Back for Tales of the Cocktail in my beloved city of New Orleans, my last visit yielded these standout drinks at some new and some not-so-new spots (the latest on food and dining in Nola here).
KINGFISH, French Quarter
Wherever bartender Chris McMillian tends, I would go. As the consummate, lifelong bartender who showed me back in a 2008 visit to Nola what a true bartender is, I couldn’t miss drinks at his new home of Kingfish, conveniently located in the French Quarter.
Just try McMillian’s perfect Ramos Gin Fizz on a sultry Nola day. As he foams up egg white over the back of a spoon in a tall glass, served cool with absinthe, creme de menthe, orgeat, cream, you know you’re being served by one of the greats… and that the classics often pale made by the hands of others. Case in point: his Absinthe Suissesse is equally mesmerizing and thirst-quenching.
LOA, CBD (Central Business District)
As I wrote about in 2012, Loa remains the truly inventive cocktail menu of New Orleans thanks to Bar Manager Alan Walter. Another two returns this years was no exception. The swank, mellow bar of the International House is the kind of place where New Orleans’ classics like an Absinthe Suissesse ($11) are given a unique turn using coconut milk instead of cream, mixed with Dolin Dry Vermouth and Kubler absinthe, topped with an anise pod.
Additional kudos for fascinating creations like Pearly Gates ($12), decadently mixing 20 year old Grappa Stravecchio, Rothman & Winter Orchard pear liqueur, a lush-bracing golden raisin-Pinot Grigio vinegar and sparkling lemon radler (traditional German lemon soda-beer concoction); or a bright watermelon reduction intermingling with my beloved Redbreast Irish whiskey, gorgeous Crispin Rose Liqueur and herbaceous Elisir M.P. Roux in a Drawing Room cocktail ($13).
BELLOCQ, CBD (Central Business District)
Of all the newer-wave of cocktail bars in staunchly-classic-cocktail-driven New Orleans, Bellocq is possibly my favorite. In my estimation standing far above its sister bars, Cure and Cane & Table (see below).
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As a cobbler-based bar, it doesn’t copy bars done better elsewhere in the country, sharing a distant kinship with the cobblers and juleps at London steakhouse Hawksmoor. Bellocq’s luxurious velvet couches and corners still call to me on a hot Nola night. The bartenders know their stuff, while the unique focus on icy cobblers, sometimes served in frosty silver mugs akin to a Julep cup, might be nutty with Maidera or herbaceous-sweet with yellow Chartreuse.
They also serve a range of cocktails outside the cobbler. This summer, I was smitten with a preview of a new drink soon to launch on their menu, a subtly complex blend of Genepy, Marie Brizard Creme de Cacao and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin.
COQUETTE, Irish Channel
One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Nola, Coquette is the “whole package: heartwarming service, in a historic building, serving fine cocktails and fantastic, contemporary New Orleans cuisine (read more about the food here). Cocktails ($8-11) keep pace. I sampled four, all well made and gratifying without being complicated or fussy. They do lovely things with mezcal, while their St. James Sour is a beauty of Legendre Herbsaint, lemon, egg white and bitters perfected by root beer extract a sort of root beer absinthe sour.
CANE & TABLE, French Quarter
Cane & Table just opened this summer within days of my trip to Nola. From the team behind Cure and Bellocq, it’s a restaurant and rum-heavy bar some have dubbed Tiki in theme. There’s nothing Tiki about C&T other than that they serve tropical drinks. The feel is more Colonial-era rum trading with a Caribbean-influenced food menu, which launched after I visited.
As with Cure, which, after multiple visits over the years, I’ve found overrated in the scheme of great US cocktail bars (though original for Nola when it debuted), Cane & Table’s drinks did not overwhelm. But given the right ingredients, it’s the Nola bar for an elevated rum focus. Improved Bombo ($10) is an example of the right mix: the subtle funk of Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum, smooth Plantation 5 year rum, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Bittermans Tiki Bitters and fresh nutmeg coalesce into a pleasing whole. The only-in-New-Orleans back patio seals the deal, even if I can’t help but recall rum bar greats like Smuggler’s Cove or La Descarga‘s back room when sipping a C&T cocktail.
21st AMENDMENT, French Quarter
Though feeling more like a mediocre bar riding (late) on the speakeasy, Prohibition-era bar trend than actually truly knowing (much less perfecting) the genre, the one promising moment at newer 21st Amendment in the touristy depths of the Quarter was a drink called Anybody Wanna Peanut? Though sounding “iffy” as a mix of peanut-infused Maker’s Mark bourbon, honey syrup and Xcolate Mole Bitters, what made it fascinating was the peanut-y texture of the bourbon. Even though the drink wasn’t entirely balanced, it wins strong points for truly tasting of peanuts as other peanut-infused drinks often lack the flavor at all. They turned a tricky consistency into a rich, nutty sip worth perfecting – and creating more drinks from.