Diving in New Orleans
Todd A. Price / July 2013
Thanks to a cadre of adventurous mixologists, New Orleans’ neighborhood bars are entertaining customers in search of refined craft cocktails—one shift at a time. Todd A. Price takes a crawl.
The bartender wore suspenders and the kind of mustache once sported by men who performed feats of strength. That unlabeled bottle on the backbar? A beet and herbal liqueur he whipped up at home.
“It’s a little surprising on the palate,” he says.
The exchange could have occurred in nearly any American city. The craft cocktail revolutionaries have become the ruling party. But this was Brothers Three Lounge in New Orleans, a canary-yellow cinderblock dive that adds a dash of trash to Magazine Street’s bistros and boutiques. Here the top shelf, well-stocked with Pucker products, would be the rail elsewhere. At this 24 hour bar, old men start the day with a whiskey while young men look on and consider sobriety.
Liam Cousino is the man who made the beet liqueur. He works the night shift, 2 a.m. to 10 a.m.: “I’ve always enjoyed night work. I worked for a time milking cows overnight.”
He’ll make you a Gin and Tonic with fresh cranberries and basil. He’ll mix up something with a seasonal garnish. But when Cousino isn’t working, it’s best to order nothing at Brothers Three more complicated than a beer and a shot.
New Orleans has more bars per capita than any American city. The classic establishments and ambitious newcomers get the reams of press. Most locals, however, drink in neighborhood bars. Even in these low-end bars, high-end craft cocktails are starting to make inroads.
Farther up Magazine Street, The Saint Bar & Lounge sits a block off that busy commercial strip. Benjamin (Benji) Lee bought the established dive in 2011. Lee appreciated a good cocktail, so he wanted to upgrade the program: “Going into a cocktail bar is fun, but paying $10 to $12 was crazy to us.” At The Saint, cocktail prices hover around $7. Lee keeps his margins the same no matter the order. “What I would make on a well drink, I would make the same amount on a Hemingway Daiquiri.”
By design, The Saint’s cocktail program has limits. Tuesday is Tiki night, and the ice crusher gets packed away the rest of the week. Thursdays are Fine Diving, with a special craft cocktail menu. Other nights, if The Saint has fresh citrus, they’ll use it. If not, they’ll grab the bottle of sour mix.
As the drinks improved, Lee could hire better bartenders. Nicholas Jarrett now oversees the cocktails. Jarrett also works at Cure, New Orleans’ most prominent craft bar. Before moving here last year, he opened the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia, DRAM in Brooklyn, New York, and worked at Brooklyn’s Clover Club. He has no illusions about the drinks at The Saint.
“Tiki Tuesday at The Saint is no Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge [Alameda, CA] or Smuggler’s Cove [San Francisco],” Jarrett declares. “But your Mai Tai is a Mai Tai. It’s not just Meyer’s rum with orange juice, pineapple juice, grenadine, and bitters, which used to be the way to make every tropical drink you didn’t know.”
T. Cole Newton runs Twelve Mile Limit in lower Mid-City. It’s an area few tourists see, unless they end up at the nearby Orleans Parish Prison. Newton started tending bar seriously at Commander’s Palace. He then built his reputation overseeing the bar at the Garden District bistro Coquette. When he bought his own bar, though, it was a place with a buzzer on the door and a bullet hole in the window. It was all he could afford. He brought along the skills he learned in the craft cocktail world but not the attitude.
“The thing that I took away from Commander’s is that there is no reason to say ‘no’ to someone unless you absolutely have to,” Newton explains. “If you come in every day and ask for something that I don’t like and we don’t have, the third time you come in, we will have that thing and we will sell it to you.”
The signature Baudin, which costs $6, mixes Bourbon with honey, lemon, and hot sauce. But Twelve Mile Limit serves vodka with a smile. If you want Red Bull, the bar stocks both regular and diet. “People are predictable. They want a dozen things,” says Newton. “I can still have a Mezcal or a boutique pumpkin spirit that nobody ever orders and have room for Captain Morgan or Grey Goose.” And for those spirits he carries only because of customer demand, he’ll add a dollar upcharge.
In general, though, Newton keeps the prices low. It just makes good business sense, he believes. He batches the drinks in advance, adding citrus or an effervescent ingredient before serving. That’s another lesson he took from Commander’s Palace, where batching lets the restaurant quickly produce a high volume of well-balanced drinks.
“If I make cocktails twice as fast, then I can serve twice as many. And if I can serve twice as many, I can charge half as much,” he says. “And I staff less. I have two people instead of four making the same amount of drinks.”
Polly Watts of The Avenue Pub knows the value of speed at a neighborhood bar. She wants her customers to wait no longer than three minutes for a cocktail. “Honestly, a customer expects to be served in less than a minute,” Watts says, “because customer time seems a lot longer than it seems to us. They’ve gotten up from their seat. They’re waiting before rejoining friends.”
Watts turned The Avenue Pub, once a scruffy dive, into a 24 hour beer mecca after inheriting it from her father in 2006. But she kept the relaxed attitude and reasonable prices. When she decided to upgrade the cocktail program this year, she created a small, whiskey-focused list. No drink requires more than three ingredients. All the complicated prep work has to be done in advance. The Blood Orange Old Fashioned with a house-infused syrup might sound exotic to the guest. For the bartender, it’s no more complicated to make than an average Old Fashioned. The barrel-aged Manhattan takes two months to create, but on a busy night it can be poured quicker than a pint.
Rhiannon Enlil knows the dive bar well. Her first bartending job was at a now-gone French Quarter dive where strippers would unwind and unruly patrons sometimes had to be brought in line with an ax handle. Since then, she participated in Tales of the Cocktail’s prestigious apprentice program. She managed the bar at the high-design International House hotel. She built a cocktail program for the renovated Hyatt Regency.
A few years ago, Enlil picked up two shifts at the Erin Rose, a well-worn French Quarter dive crammed with neon signs, faded flags, and car doors. At Erin Rose, she engages with regulars, tourists, and even the occasional rowdy drunk. It reminds her of why she came to the profession.
Enlil took it upon herself to create a cocktail program for Erin Rose. This summer, the list includes Erin’s El Corazon, with Tequila and jalapeño lime cordial, and the Conti Blossom, with spiced rum and honey/apple blossom syrup. Enlil makes the syrups at home. The owners cover the cost of ingredients, but Enlil doesn’t charge for her time. She doesn’t mind. But she recognizes that enthusiasm alone isn’t enough to sustain a cocktail program at most casual bars: “In the future, it’s going to be up to the owners of each establishment to start paying for that labor and that knowledge.”
Back at Brothers Three, Cousino had no complaints about his situation. “I’ve turned down a lot of job offers,” he says, “because—frankly—it’s three blocks from my house and I have almost complete freedom to do whatever I want. I bring my own ingredients. I can play around. I can put my own music on.”
Being on the night shift means he serves plenty of other bartenders coming in after work. “I’m the bartender to the bartenders,” he says. “The bartender to the stars, basically. And nobody tips better than other bartenders.”
Nicholas Jarrett, The Saint
- 1 1/2 oz. house three-rum blend (Demerara, Jamaican, and Martinique rums)
- 1 oz. pineapple juice
- 1/2 oz. lemon juice
- 1/2 oz. cinnamon syrup
- 1/2 oz. coffee liqueur
Shake all ingredients with ice; strain into tiki mug over crushed ice. Garnish lavishly. (“That means with a tiki umbrella,” Jarrett says.)
T. Cole Newton, Twelve Mile Limit
“This is our best-selling cocktail by a pretty good margin,” Newton says. “It’s essentially a Moscow Mule/Pimm’s Cup variation. The liquor cost is less than $1, and it takes about 7 seconds to make one from a batch.”
Makes 1 gallon or 64 servings
- 1 1/2 L. vodka
- 1 1/2 L. Zwack Unicum
- 1 L. simple syrup
- 64 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1/2 oz. lemon juice
- 1 1/2 oz. ginger beer
- lemon wedge
Combine vodka, Zwack, simple syrup, and bitters; reserve. Refrigerate. To make single cocktail, in a Collins glass combine 2 oz. batch with lemon juice and ginger beer. Fill glass with ice, garnish with lemon wedge, add straw, and serve.
Erin's El Corazón
Rhiannon Enlil, Erin Rose
Jalapeño lime syrup:
- 12 limes
- 2 cups superfine sugar
- 2 jalapeño peppers
Peel limes; muddle peels into two cups of super fine sugar; rest for 30–45 minutes. Muddle two sliced jalapeños; dd peppers to two cups of water in a saucepan; bring to boil for 5 minutes. Stir hot jalapeño water into lime sugar until dissolved and then strain into a bottle; chill. When cool, cap and keep refrigerated for up to three weeks.
- 1 1/2 oz. tequila
- 3/4 oz. jalapeño lime syrup
- club soda
- mint sprig
Combine tequila and syrup in highball with ice. Top with soda water and garnish with a mint sprig.
Blood Orange Simple Syrup
The Avenue Pub
Use syrup to build an Old Fashioned following a standard recipe.
- juice of 6 blood oranges
- juice of 1/4 pink grapefruit
- zest from one Valencia orange
- 1/2 cup unrefined Louisiana cane sugar
- 1/2 cup water
Combine juices and zest in pan; set on low heat; reduce by 20%. Add sugar and water; simmer until sugar is fully dissolved, strain; cool and reserve.
The Beet Down
Liam Cousino, Brothers Three Lounge
This cocktail is made with a simple Betroneé done in house, as opposed to the true Betroneé, which is a recycle distilled liqueur. For a unique twist, it can also be used in place of bitters for many cocktails.
Simple Betroneé: Yields about 14 cocktails
- 2 roasted beets, cubed (about 2 1/4 cups), with juice
- 16 oz. gin
- 10 oz. brandy
- 2 oz. honey
- 1/3 cup thyme
- 1/8 cup dill
- 1/8 cup mint
Mix all ingredients; let sit for 2-6 hours. Muddle ingredients and strain through cheesecloth; reserve.
- 1 3/4 oz. of Betroneé
- mint (for garnish)
- cucumber slices (for garnish)
- lemon rind twist (for garnish)
Pour Betroneé into a glass; top with Sprite; garnish with mint, cucumber slices, and twist of lemon rind.