Chuck Taggart is a dedicated cocktailian and native New Orleanian now living in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
Going into one of your favorite bars and seeing your favorite bartenders is always a good thing.
When that bar is Arnaud’s French 75 Bar on Bienville Street in New Orleans, you’re doing great just walking in the door. Seeing and hanging out with and getting drinks from both Bobby Oakes (who only works there rarely now, as he’s got a day job) and Chris Hannah (one of the most innovative bartenders in New Orleans) … well, in that case you are most certainly in the right place.
We had beautiful Sazeracs from Bobby on Thursday night (made properly, i.e. not overly sweet, which is still the bane of Sazeracs in the city of its birth), and the brandy-based version of the French 75 later on. I’m starting to come around on the brandy version, which New Orleans bars in general and this one in particular tend to serve over the original gin version. The gin version is great as an apéritif, but the brandy one does work quite well after dinner as a digestif. (Of course, if you’ve overindulged to the point of discomfort and incipient food coma, as we did at Mandina’s on Friday night, you’ll just have to skip right to the Fernet.)
On Friday before our dinner at Mandina’s we stopped into the French 75 to see Chris, and were as usual bedazzled by his drinks. I ordered his original cocktail, The Bywater, which has become a favorite of mine — aged rum, green Chartreuse, Averna amaro and falernum (oh boy, this is good). Our friends Louise and Michael, who are local and see Chris often, recommended a Vermouth Sour he had served them recently, and it was superb — spicy but light, flavorful and very very refreshing.
We also tried the Sue-Ellen O’Hara (Scarlett’s younger, meaner sister), which was wonderful, and contains Southern Comfort (!) and TWO kinds of bitters: Cynar and Amaro Cora, with a splash of cranberry and club soda. The recipe had two ingredients that’d normally get me running — Comfort and cranberry. However … this was the first time I’d had Amaro Cora in a bar. I’d never had Cora bitters in a cocktail anywhere but Ted Haigh’s house and our house (where is he getting this stuff?!). I’m not a fan of Southern Comfort, but the balance between the sweetness of that product and the double dose of amaro woke me up to its possibilities as a cocktail ingredient, long after I’d dismissed it. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Chris about it, but my guess is that the mention of Southern Comfort would draw in the tourists, who would then get a bit of an education about bitter liqueurs.
Chris is also offered a selection of Daiquiri adaptations based on the Nine Muses of classical Greek mythology, after whom several New Orleans streets are named. (You oughta hear how we pronounce them, too.) The Polymnia Daiquiri, besides the base of rum and lime, is “sweetened with hibiscus and spicy love;” the Melpomene (that’s MEL-po-meen, y’all) is “sweetened with honey and spicy love.” For each sweet Daiquiri there’s a bitter one too, keeping the balance and teaching all those Crown and Diet Coke drinkers what sophisticated adult beverages should taste like.
The Praline Rock ‘n Rye was amazing as well, simply praline-washed rye whiskey. He used the same technique for making simple rock ‘n rye — dissolving sugar in alcohol — but since pralines consist not only of sugar but butter and pecans as well, the flavor-carrying fat in that candy will transfer its flavor over to the alcohol. Chris said it took a long time for the pralines to dissolve, about three days, but after that he froze it to skim off the fat, then filtered it, and it’s served in a small glass on the rocks with a star anise garnish. Sweet. Gorgeous. And very New Orleans.