An issue with the Bienville House's gas supply has darkened Iris Restaurant as I arrive to discuss mixology with Alan Walter, alcohol ambassador and lead alchemist for the North Peters Street eatery. For more than an hour, Walter discussed the most creative bar in New Orleans. Chef Ian Schnoebelen moved his Carrollton cottage industry to the French Quarter in October, and with it came an expanded drink menu and an expansive space for Walter to "play," as he calls it, with a list of complex ingredients that would prove a gauntlet for most culinary school grads: herbal tinctures, root syrups, filtered liquids dripping slowly into decanters, and something large I spot bobbing in a pot boiling in back, a Loch Ness monster mystery on which Walter politely declines comment. ("I'm planning on doing some bottling," he explains.) As the mad scientist prepares to mix a Hidden Tree — kaffir lime leaf infusion, four white wines, fresh pear, orgeat — from a row of multicolored bottles and beakers, I get nosy.
All of this is bar gear? It looks like a laboratory.
Yeah, and this is minus the juices. We use probably 10 fresh juices. The syrups, if I'm playing or setting up the bar, they stay out for service. They can bear the room temperature.
Walk me through what you're working with here.
Sassafras tea, which I just made a little while ago from sassafras root. We make our grenadine. There's rose syrup. Agave nectar, which we obviously don't make. Mint syrup. Brewed chicory.
And what are you decanting over there?
I had a rustic pineapple beer fermenting for the last week. It's not exactly beer — it doesn't have hops or malt in it. Basically it's a yeast fermentation. I'm going to use it in a punch.
Which new items on the list excite you?
Whispering Sands (Old New Orleans Rum, sassafras root tea, muddled Mexican peppers, rosewater, orange blossom water, lemon, agave nectar) looks like it's going to be the leader of the pack. It's maybe got some slightly fall things going on — I would say desert-y things, or Western things.
Any carryovers from the old restaurant?
The Lafourche Sweet Tea (vodka, satsuma juice, chicory, mint syrup, lemon) we've run before when satsumas are in season, and it's always gone over real well. The Velveteen (vodka, Velvet Falernum, fresh grape and apple, cilantro, mint, lemon, egg white) might've had a different name, like Cilantro Mint Fizz. That drink has been around. We've been through two-and-a-half seasons now, so I've got the lure of whatever's in season as well as just doing a new drink. I could play with satsumas forever. I just love them.
So many of your signature drinks are tropical, or aligned with the summer season. Is it a challenge to design recipes for cooler weather?
That's interesting that you noticed that. I think that's true. I like a strong herb and fruit element. I'm not tiki-centric, really. You know how classic cocktails will be all booze sometimes? Not that I don't like those, but there's something about the climate and everything here — I like a long drink. That means other elements going on. But I respect anyone that just wants a nice scotch, neat, on a winter night.
What things do you see adding in the coming months?
We're going to have burners back here, so we'll do some mulled wine. We did a hot sweet potato drink that might deserve to come around again. And it wasn't too weird.
You've used everything from cilantro to smoked plantain in a drink. Ever had any disasters, or ingredients that refused to cooperate?
Oh yeah. I would go in the other place and play for three hours, several days of the week. A lot of things didn't work. But it wouldn't always be like hitting a big wall — something would not go, and it just had to be off to the side. I did a Creole tomato cocktail, which had nothing to do with a Bloody Mary. It actually presented the fruit as sweet. That was really borderline. Some people liked it. For me, if a tomato starts to cook for any reason, it's nothing I want to taste in a cocktail.
What are your feelings on the new space?
Oh, it's a blast. There was stuff stuck into everything (before). Now, on the weekends, two bartenders can be on. I think what I'm doing is setting it up using a sushi bar as a model.
And the neighborhood? The Quarter brings a different clientele than Carrollton.
I like Ian's attitude — being down here is not going to make him put crawfish on the menu. In fact, he gets riled up when people are overly New Orleans. You want to bring in the whole season. I would prefer to find something growing in Franklinton that somebody didn't know about. We're pushing the limit. We could've done six cocktails. But, no, it's more fun to do 13. And a special on the board.
(Reading) "Baked Spiced Apple Mojito"?
Yeah. That's a good one.
But did your approach change with the new restaurant?
As it happened, I got to play a whole lot while the restaurant was closed. My kitchen was a complete lab and also a disaster for a while. For that reason, I guess, nine or 10 new cocktails came about. So it was pretty productive. There are a few cocktails that have evolved or stayed — like the Green Door (Chartreuse, fresh Granny Smith apple, lemon, basil, mint, sage, ginger). It's one that people enjoy.
You've called Chartreuse "a mansion at night with a green velvet lawn and a thousand windows: Every time you knock a light goes on in a different room."
I'm in love with it. (Gesturing to a row of bottles) We had a shelf, so I brought my old Chartreuse collection. It's beguiling.
I can't help noticing you also have a bottle of Unicum. I was once the unfortunate recipient of a gift from Hungary.
That's funny, because I just brought that here today. It was one of the last bottles hanging around the house. I found it underneath the desk. Did you ever find anything tolerable to do with it?
Only tricking unsuspecting guests into swigging it.
(Laughs) Really Jägermeister-y. It can be so interesting to mix, though. If you're putting in even a quarter ounce, with larger proportions of three or four ingredients, then they spread their wings, and it's not just a big bag of herbs. (Tastes) I feel like I could cut against qualities in this, and do something with it. It's got a heavy chocolatey taste. Its aftertaste is what I don't like so much — the not-so-good medicinal thing. But that can be trimmed off.
Any concoctions come to mind, as you're tasting it?
Maybe an interesting beginning-of-winter coffee drink with Cherry Heering (dry Danish liqueur). Maybe pineapple — the right kind of acid, and a lot of leftover taste after the acid, as opposed to lemon juice. ... Coffee can hide a thousand wrongs, but I'm thinking of a coffee cocktail that surprises you in a way, that doesn't just fall into the Kahlúa-and-coffee mold.
If you create something useful with Unicum, you are the best bartender in town.
I'll do that. Just for the challenge.