On an otherwise quiet Tuesday night in the French Quarter last month, bartenders from across the city gathered in the small, bordello-red front bar of One Eyed Jacks for a bout of friendly competition dubbed "On the Rocks Jukebox."
Randomly paired in two-person teams, the bartenders had to create a novel cocktail before the end of whatever rock anthem or pop ballad was blaring through the room. They were then judged on the drink's quality, how well it reflected the song and even the entertainment value teammates offered while mixing the on-the-fly concoctions behind a makeshift bar. There was no cover charge, few rules, plenty of innuendo, a little bloodshed (from over-exuberant lime slicing) and raucous greetings whenever a familiar face entered the room.
"We all have our own style, but we're all friends, so when we get together like this we get to be a little crazy with it," says Rhiannon Enlil, the event organizer and a bartender at the upscale Cure and the decidedly downscale Erin Rose. "It's just fun."
It may have been lighthearted, but the gathering was also a testament to the serious cocktail scene burgeoning in New Orleans. Far from the powdered mix punches and enormous plastic go-cups long affiliated with New Orleans drinks, in this new scene cocktails are afforded culinary attention, and the bartenders preparing them have formed an extraordinarily tight-knit league of fellow practitioners.
"New Orleans has always had cocktail history, but in a really short time New Orleans has become a world-class city for craft cocktails," says Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who writes about drinks and travels the world giving cocktail presentations. He moved to New Orleans in 2012 and plans to open a tiki bar here by the end of the year.
"There is some heavy talent in this town, but they're doing the cocktail thing in a different way, a New Orleans way," Berry says.
Outwardly, the signs of the cocktail trend in New Orleans resemble what's happening in other cities, with new cocktail-themed bars opening and cocktail lists proliferating at restaurants. But many of the people working in the business say there's a culture building alongside the rapidly growing scene, and that it stems from particular local conditions.
Some are practical, like the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival and conference, which brings the cocktail world to New Orleans each July, or the Museum of the American Cocktail, which opened its permanent home here in 2008 and hosts events throughout the year. New Orleans history plays a role, since many now-classic cocktails originated here. There's also a tie to the city's unique character.
"It's more than the recipes, it's more than the ingredients. It's something richer and something deeper," says Dale DeGroff, a drinks consultant who is widely credited with leading the cocktail revival as a bartender at New York's famed Rainbow Room beginning in the 1980s. "It's just the whole package. New Orleans is hospitality, sophistication, style, married to a naughty, childlike enthusiasm, and when you put that in the context of cocktails, you can see why they're so big here now."
The city's modern craft cocktail scene didn't start big. It began with a handful of bartenders sharing with customers their passion for the history of cocktails and the potential of carefully composed drinks. For years it remained a fairly small circuit of individuals including Chris McMillian, a veteran bartender who works at the new restaurant Kingfish; Lu Brow at the Swizzle Stick Bar, which opened in 2004 in conjunction with the Brennan restaurant family's Cafe Adelaide; Chris Hannah at Arnaud's, who transformed the venerable Creole restaurant's French 75 bar into an anchor of the early craft cocktail movement; and Alan Walter, who first introduced his complex, often botanically driven drinks at the restaurant Iris and is now creative director for the CBD bar Loa.
More craft cocktail destination bars began to emerge, like Bar Tonique in the French Quarter and Cure on Freret Street. Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, says these forerunners helped legitimize the craft cocktail approach in New Orleans.
"People started realizing that the bar can't be taken for granted," Tuennerman says. "Not everybody has to be making their own bitters, but the idea of quality and craft is drilling down and spreading out."
Neal Bodenheimer, who opened Cure with his business partners in 2009, says craft cocktails – with their specialty ingredients, longer prep time and typically higher prices — weren't immediately embraced by everyone.
"For the first year after we opened, I wondered if craft cocktails would really catch on here," he says. "A lot of people just thought it was precious. And, let's face it, sometimes some of it is a little precious. But once we got our bar-side manner right, bringing in more of that New Orleans hospitality and customer focus, more people got to see that it's really about pride in craftsmanship and that they get something better as a result."
Bodenheimer and his partners expanded in 2011 with Bellocq on Lee Circle; in June they plan to convert the former French Quarter bar Pravda (which they now operate as a long-term pop-up bar Perestroika at Pravda) into Cane & Table, a bar focused on rum drinks. Bodenheimer, who grew up in New Orleans and learned about craft cocktails while working in New York restaurants, believes the cocktail boom here is part of the city's overall reboot since Hurricane Katrina.
"People are moving here in a way I've never seen before," he says, "and in the cocktail world they're moving here because there's opportunity in their field and because there's history here."
In some ways the recent rise of craft cocktails in New Orleans mirrors trends in the culinary world. The fresh and handmade approaches hold sway and, like their chef counterparts, the professional horizons for bartenders have soared as their work gets more attention and acclaim.
Even in the 1990s, McMillian remembers, introducing higher quality (and pricier) ingredients for the classic cocktails he wanted to serve led to battles with management wherever he worked. Now he describes a relationship of "true collaboration" with the owners of Kingfish, who prominently feature his name on the restaurant's website. Known as a font of cocktail history, McMillian fields interviews from around the world, and his presentations have taken him from the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. to a global Slow Food symposium in Italy.
"It's just like in restaurants now, you have so many ways of expressing yourself at the bar," he says. "The opportunity for growth and travel and learning is endless now. But we couldn't do all of this if we were just making gin and tonics all the time."
Bartenders say Tales of the Cocktail has been instrumental in recasting the image of New Orleans drinks, developing local talent and inspiring more people in the industry to move to New Orleans.
"You know the way some people come for Jazz Fest and never leave? That's what happens to bartenders at Tales," Berry says.
It was a basic introductory seminar to bartending at the event in 2006 that led Tiffany Soles away from a hotel sales job and into the career path that put her behind the bar at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse. She liked the way craft cocktails combined technical precision with creative interpretation, and she liked the social atmosphere of a bar. Soles joined the U.S. Bartenders Guild, and today she's the local chapter's president. Initially the openness of the guild's members took her by surprise.
"You go to their networking events and people really are networking," she says. "I remember in the sales world, if you had any edge at all you kept that to yourself. But with us, if you're looking to improve a drink that has you stumped, 30 people will tell you their suggestions and experiences."
Anderson Stockdale says that spirit helped her find her way quickly in the cocktail scene after moving to New Orleans from Seattle in 2010.
"I feel like this community scooped me up," she says.
Stockdale initially worked at a coffee house, but once she expressed an interest in learning cocktails, people were effusive with advice on everything from books to seminars to job openings. She now holds shifts at different bars (Bellocq, the Mid-City backstreet bar 12 Mile Limit and the late-night, hard-rocking watering hole the Saint) to get a variety of work experiences. This mobility in and around the New Orleans cocktail circuit is common, and it's another dynamic behind its tight-knit nature.
"I've gotten every job here from recommendations from other people, bartenders who are willing to help you out and bar owners who encourage you to try new styles," she says. "I think in other cities people are just a lot more competitive and protective of what they know in this business, whereas here everyone really does help each other out."
The idea of community and collaboration in the New Orleans cocktail world extends beyond bartenders. In fact, it helped convince Janet and Avery Glasser to relocate their artisan bitters and spirits company Bittermens to New Orleans earlier this year after outgrowing their original production facility in Brooklyn, N.Y. The husband-and-wife team ship their handmade products worldwide, so they wanted to be near a port. Less practical considerations sealed the deal for their move, however.
"We both felt like as soon as we came here, we were invited in," Avery Glasser says. "Every time we're out for dinner or for drinks, we bump into people from the industry. That's good not just for business opportunities but to feel, at the end of the day, like you're part of a community."
Enlil, of Cure and Erin Rose, says bartenders here collaborate so openly because they feel like stewards for the growth of their industry and ambassadors of the city. They're constantly texting one other with questions about their drink specialties, she says, and they refer customers and savvy visitors to favorite peers around town.
Kimberly Patton-Bragg, who leads the bar at the Lee Circle restaurant Tivoli & Lee, says this is "like having a bartending library in everyone's brains that we can access." But the close alliance among New Orleans bartenders also may belie a little defensiveness.
"We've been beat up a bit with all the talk about how ... the real cocktail culture is in New York or San Francisco," Patton-Bragg says. "So, if anything, we are protective of each other more than competitive against each other. We know we represent New Orleans."
Everyone in the business has heard the knocks on New Orleans cocktails, says Steve Yamada, another bartender at Tivoli & Lee.
"It goes like, 'The drinks are too sweet, oh, the water quality isn't good enough, you can just tell by the ice,' stuff like that," he says dismissively.
Just last month a New York Times travel feature named San Francisco as "New York's only real rival for American cocktail supremacy." But Loa's Walter says the cocktail culture in New Orleans is unique because it has more to do with local significance than national superlatives.
"The culture isn't special here because we have the most edgy cocktails or micro-distillers or the most cocktail bars," he says. "We're outdone on sheer numbers alone by other cities. But it's because we're closer to the reason why people drink cocktails and celebrate and commune in the first place."
Skilled bartenders can make upscale drinks anywhere, but here, he says, "it's backed up by a culture that espouses what spirits are for: toasting to the essence of things. To be at their best, cocktails call for an occasion, and we are nothing if not a rosary of occasions."
Could the nascent New Orleans cocktail culture change? Berry says it's possible that as cocktails gain a larger profile here, "opportunistic people" could jump in the game, motivated more by a glitzy scene than a dedication to craft. But, he says, the city "has a way of weeding that out."
"This is a hard place to live," Berry says. "You have hurricanes and power failures and all this Third World infrastructure we have to deal with all the time. So the people who don't really love it and love the people are probably not going to last very long, because if you're just after the money, you can probably do better in other markets."