A recent New York Post article suggested that New Orleans is mixologically mired in the past, obsessing about old warhorses like the Sazerac but ignoring current cocktail trends. Not from where we sit — which, early last month, was on barstools at Iris, Bar Uncommon, and Cafe Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick Bar, three forward-thinking watering holes for forward-drinking New Orleanians.
We were in town to host a Museum Of The American Cocktail seminar entitled “Who’s Your Daddy? A Mai Tai Paternity Test.” We’d like to report that the evening’s highlight was our dazzling dissection of whether Don The Beachcomber or Trader Vic invented the drink. But it was our co-host, rum authority Stephen Remsberg, who delivered the goods — in the form of a vintage bottle of aged Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum from his private collection. Stephen didn’t just bring it for show-and-tell, but cracked it open so that every one of the 60 people in the audience could sample the flavor that informed Vic’s earliest Mai Tai recipe.
The next night saw the Beachbum at Iris restaurant, where he collaborated with New Orleans transplant Wayne Curtis and Iris bartender Alan Walter on a “Don Q Rums Tiki Dinner” pairing exotic cocktails with exotic dishes. Each of us made drinks, but Alan made the biggest splash. Like some sort of Delta druid squeezing cocktails from a sorcerer’s stone, he combined rum, Aperol, honey, and Suze (a liqueur made from yellow gentian) with fresh-squeezed cucumber, muscat grape, cantaloupe, blood orange and lime juices to render the Sunfish Punch; his second potion, The Chandeleur, was an even more intricate balancing act incorporating such arcane ingredients as a house-made pandanus syrup. Where the hell he found pandanus leaves in Louisiana, let alone divined they would make a scintillating syrup, we mere mortals cannot know.
But we do know that visiting New Orleans and not having a cocktail made by Alan would be like visiting Paris and skipping the Jeu de Paume.
For further proof that his adopted city is upping the alcoholic ante, Wayne escorted us to Bar Uncommon, the lair of another mixological Merlin. Chris McMillian is such a storehouse of cocktail lore that the Smithsonian recently flew him to Washington to demonstrate how to make a mint julep (Chris literally broke the ice with a wooden mallet the size of Thor’s hammer, then recited a 19th-century ode to the julep as he mixed one). But he’s not only a classicist. Witness the drink he improvised for Wayne at Bar Uncommon, a postmodern mashup of fresh strawberries, citrus, rum, and God only knows what else; the result was to a Strawberry Shrub what a Shelby Terlingua is to an Amish buggy.
The Swizzle Stick is another New Orleans bar embracing both the city’s past and the cocktail’s future. Head bartender Lu Brow serves a full slate of cutting-edge creations, but she also shakes up forgotten New Orleans drinks rescued from obscurity by Swizzle Stick owners Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan. Lately Ti and Lally have been on a Tiki kick; not only have they revived two lost recipes from the long-gone New Orleans Polynesian palace, Bali Ha’i At The Beach (menu pictured above), they’ve also filmed an interview with the late owner’s grandson, which is now playing on their Cocktail Chicks site. ( They also did a segment with the Bum, which you can see by clicking the link below: )