It's a typical Thursday evening inside Loa, one of the relatively new and chic hotel bars that have sprouted up around the CBD and Warehouse District -- this one in particular inside the International House. The lighting is dim, and the sounds of Tricky and Portishead thump throughout the postmodern space. Bartender Jen VanAuken, with tattoo inspired by the Tom Robbins novel Skinny Legs and All, is captivating tourists at the bar as she goes through the paces in preparing the signature cocktail, the Cheval. The drink was inspired by a 1940s-era cocktail called the Moscow Mule, and the male patrons stare intently while VanAuken -- whose previous stints were at the R Bar and Fiorella's during the heady days of the Bingo! Show -- crushes up some cucumber slices along with the vodka and splashes of ginger beer over ice.
One of the male patrons shakes his head. "A cucumber?!," he marvels.
And then it arrives, fresh, clean and cool, the cucumber and ginger flavors suggesting that it accompany a round of sushi and sashimi.
"I've been making a lot more of them now that the weather's warmer," notes VanAuken, who's been tending bar at Loa for about a year. "I like it when it's a smaller crowd and you can teach them the recipes."
While even the cocktail culture of New Orleans is a little behind the curve of other large American cities, the desire to find something bold and something new is definitely there, which explains the growing popularity of this weekend's Southern Comfort's Tales of the Cocktail. With author appearances and cocktail-pairing dinners, the event speaks to our love affair with booze in an ever more sophisticated way. The appreciation of the specialty beverage is even inspiring some to consider giving cocktail-making classes in the same way New Orleanians offer cooking classes.
New Orleans' fondness for freshness in its drinks is most evident in Food & Wine Cocktails 2005, one of the books featured this weekend. The guide book includes recipes for drinks from the hottest nightspots in the country including offerings from eight different bars in New Orleans.
Featured drinks include the legendary blueberry mojito at St. Joe's, the historic Sazerac at the Ritz-Carlton's Library Lounge, the Linstead at Lilette, and the Half Sinner Half Saint at Herbsaint.
Virtually all of the drinks are perfect for summer sipping, starting with the blueberry mojito, which has become St. Joe's signature drink. This version pushed the envelope a bit when you think about it; one of the many charms of the mojito is its simplicity, the way the rum allows the mint to take center stage as a distinct and very tropical flavor without tasting too sweet. Throw in the blueberry and the sweetness factor shoots through the roof.
"It's easy to make, and people come in here just for them," says bartender Patrick Brower, a first-time bartender who's been making the drink at St. Joe's for about eight months now. "And you want to please your customer. The blueberry definitely makes it more fruity. People come in on a hot day and sit outside on the patio and immediately order one, it's so refreshing.
"It gets contagious," says Bower, who serves an inordinate amount of the drink to women. "Someone will see someone else order it and they'll order one."
That's not necessarily the case with the quaintly named Half Sinner Half Saint, with its aggressive blend of equal parts sweet and dry vermouth along with that great flavor gorilla: herbsaint, whose licorice taste can dominate almost any drink.
"Frankly, I don't get that many requests for it," shrugs bartender Monica Zeringue on a busy Saturday night. As she's preparing it, she warns that it can literally be an acquired taste, and sure enough, it's a muscular concoction that benefits with a little melted ice over a few minutes to calm things down. Later, Zeringue wonders if she's simply used too much herbsaint, but probably didn't. "It's difficult to make. In fact, we're trying to find a medicine dropper especially for the champagne cocktails."
Everyone loves to order Cobalt bartender Shane Dudley's Southern Comfort Julep, his updated version of the classic Southern drink, the mint julep. Dudley, a San Diego native and admitted fan of the martini and serving everything straight up, "muddles" (or mashes) the mint along with three-quarters of a lemon and a hint of sugar with a homemade muddler featuring a billiard ball. He even muddles the ice and serves the drink in martini glass rimmed with sugar. It also has that slightly aggressive sweetness you might find in the blueberry mojito, but it's delicious. "I don't like my drinks watered down," says Dudley, who will help prepare a cocktail-pairing dinner Thursday at the restaurant. (He has removed the Swamp Gas, featured in the Food & Wine book, from the menu.)
He thinks New Orleans is ready to join the rest of the bigger American cities and look for more variety in its drinks. "New Orleans is a city that, I hate to say it, is a bit behind the times," says Dudley. "But you can tell it's looking for something new."