In his book, The Cocktail Chronicles, Paul Clarke refers to New Orleans as “the Jerusalem, the Mecca of cocktails.” This is a perfect description for a city that boasts the oldest structure in the United States to be used as a bar, a city that offers drive-through Daiquiri stands, open container laws and gas stations with liquor licenses and, in general, cherishes its cocktail culture with scores of New Orleanians being raised on Milk Punch, Bloody Marys, French 75s, properly made Vieux Carré and flambéed Cafe Brulot. Heck, New Orleans has even made the Sazerac it’s official cocktail. This is a city where drinking is a way of life, and no storm or levee breach was going to change that.
But, admittedly, Katrina did adjust things a little. It opened new doors for drinking experiences in the Crescent City. For instance, bars have popped up in neighborhoods where you wouldn’t have ventured before. And while the old drinks are still easy to find – Napoleon House sells hundreds of Pimms Cups a day and a perfect Vieux Carré can be found at the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel bar and beyond – cocktail culture has moved from traditional neighborhood bars and classic restaurants (not to mention the Bourbon Street icons like the Hurricane and the Shark Attack), to a newly created “Rum Row” along Decatur/N. Peters Street, and a whole slew of places one goes as much for the cocktails as the food; places like Three Muses, SoBou, and Angeline.
The biggest effect Katrina had was to weaken the bulwarks against change and allow some of the trending — positive and negative — into a city that in the past has often resisted trends — or fads — until they’ve come and gone.
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Things were different pre-storm. Simone Rathle, a New Orleans native and the owner of PR firm Simone Ink, recalls her mother’s Friday lunches at Galatoires and Sunday brunches there that ended with Cafe Brulot. She notes, “Being a New Orleanian I don’t like it when people say it has changed for the better. It wasn’t bad before. It has been a destination for eons.”
For Abigail Gullo, bartender at Compere Lapin, focusing attention on the city and its drinking palaces as destination remains a hard fought battle. She says, “Since Katrina I see a daily struggle for the community to preserve its identity and history and cultural relevance. Because it almost got wiped off the planet in one weekend with one storm.”
Indeed, it was that storm that changed things. Rathle notes, “Growing up when I was younger Freret wasn’t bad. But, as things change, neighborhoods changed and residents moved out and moved to other neighborhoods. When I was drinking at 16 – we’d go to Tug Harbor but never would we cross Esplanade. Now we’ll cross Esplanade to hear music and now I’ll go to Bywater. Everyone is pushing out further and further east. Katrina has gentrified so many of the neighborhoods that were forgotten. So many people moved out and have not come back, which made room for other people to move in. And those others were of a much of a younger generation. They had no fear of risk. No family, no concerns about schools. They came and built another community for New Orleans.”
Nick Jarrett, bartender at Cure and the Saint, is one of those folks who has recently made himself part of the community. Jarrett moved to New Orleans in 2012; an inevitable love affair with the city transpired after attending multiple Tales of the Cocktail, the renowned cocktail conference created by Ann Tuennerman. In the three years he’s been living in town he’s noticed a sea change but still turns to the locals for perspective.
“Not having spent much adult time in the city before the storm,” he explains, “I’m leery to make assumptions. However, from the folks I know who were down here before, I’d say the scene got substantially less rough and tumble. Given the tradition, conservatism, and continuity intrinsic to New Orleans culture, I think the biggest effect Katrina had was to weaken the bulwarks against change and allow some of the trending — positive and negative — into a city that in the past has often resisted trends — or fads — until they’ve come and gone. I’m not sure that cure would exist in its current form if some of the now-owners hadn’t evacuated to Chicago. Had so many restaurants not closed, and so many people not left for years, I’m not sure there would have been room for many of the newer operations that took root after the storm. For that matter, in the wake of Katrina, the country’s eyes really opened to New Orleans, and successive waves of transplants to the city have all brought different talents, offerings, and desires to the city.”
We took a look at the city and see it’s been damaged and had to say to ourselves ‘what can we do to change and fix it?’ and this renewed the spirit and love of New Orleans; we’re a much more positive city.
Ralph Brennan, restaurateur and native New Orleanian, agrees with Jarrett and acknowledges that Katrina blowing through created some significant changes in town, while simultaneously enticing people to hold onto traditions. Brennan and his colleagues and neighbors certainly could argue that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans.
“Beverages have been an important part of our city and our lifestyle here,” says Brennan. The storm certainly didn’t change that. It just shifted things. Brennan remarks, “There’s a new spirit in this town. We were a lazy quiet city back then and after Katrina, with the devastation, we had to decide whether to bring it back or not, and we stepped up. It’s changed the whole attitude of the city. It’s upbeat. More positive and we’re more willing to accept change. I tell the story – and everyone has a story but they’re all different – I’m sitting in Jackson, Mississippi at my friend’s house and they were talking about flooding and I knew our lives changed. It became a much different situation.” The situation presented was actually a choice. Brennan notes, “We took a look at the city and see it’s been damaged and had to say to ourselves ‘what can we do to change and fix it?’ and this renewed the spirit and love of New Orleans; we’re a much more positive city.”
That positive spirit has revived an interest in both old and new and both continue to thrive. Melvin Rodrigue, GM of Galatoire’s, notes, “We have a number of great cocktail traditions at Galatoire’s, if you can imagine that! After all, Galatoire’s and tradition in the same sentence is like a hand and a glove, and everyone always has a cocktail in their hand here. It’s a celebratory place. Sure, we have the wonderful craft cocktails that are so important today being created by our talented bartenders, but the reality for us is that the classics are classics for a reason – like so many other things at Galatoire’s. It’s because they’re time-tested, and your grandfather – that generation thing again – told you that’s how you order it at Galatoire’s. At Galatoire’s, a martini is served on the rocks unless you ask for it to be straight up, and there is no vermouth in it….none. An old fashioned doesn’t get muddled, that makes it a touch too sweet and draws attention from the bourbon. Milk punches at Mardi Gras time and Champagne all of the time are a given. Cafe Brulot adds flair and showmanship to your coffee and it’s potent.”
Potent change is what Nathan Dalton, Bar Director of Felipe’s Taqueria and Tiki Tolteca, has seen in the years since he came to New Orleans to go to college studying finance and chucked it for a career in hospitality. He remarks, “The cocktail scene was very different before Katrina. We had a few bars doing things right, and a few bartenders interested in the history and heritage of bartending – Those guys are now legends in the bartending world. We had a general populace who drank Ramos Gin Fizzes, Sazeracs, and Vieux Carres. But to get those drinks, people knew they had to go to the right bars. Now, people might venture to order those drinks in any old bar and halfway expect to get a good drink. That’s a big difference.
I think New Orleans’ willingness to embrace the cocktail revolution of the last decade or so goes hand in hand with our infatuation with our own past. The people here are so proud of their heritage, and for a place like New Orleans, that includes a lot about alcohol. That’s why people never completely stopped drinking Grasshoppers and Sazeracs, and it’s why even now that bartenders can make so many more great classics, people still seem to lean towards the ones that relate to the city.
He continues, “Even though that local pride has always existed here, I think Katrina magnified it. There was this common thread among the people who stayed who charged themselves with not letting such a unique and supernatural city fail. There was a massive embrace of everything New Orleans. At the same time, people were moving here because they wanted to help, and they wanted to be a part of and feel what the natives seemed to believe in so strongly. To what extent they actually embraced New Orleans as opposed to bringing the changes that they wanted to see is a matter of intense debate right now. “Post Katrina Gentrification” is a pretty polarizing topic. But New Orleans pride is strongly felt by old and new alike, and that feeds directly into good food and good drink. There were 800 restaurants in New Orleans before Katrina. Now, with a smaller population, we have 1,400. That sums up a lot.”
The sum total of restaurants has grown, but there’s no real good handle on the number of bars in the city; which speaks to its innate cocktail culture that survived the storm. Still, ability to quantify or not liquor license by liquor license, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the cocktail scene in New Orleans has completely changed since the storm. Dalton continues, “In our defense, we were never completely without good bars and good bartenders. Prohibition killed good drinking in much of the country, but New Orleans never completely lost its pulse due to people like Chris McMillian and Paul Gustings who were carrying the torch.” But according to Dalton, post-Katrina, things started to change. Tales of the Cocktail was in its fifth year and was starting to generate some buzz, thrusting New Orleans onto the map of the craft cocktail renaissance.
“In 2009, Kirk Estopinol and Neal Bodenheimer decided the city was ready for a modern, serious cocktail bar and opened Cure,” Dalton explains. “If Tales was the overarching influence that changed New Orleans into a cocktail Mecca, the opening of Cure was the moment that signaled that things were about to shift into high gear. More cocktail bars began to open, and today it seems odd if you don’t hear about a new one every week. 10 years ago, the well-thought-out cocktail list had to be sought out. Today, it’s expected.”
The expectation in pre-Katrina days may well be the same as in post. John Deveney, Owner and President of New Orleans-based Deveney Communication – and, not just coincidentally, the New Orleanian who created and helmed the New Orleans media center immediately post-Katrina so that international journalists had a reliable source of information and a refuge from the post-storm devastation -, concludes, “One of the things I think is interesting: the region’s recovery from Katrina happened because of the hospitality industry. And what a remarkable sea change there’s been in cocktails; there absolutely has been a transformation that even the blind would see. I tried to put my finger on it and have decided that it was outside forces like Tales and market trends like the way craft cocktails have flourished. But what I noticed was that the bars in New Orleans before Katrina were more about community and industry. Post-Katrina, it’s more about a culinary art than community and industry. By community I mean that there’s a very old joke that is both kind of joke and kind of reality. It goes, ‘when it snows like that the city shuts down and, therefore, when it snows you’re to report to your neighborhood bar for further instructions.”