At Bellocq in New Orleans, the walls are blood red and metal curtains hide alcoves where couples can hide. Low tables and vintage rugs fill the dark, old-fashioned lounge. Once a month there are performances by world music acts, which are booked by Lou Reed’s former manager. For many guests, however, the most striking feature of Bellocq is the menu.
Almost every drink listed is a Cobbler: a simple combination of aperitif wine or a liqueur with sugar, fresh fruit and crushed ice. They arrive in frosty metal Julep cups garnished with berries and sporting wheat stalk straws. Back in the 19th century this drink, especially the Sherry Cobbler, was all the rage.
The 70-seat Bellocq debuted last December in the recently renovated Hotel Modern. The hotel’s new owner, Klaus Ortlieb, previously opened such high-profile properties as the Mercer in New York and the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. For the bar at his new hotel, he turned to Kirk Estopinal and Neal Bodenheimer of Cure, a three-year-old New Orleans cocktail lounge that was recently named a semifinalist for the 2012 James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program. Ortlieb asked the pair to create a bar that evokes the city’s infamous Storyville district, a pre-Prohibition zone of legalized prostitution famously documented by the photographer E.J. Bellocq.
An Unusual Cocktail List
Estopinal created the recipes for Bellocq’s more than 60 Cobblers—priced from $8 to $30—which use base spirits like Sherry, fruit and digestif liqueurs, vermouth and other aromatized wines. Estopinal found some historical recipes for Cobblers made with Sherry and dessert wines. In other cases, he let his palate guide him, adding fruit and modifiers such as liqueurs and stronger spirits. He made sure, however, that any addition highlighted the flavor of the base spirit.
“If I add acid, I’m going to add a little sugar to balance it and keep the original acid to sugar value,” Estopinal says. “If I’m going to put in an aromatic or a dash of a modifier, I want it to be something that’s in the flavor profile of the main ingredient.”
The Cobbler-focused cocktail program creates unique challenges. Many of the main ingredients are highly perishable. Vermouth, dry Sherries, and aperitif wines such as Lillet or Dubonnet last only two to three weeks. When possible, Bellocq buys small format, 375-ml. bottles. The staff is trained to not open multiple bottles, speed pours are never used, and everything is stored in refrigerators.
“Obviously we have some loss, but just like with wines by the glass you’re going to have some loss. That’s part of the deal,” says Estopinal. “It’s not the most solid business idea ever, but it’s not completely ridiculous and irresponsible either.”
Confronting guests with a menu of unfamiliar drinks can also be a challenge for the staff. Some guests come for the Cobblers. Others, however, show up with no idea that Bellocq has a unique drink program.
“The only way we can do anything about that is to be gracious,” says Estopinal. “We’re not into snobbery. And we try to arm our staff with information.”
Bellocq doesn’t expect every customer to order a Cobbler. It features a daily punch. It will make standard cocktails. It offers a small list of wines by the glass ($7.50 to $9) and by the bottle ($26 to $115). And it carries a dozen large-format bottled beers ($16.25 to $27.50), which are also poured by the glass ($4 to $6.25).
Will Cobblers be the next cocktail trend? “I think it could be, and I hope that we help it along,” says Estopinal. “People have been leaning into vermouth and Sherry more and more, and Sherry outside of mixology has grown as a market over the last few years.”
Even a Cobbler booster like Estopinal acknowledges that this icy 19th century drink may not have universal appeal. “As far as selling Cobblers in the middle of a Chicago winter,” he says, “I think it might be difficult.”