster, even restaurants that escaped major storm damage in many cases still found entire cellars ruined by heat.
By 2008, however, Emeril’s Restaurant stabilized its wine selection and the list at the original restaurant now runs to 1,500 selections, priced between $30 and $2,000 or more per bottle. It is packed with new variety, and Emeril’s sommelier Ray Gumpert says this is important when pairing wines with the restaurant’s eclectic and robustly seasoned cuisine. For a spicy dish like Saffron-Dusted Shrimp and Grits, priced at $27, he might pick an Alsatian Riesling, while Quail with Crabmeat Stuffing, priced at $32, calls for a pinot noir to balance roasted fowl and delicate seafood.
Several rising stars of the New Orleans restaurant world are also making their own marks on the city’s drinks scene. Chef John Besh now operates six restaurants in the New Orleans area and reading the wine list at his new Italian restaurant Domenica can be an education in lesser-known Italian wine regions. Meanwhile, South American Malbecs get the spotlight at chef Adolfo Garcia’s Argentine-style steakhouse La Boca in the Warehouse District, not far from his three other restaurants.
Chef Donald Link is also building a New Orleans culinary empire with three restaurants and one private dining venue under the Link Restaurant Group umbrella. Joe Briand, director of operations for the group, says the wine program at Link’s flagship restaurant Herbsaint is now entering a new phase.
“After Katrina we started putting away about 20 percent of our wine purchases to age, so I’m really looking forward to opening those vintages when they’re ready,” says Briand. “The cuisine at Herbsaint is French mixed with Creole and Italian so wine should be part of that experience.”
Things are different at Link’s more casual restaurant Cochon, which serves artful renditions of rustic Cajun country cooking, with plenty of house-made charcuterie and roasted seafood, and also features its own gourmet retail butcher shop next door.
“For what people will spend on wine at Herbsaint, they’ll do a whiskey flight at Cochon or have a tasting of microbrew beers,” says Briand. The flights of whiskey are priced at $15 and beer tastings range from $12 to $15. “If you’re looking at a dish like our fried alligator, I’d definitely choose a beer with that instead of wine.”
Cochon is among a growing number of New Orleans restaurants that host beer dinners, often featuring products from local breweries like NOLA Brewing, Abita Brewing and Heiner Brau Microbrewery. Interest in artisanal brews is also on the rise in New Orleans, and places like the Avenue Pub or the Frenchmen Street music hall d.b.a. have emerged as premier local spots to sample ever-changing rosters of draft and bottled beer.
But the cocktail revival unquestionably generates the most excitement in the New Orleans drinks scene today. For generations, cocktails have been the de rigueur prelude to dinner at landmark French Creole restaurants like Galatoire’s and Antoine’s, and “eye openers” like the Kir Royale or Brandy Milk Punch remain essential parts of the decadent, multi-course breakfast service at original Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street. So it seems natural that the craft cocktail boom here was first fostered at restaurants. One local cocktail pioneer is Lu Brow, the “bar chef” for Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar, a contemporary Creole restaurant run by another branch of the Brennan family within the 285-room Loews Hotel. Cocktails like her Adelaide Swizzle, made with the locally distilled brand Old New Orleans Rum, helped stir new interest in the possibilities of cocktails and cuisine.
With such rich local traditions, the infusion of new creative energy and an ever-evolving bar and restaurant scene, New Orleans continues to confirm its reputation as a distinctive drinks destination.