By Parker Neill
There is something inherently New Orleanian about the cocktail, and although its origins can be as hazy as its effects, many claim that the cocktail was first invented here sometime in the 1800s. Back then, “cocktail” meant simply booze, bitters, and sugar—think your classic Sazerac. Though cocktail culture has deep roots here, in the past decade New Orleans has seen a spike not merely in the quantity but in the quality of cocktail bars, paying homage to the classics while embracing modern global trends in drink making. Behind this are a group of bartenders, transplant and local alike, who returned to the city four months after Katrina to rebuild the foundations of a culture and history that they, for the first time, felt was threatened. It is largely from their efforts to rebuild a community around cocktail culture that we see the extremely diverse cocktail portfolio of New Orleans today.
Chris Hannah adjusts his cufflinks and fastens a name tag to his white tuxedo behind Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in the French Quarter. Reopened in 1979, the bar is housed in a restaurant that has been serving Creole cuisine for nearly 100 years. Chris, though now regarded by the cocktail community as one of the most knowledgeable bartenders in New Orleans when it comes to the classics, says that, when he first arrived in 2004, it was a different story. “Until I got here and started working in an old dark restaurant, I didn’t know that it was actually a lot of New Orleans’ cocktail culture that had shaped the world’s cocktail culture. I mean, I came down here after bartending at these really nice places for six years and I wasn’t even sure of the menu, I hadn’t heard of these drinks.” Chris Hannah came to master the classics after training with Bobby Oakes, the head bartender at French 75 for fifteen years, as well as by talking about cocktails over an after-work drink with Chris McMillian, co-founder of The Museum of the American Cocktail, who has been described by Imbibe Magazine as “one of the top 25 most influential cocktail personalities of the last century.”
A year later, Hurricane Katrina saw both these leaders of New Orleans’ cocktail culture scattered across the country, while Chris Hannah returned four months later to run the bar program at French 75, eager to rebuild the city’s culture. “None of us really felt like we would lose it, and then the hurricane happened, and everyone wanted to come back and make sure it wouldn’t be lost. It was the first time we ever felt that.” But as the blue tarps were taken off the roofs and people began to rebuild the city’s physical and cultural landscape, a group of bartenders formed with a new perspective and sense of community. Largely responsible for connecting this band of bartenders was Ann Tuennerman, who founded the country’s premier cocktail festival, Tales of the Cocktail, in 2003. Chris Hannah explains the growth of this community. “It was me, Neal Bodenheimer from Cure, Ricky Gomez and Chris Patino. We would all hang out, and we would make these trips to other bartender country, to see what everyone was doing in New York, San Francisco, Chicago. And so we were always representing New Orleans. Because of that, we were mentioned in magazines, we were mentioned in newspapers, and the younger generation sees how exciting it is and wants to be a part of it too, so it has been an amazing road.” Although, at this point, his expression remains calm and his voice steady, Chris’s eyes light up with excitement. “It’s gotten to the point where I was looking at this list of bars that I was writing down for some guests on a napkin, and sixteen to eighteen of those bars were not open when I first got here.” Chris says this is vastly different than in 2004, where there were only four or five places serving quality drinks.
In the past decade, bars have continued to embrace the rich classical traditions of New Orleans cocktail culture while moving further into more recent trends of Tiki and Prohibition-era genres of drink making. In many ways, Katrina functioned as a catalyst for the incorporation of new traditions, dispersing bartenders around the country only to have them return four months later with a different cosmopolitan perspective. What then sets New Orleans apart? “The one thing that’s happening here, that has not happened in all these other cities who are also part of this cocktail movement, is that the cocktail never died here. It had its longest life here. That’s the one thing New Orleans can always say: cocktail culture has lived longer here than any other city in America.”