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Who Owns New Orleans: Historic Cocktail Institutions or Bourbon Street?

Gumbo is a phenomenal New Orleans dish. It’s a traditional stew of seafood, sausage, chicken or pork, rice, and various spices thrown together in a single pot and fortified by a thick roux. When made with quality ingredients, attention to detail, and a little love, the results are balanced and satisfying.

New Orleans drinking culture is not unlike gumbo. Instead of rice and proteins, its ingredients are a jumble of important cocktail history and bumbling, stumbling overindulgence up and down Bourbon Street, seasoned with Sazeracs and Vieux Carrés and Hurricanes and topped off with generous sprinkles of reverence and raunch. Bourbon Street and the rest of the French Quarter carry their own unique flavor via their well-earned, hard-partying reputation, but outside their  boundaries are revered spaces upholding cocktail lore and pushing the drinking scene to more sophisticated places. It’s a recipe that helps the Big Easy attract millions of visitors every year, which is what it needs to do — tourism is the city’s lifeblood. Raw numbers suggest it’s a good one. The Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism reported $1.9 billion in state and local tax revenues came from travel and tourism in 2022, and it’s not difficult to deduce that the Crescent City contributed a healthy chunk of that figure.

Talking to the locals in the city’s hospitality industry, though, paints a slightly different picture. There are growing concerns that the city’s rowdiest street has changed for the worse. “Bourbon Street was around long before we were. It’s an important part of our culture,” explains Neal Bodenheimer, founding partner of CureCo., the bar and restaurant group responsible for acclaimed local venues Cure and Cane & Table. “It’s always been part of the city’s conversation. Maybe it was a little raunchy, but that was part of its history, too. Now, it’s all about [money] extraction. Part of that is tourist commodities driven for profit.”

This heightened emphasis on tacky T-shirts and the three-foot-long frozen Daiquiris can potentially interfere with the promotion of New Orleans’ cocktail history and innovation, even though some of it does happen inside the French Quarter. It also inadvertently provides the talented souls within the city’s excellent classic and contemporary cocktail scene a unique opportunity to promote these elements on a far more intimate level.

The Center of the Action

If you walk north from the intersection of Bourbon Street and Iberville Street and stay to the left-hand side, you’ll run into Galatoire’s 33. The legendary steakhouse opened in 1905 and enforces a strict dress code where T-shirts are forbidden and jackets are required for dinner. Two doors down from Galatoire’s stands Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, a neon-tipped pillar of debauched attitudes replete with window panes plastered with old magazine covers featuring women dressed on technicalities.

This juxtaposition of class and crass encapsulates the spirit of the French Quarter, and it extends to the drinking scene. Full exploration of the grid can lead you to touchstones of cocktail history both verified (the Vieux Carré was indeed invented at the Hotel Monteleone) and embellished (Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop’s status as North America’s oldest bar is a brilliant legend). You’ll also find important modern venues upholding cocktail craftsmanship, like Peychaud’s, Beachbum Barry’s Latitude 29, and Jewel of the South, the last of which is helmed by co-owner and Tales of the Cocktail’s 2022 Bartender of the Year Chris Hannah.

Stay on Bourbon Street, and you’ll encounter the anticipated blasts of neon trumpeting big-ass beers and stiff drinks that could lead to bad decisions made in full view of the public. It’s the street where personal stories are authored and legends are born, and it makes for a great selling point for people that perceive New Orleans as chiefly a place to cut loose. This is the version of New Orleans that exists on billboards, ads, and other forms of media. This strategy is effective, but not fool-proof.

“There are those that come to New Orleans with very little idea of what New Orleans is about. They just know what they heard,” explains Andy Pratt, lead bartender for Dovetail Bar just outside the French Quarter. “They’ll go to Bourbon Street and see the sights and smell the smells, but they may not always like what they see and smell.”

We Need a (Proper) Drink

Even if tourists are into those sights and smells, even the hardiest of revelers may need respite. This sentiment is precisely why the more sophisticated side of the city’s drinking culture is such a vital component to its success.

“We have so many people come here and tell us, ‘We can’t take another night on Bourbon Street,” explains Carly Lacoste, bartender and shift manager at the Parisian-influenced, lounge-style Bar Marilou in the city’s Warehouse District. “They may just order something basic like an Espresso Martini, but they visit because they want something more intimate.”

“Bourbon Street is a parade of one-time guests. Once you go there, you’re good.”

These opportunities provide a natural excuse for the city’s craft bartenders to flex their hospitality muscle and introduce guests to an element of Crescent City drinking culture that may float under their radar. It may also provide them with a platform to give willing ears a history lesson about why imbibing matters so much around here.

“Nonchalantly, it is my No. 1 method of operation,” Hannah says. “When given a half a moment, I’ll remind guests that the Crusta is the first sugar-rim cocktail and how it led to the Margarita, Daisy, and Cosmo. Or that the Sazerac was ‘our’ Old Fashioned and the Louisianne predates the Manhattan, among other things.”

There’s plenty of drinkable history in New Orleans to discuss — and it should be discussed because it’s so fascinating — but the scene is by no means stuck in the past. “People that work in the city are focused on pushing cocktails forward,” says Lacoste. “This doesn’t necessarily mean just doing riffs on classics.” She speaks from experience: One of the drinks she created for Bar Marilou, the Sorry Not Sorry, is a frozen concoction featuring herbal liqueur, pineapple, lime, and Malört. It’s as funky as it sounds, and twice as delicious.

The efforts of these cocktail stewards are key to showcasing the breadth of the New Orleans drinks scene. At the same time, they fully understand their place in its hierarchy.

“’Let the good times roll’ will never be second best to what we cocktail bars have done for our city,” Hannah states. “Sure, we will get many visitors and locals coming to the Quarter ‘not’ for Hurricanes and Hand Grenades, but they’ll never surpass the troves who long for the Bourbon Street experience.”

Expanding Tastes

A classic or modern craft cocktail can be more than just a drink in New Orleans. It can place a bartender in the noble position of encouraging a guest burned out on Bourbon Street to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for drinks and drinking.

“I feel pressure to keep evolving the city’s cocktail history, but it’s pressure in the best of ways because it’s self-pressure,” Pratt says. “What we’re offering is drinking at a higher level, and what I’m doing with these cocktails is coaxing guests to try something new. and hopefully plant a seed that lets them know that there’s more to drinking than trying to get laid or get f’d up.”

This form of cocktail gardening could go a long way to encouraging repeat visitors to New Orleans. Bourbon Street doesn’t necessarily have this power for guests and locals, despite its promise of decadence and debauchery. “Bourbon Street is a parade of one-time guests,” Bodenheimer states. “Once you go there, you’re good.”

“I’ve lived in New Orleans for seven years,” adds Lacoste. “I’ve walked the entirety of Bourbon Street exactly one time.”

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Most major cities have an area like Bourbon Street that skews heavily toward tourists. (If you don’t believe this, ask a New Yorker their opinion on Times Square). These areas are important. Bourbon Street will always be an essential visit for the New Orleans tourist, and that lone visit can form an impression about the rest of the city. This is why the notion of Bourbon Street hyper-focusing on profitability is so potentially concerning to longtime hospitality locals like Bodenheimer. It’s also why he’s quick to point out organizations like the Vieux Carré Commission and venues within the French Quarter that uphold the history and elegance on and adjacent to the thoroughfare.

The French Quarter may not be their favorite part of the city to visit, but it’s still an important part of a city that they love.

“I’m thrilled that the old-guard restaurants like Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s still do what they do,” he says. “They’re culinary and cultural beacons that need to exist.”

A Rising Tide Raises All Boats

You’ll rarely hear a bartender outright badmouth Bourbon Street. They’ll never judge a patron coming from there or planning to go there. They may encourage a guest to drink better when they’re at their bar, but they’ll also dole out advice on how to stay safe and how to be mindful of seedy scam artists that lurk about the French Quarter’s main drag.

The reason for this is respect. The French Quarter may not be their favorite part of the city to visit, but it’s still an important part of a city that they love. Concerns about how its drinking scene may be promoted don’t come from a place of jealousy over spent tourism dollars; they come from a deep appreciation for the history and legacy of a neighborhood first established in 1718. And lest anyone forget, the people serving hurricanes at Pat O’Briens or Hand Grenades at Tropical Isle are in the same industry as the person presenting a Sazerac in a well-polished rocks glass.

“We all have to pay our disgustingly high power bills and water bills, rent, and taxes, so I don’t mind sharing the love with the shot girls and guys three blocks from me on Bourbon Street,” Hannah says. “We’re all what makes this city go each day, so it would be a bit douche-y for me to judge anyone.”

The article Who Owns New Orleans: Historic Cocktail Institutions or Bourbon Street? appeared first on VinePair.

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