Bartenders from around the U.S. have been making an annual summer journey to New Orleans for ten years now—ever since the liquor convention Tales of the Cocktail began in 2003. So it's only natural that some of them would get stuck on the place. With it's rich history of creating classic cocktails and plethora of beautiful old bars—not to mention the general joie de vivre of the place, New Orleans is made for the mixologist's temperament. The past years have seen the emigration of several notable mixers and shakers to the Crescent City—from New York, Minneapolis, Asheville and elsewhere. The direct and/or indirect result of this influx is a batch of new and worthy cocktail bars. In 2012, choosing where to drink in NOLA just got that much harder.
I wrote a roundup of a few (but not all) of the new places for The New York Times, visiting them all during the course of this years TOTC. I recommend them all. Here's the article:
New Orleans Polishes Its Bars
By Robert Simonson
STAND in front of the Hotel Modern, on the dusty New Orleans roundabout known as Lee Circle, and your thirst has a choice. Walk into Tamarind, to the right, and you’ll find a selection of contemporary cocktails laced with Asian flavors to complement the restaurant’s French-Vietnamese cuisine. Take a left into Bellocq and you’ll have your pick of cobblers, an ice-laden, fruit-crested breed of cocktail that was all the rage back in the mid-1800s and is this inventive new bar’s calling card.
The Modern, which reopened last fall after a renovation, captures a sudden advancement in New Orleans’s cocktail culture in which this always happily bibulous city has added newer, fresher ways to drink, while still holding on to tradition. In the process, the city has become a magnet for bartenders and their fans from around the country, particularly New York.
During the cocktail doldrums of the 1970s and ’80s, when vodka swamped the American bar scene and sloppy disco drinks all but obliterated sophisticated tippling, New Orleans held down the fort. The city’s tavernkeepers made certain that a place where one could order classics like the Sazerac and the Ramos gin fizz would not perish from the contiguous 48.
But as the craft cocktail movement began to shake up urban centers from New York to San Francisco, the Crescent City seemed mired in the past, its liquid culture still led, on the one hand, by standard-bearing saloons like the Napoleon House and Tujague’s, and, on the other (seriously shaky) hand, the boozy debauchery of Bourbon Street.
Then, in 2003, came the Swizzle Stick Bar, a modern bastion of mixology attached to Café Adelaide. Cure, which opened in 2009, raised the bar further, giving residents of the Freret neighborhood creative potions employing salt, Italian bitters and other unlikely ingredients. Today, the city is experiencing a boomlet of cocktail spots, including Bellocq, the second effort from the Cure team, and SoBou; and Maurepas Foods, two restaurants where the bar programs stand equal to the kitchen’s.
A number of these programs are headed up or assisted by bartenders who have moved here after successful careers in New York, attracted by the easygoing atmosphere, the rich drinking history and a cocktail scene that affords more opportunities to stand out.
Abigail Gullo, who left Fort Defiance in Brooklyn to collaborate with Lu Brow of Swizzle Stick on SoBou’s cocktail program (both places are owned by the same people who own the Commander’s Palace Restaurant), thinks the trend “says as much about New Orleans as it does about New York.”
“New Orleans is a very exciting place right now,” she said last week while catering to attendees of Tales of the Cocktail, the city’s annual convention of drinks enthusiasts and professionals. “I see it as going back to the roots, finding another city like New York that loves to eat, loves to drink and never lost that idea of that magical place between home and work where people socialize.”
Other recent New York expatriates include Ryan Gannon, a veteran of the Spotted Pig, in Manhattan, who now tends bar at Bellocq and Cure; Nick Jarrett, who bartended at Dramand Clover Club, in Brooklyn, and currently pulls down shifts at Cure and the Saint, a popular Lower Garden District dive bar; and Kimberly Patton-Bragg, who put in years behind the bar at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke, before moving to New Orleans in 2008 and eventually devising the drinks list at Tamarind. Jeff Berry, arguably the country’s leading authority on tiki drinks, this spring realized a longstanding dream to move here from Asheville, N.C. He plans to open a tiki bar in a year’s time.
“The scene is growing immensely,” said Ms. Patton-Bragg, who says she appreciates this city’s lack of pretense.
New York mixologists have been known to misplace their sense of humor regarding their craft. That is not a problem here. At Maurepas Foods — the hot Bywater restaurant where the Minneapolis refugee Brad Smith has created a cocktail program that makes abundant use of seasonal produce — there is a drink whose semi-profane name would seem to indicate it’s a variation on the Cosmopolitan. It is, in fact, a shot of Old Grand-Dadbourbon.
At Twelve-Mile Limit — a dive bar in the Mid-City neighborhood that was taken over by the bartender T. Cole Newton in 2010 and given a stealth quality cocktail program and impressive back bar — customers are regularly invited to “Name This Cocktail.” The ingredients of a new creation are written on a chalkboard and stay there until someone creates an appropriate label.
Sometimes the christened drink earns a permanent spot on the menu, as with the Mantis: rum, the Italian bitter Branca Menta, almond syrup and lime juice that tastes like a delicious alcoholic mouthwash. (Twelve-Mile Limit cocktails are not just good, they are dive-bar cheap, from $6 to $8.)
Both SoBou and Bellocq, which opened in July and December respectively, take care to honor New Orleans’s drinking past. “We’re a modern Creole saloon,” Ms. Gullo said. “We wanted fun, approachable drinks and classics with a little historical bent.” Hence the Taylor Bird Sazerac, which uses two of New Orleans longtime alcohol passions — rye and Cognac — along with Steen’s, a local cane syrup.
The long list of cobblers at Bellocq (the drinks were created by Kirk Estopinal and Neal Bodenheimer) is topped by the sherry cobbler, the classic version of the drink. But also available are cobblers anchored by yellow Chartreuse (spiced up with raw jalapeño), Madeira, the French aperitif Bonal (brightened by a twist of grapefruit) or Sauternes, nearly all of them served in frosty silver Indian water cups. In fact, the bartenders will draft any liquor in the back bar into cobblerdom.
“Now when I look at everything,” said Nick Detrich, the bar manager, “I think of making it a cobbler.”
A Jägermeister cobbler? It could happen. In New Orleans drinking culture, everything is sacred, and nothing is.