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Shaking Up a Scene 

Craft cocktail purveyors carve a niche in a go-cup town

click to enlarge At Cure, proprietors Neal Bodenheimer (left) and Matthew Kohnke are - cultivating both craft cocktails and a suitable ambience to enjoy - them. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • At Cure, proprietors Neal Bodenheimer (left) and Matthew Kohnke are cultivating both craft cocktails and a suitable ambience to enjoy them.

Drinks are notoriously easy to come by in New Orleans, land of the go-cup, 24-hour bars and movie theater daiquiris. A growing number of bars are testing the virtue of patience, however, as local drinkers cool their heels in deference to the craft cocktail trend.

  Drinks are made from classic recipes or are imaginative new interpretations. They're mixed with freshly squeezed juices and assertive, sometimes exotic liquors, bitters and vermouths. They're labor-intensive and often prepared by bartenders who take authorial pride in the product they slide across the bar. They offer stark departure from the Jack-and-Coke, shot-and-a-beer bar standards.

  Though some may dismiss them as precious, to their boosters such concoctions come with history and heritage and are as worthy of the time and energy put into them as dishes at fine-dining restaurants. Indeed, the craft cocktail trend in New Orleans was first incubated at upscale restaurants and found early roosts at places like Cafe Adelaide's Swizzle Stick Bar, where bartender Lu Brow goes by the title "bar chef," and Iris Restaurant, where bartender Alan Walter's drink menu evolves continuously.

  But lately, more bars are embracing the style, and in the process serve as proving grounds for how an exacting, artful approach to alcohol can mesh with a thirsty town's bar culture.

  The new Freret Street cocktail bar Cure has quickly emerged as a nightlife hot spot, though it's clear not everyone comes for the cocktail menu that owner Neal Bodenheimer meticulously developed. Part of his response was to institute a dress code prohibiting baseball caps and visors at any time and shorts after 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

  "I got into the bar business because there's something I want to do, something I want show New Orleans," says Bodenheimer, a New Orleans native who learned his cocktail skills in New York. "When I look around this room, people look good, and it looks like the kind of place where you want to take the time to have a drink."

  The policy has brought him plenty of grief from would-be patrons, but he maintains it's an important part of his vision for Cure as a place where the craft of fine cocktails is revered and revived.

  "Our long-term success is based on our cocktails and our service," he says. "Eventually the wow factor will wear off. Then we're just a cocktail bar getting our stuff out there, which is what we've always wanted to be."

  At Bar Tonique on the edge of the French Quarter, bartenders sometimes use the sidewalk chalkboard to advise passersby what they can't order, like the popular energy drink/mixer Red Bull. It's aimed at discouraging those who might not appreciate the finer points of house-made tonic water and rare Chartreuse.

  "We don't even like to have more than 35 people in because it gets to be too much. There's no way to trim the fat on our drinks, and they do take time to make," says bartender Matt Palumbo.

  He believes bartenders at places like these must be willing to trade more lucrative shifts elsewhere for the pleasure and pride of practicing a craft.

  "Making $150 here is a good night. You could make $300, $400 a night at Pat O'Brien's, but no one will know who you are. I'd be miserable," Palumbo says.

  The Mid-City bar Clever started out as a wine-bar extension of owner Jon Smith's wine shop Cork & Bottle, but it has evolved into a cocktail destination as well. Mixing these cocktails takes longer than pouring a glass of Malbec, but Smith and Clever bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg agree the room's wine-bar ambience usually attracts an appreciative clientele.

  "People understand the time it takes for drinks like this, and from there it gets back to good bartender basics," Patton-Bragg says. "You schmooze, you charm, you know what your regulars want before they ask and that's still how you manage this."

  Cocktail enthusiasts tend to be more moderate drinkers anyway, says Wayne Curtis, a local writer and drinks correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.

  "It's the slow cocktail crowd, like slow food. They're not averse to getting drunk, but they want their tastes challenged," Curtis says.

  He says things are different at Cure, however, because it was conceived with craft cocktails in mind but has attracted a party crowd not always interested in its specialty.

  Beyond enforcing Cure's dress code, Bodenheimer now uses an apprentice system behind the bar to train more staff, and his bartenders use jiggers to measure ingredients, ensuring a consistent product no matter how busy it gets.

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