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When Kevin Farrell got the call to evacuate New Orleans in August 2005, he didn’t think much of it. “Everyone was saying this could be the big one but I’d gone through a couple of years of hurricanes and it was always OK. So I went to Burning Man [a festival 2,000 miles away in Nevada] and just forgot about it. There’s no radio or news in the middle of the desert, no cellphones — so I didn’t really know what had happened until I left several days later.”
What had happened was a catastrophe. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, its trail eventually killing more than 1,000 people, causing $135bn of damage and unleashing floods that left a million residents, including Farrell, homeless.
With his possessions soaking in 8ft of water, and no family to shelter him, Farrell — a student at the city’s Loyola University at the time — abandoned all hope of returning home. Instead, he made straight for Seattle, armed with little more than a pair of broken glasses, a train ticket from the Red Cross and the name of a couple who friends said would take him in.
Ten years on, Farrell is back in New Orleans and, like the city, he has proved resilient. He is now a bar owner, and part of a new generation of drinks entrepreneurs who are helping to drive the evolution — and regeneration — of one of the world’s great cradles of cocktail culture.
New Orleans’ population may be about 10 per cent smaller than it was before Katrina but the city that invented the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz, taught early 19th-century Americans to enjoy drinks made with ice, mixed juleps and frappes and punches for epicureans from Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde to Mark Twain, now boasts more bars and restaurants than ever. It also runs an international cocktail festival, which contributed a record $15m to the city’s economy this year.
When I meet Farrell in July, he is only a few weeks into the life of his second bar, Ursa Major, a great echoing cavern of steel, polished concrete and glass in the South Market District, a new $250m development just a couple of blocks from the infamous Louisiana Superdome (now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), where Katrina’s refugees took shelter.
On the edge of the Central Business District, South Market used to be a territory of rundown car parks; soon there will be 700 luxury apartments, dotted with restaurants and shops designed to lure in workers from the thriving start-up community. (New Orleans is producing new businesses at a rate that’s 64 per cent higher than the national average, according to The New Orleans Index at Ten report.) Compared with the colour and noise of the French Quarter, it’s a part of town that feels very much a work in progress. New hotels and offices are going up on all sides but there’s plenty of dead space too — car parks, half-demolished buildings, flyovers. It feels expectant, rather than urgent, like a filmset waiting to be populated.
If the boxy buildings and broad roads remind me of anywhere, it’s New York’s Meatpacking District, but I don’t say so — nothing riles a New Orleaner more than hearing their city compared to the East Coast. “It’s almost too early to tell what this part of the city is going to be,” says Farrell, slender and ponytailed, with an accent that betrays his peripatetic upbringing as a foster kid. “A lot of people were like, ‘Great, new homes, jobs’ but there were others who were like, ‘We don’t want it to be like New York City.’ It’s complicated. But we’re really proud of this space — I’m really excited to be here and watch this all happen.”
Most operators in a district like this would have been content to open a high-end wine bar. In a characteristic display of New Orleanian eccentricity, Farrell created a bar and restaurant inspired by the zodiac, complete with a cocktail list that changes with the star signs and a happy hour astrologer. That may sound pretty hokey but Ursa Major’s 4,500 sq ft look more like an art gallery than a fortune-teller’s tent — only a Milky Way of glittering orbs overhead alludes obviously to “outer space”. The food and drink is stellar, though, combining seasonal cocktails such as the Miracle Worker (blanco tequila, cucumber, rosewater, lime and bitters) with a menu of delicately spiced stews, curries and pickles inspired by stargazing cultures including Peru, Japan and Morocco.
“There are so many classical cocktail bars in town that do a really beautiful, wonderful job, and what do I have to add to that?” says Farrell. “So I try to find people that want to do cool shit and have fun and do something new. There’s a wink and a nod, though, in everything we do.”
This part of town is new territory for Farrell and his business (and life) partner Nick Vivion, who launched their first venture, Booty’s Street Food, in the more boho district of Bywater in 2012. Sleepy, low-rise and lined by a rainbow of dog-eared clapboard cottages, Bywater was one of the few neighbourhoods that escaped the floods, prompting an influx of artists and MacBook-wielding hipsters post-Katrina. And these days this crowd is the mainstay of Booty’s, rolling up in the hot evenings to sip the bar’s signature Bywater Bomber, a tongue-in-cheek twist on the Day-Glo blended Daiquiris you see all over “Nola” (New Orleans, Louisiana) made with an epicurean mix of fresh pineapple, orange, rosewater and rum.
Not everyone was taken by Booty’s when it first opened, admits Farrell: “There were people literally thinking: this is a gay couple starting a restaurant, this is gentrification at its finest. What’s next? But I’m 32 years old and I employ 60 people, and I try and take care of my neighbourhood — we do monthly staff volunteering where we do things like pick up trash, and help out at the [animal charity] ASPCA.”
The flipside to urban regeneration, of course, is that the people who put value back into an area usually end up being the ones who can no longer afford to live there. “It’s still a very artsy community but it was younger a couple of years ago — there’s now a lot of talk about people being priced out,” acknowledges Farrell.
The overall direction that New Orleans is headed, however, is a good one, insists Ann Tuennerman, founder of the city’s Tales of the Cocktail festival. “We used to have a brain drain,” says Tuennerman, who was born and raised in the city. “After college, people usually wanted to leave but now we’re seeing a lot of people staying or coming here — there’s lots of opportunity, a lot of new people and good energy.” Tuennerman’s festival — which began in 2002 with just 50 people — was still only a fragile three years old when Katrina hit yet she returned in time to host it again the following year. “I was broke, I had lost my only sponsor, in the restaurants we were eating off paper plates, and we went into a lot of debt. But we wanted to show that Nola was open for business.”
Today, Tales of the Cocktail is the most important event in the industry calendar, attracting 18,000 drinks professionals from all over the world for five days of tastings, events and seminars on topics ranging from terroir in peat smoke and flavour neuroscience to wartime cocktails and the latest trends in craft distilling.
When I first came to New Orleans for Tales seven years ago, the cocktail scene was still largely confined to the narrow, colonial streets of the French Quarter, where historic bars serving Sazeracs and French 75s jostle up against dive bars and takeaway Daiquiri shops dispensing alco-slushies the size of pedal bins. There was one bar, though, that we all made the trek two miles uptown for, and that was a new place called Cure. With its sandblasted brick walls, huge backlit spirits selection and preference for obscure amari and vermouths, Cure could easily have been a cocktail bar in London’s Shoreditch. Instead, it was on a broken-down street, in a hard-to-get-to bit of a city that was still getting back on its feet.
“When we opened, that part of town was still pretty much like the Wild West,” says Cure’s 39-year-old co-founder, Kirk Estopinal. “Yet the bar was a success, pretty much straight off the rip.”
Cure still regularly ranks among the world’s best bars, while Freret Street has blossomed into a busy parade of shops, bars and restaurants. “They literally revived the entire street,” says Tuennerman.
Since then, the Cure team has launched Bellocq at The Hotel Modern, a blood-red boudoir in the Arts District that does a fine line in twists on the Cobbler, a 19th-century classic made with fortified wine, liqueurs and fruit served over “cobbles” of ice; and the elegantly distressed Cane & Table on Decatur, not far from the jazz clubs of Frenchman Street. On a humid evening, this is the place to head for a Daisy de Santiago (rum, lime and Yellow Chartreuse over crushed ice) and a plate of crab claws amid the azure tables and potted palms of the bar’s candlelit courtyard. They are also in talks to open a new hotel bar.
“[The city] used to be a lot more complacent,” says Estopinal, who spent time bartending at Chicago’s celebrated Violet Hour before returning to his native city. “These days I’d say New Orleans is a city finding its identity in the present while protecting its past.”
One way it’s doing that is by putting a new spin on classic drinks the city is famous for: the rye whiskey Sazerac, made with the same Peychaud’s Bitters invented in the 1830s by the French Quarter apothecary Antoine Peychaud; the Ramos Gin Fizz, a fragrant soufflé of gin, lime and orange flower water that was so popular during Mardi Gras in 1915 that its creator had to employ a line of 35 shaker boys just to make that drink alone; and the Vieux Carré, a potent hit of cognac and rye whiskey created at the Hotel Monteleone, a 150-year-old edifice in the French Quarter most famous for having a cocktail bar on a carousel.
And that’s the thing about bars in New Orleans — they may take their drinks seriously but they’re also not afraid to have fun. Which is partly what prompted Los Angeles author and Tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his wife to relocate to the city and open Latitude 29, a riot of Polynesian kitsch which was shortlisted for Best New American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail.
“The first time [my wife] Annene and I stepped out of the airport shuttle into the French Quarter [in 2005], it was like, ‘Where has this place been all of our lives?’” remembers Berry. “It looked like Barcelona or some old European city, the people were great, there were Juilliard-trained musicians playing on the street, the bar and restaurant scene was vibrant, and each year our circle of friends widened and we got more and more love from the town. Plus we love restaurants and going out, and people go out all the time here; whether they have the money to or not, they find a way. That kind of sealed it for us.”
Decked out in a treasure trove of original Tiki ephemera and bristling with bamboo, Berry’s faithful throwback to the 1950s is the kind of place where your (painstakingly researched) Mai Tai comes garnished with a parasol, tropical fruit and a clip-on mermaid that would make even the most cold-hearted killjoy crack a smile.
But Berry is quick to doff his straw hat to the more traditional bars of the city. “Even before Cure, Chris Hannah at the French 75 bar [in the French Quarter] was putting New Orleans on the map for cocktail tourists. He took New Orleans’ own indigenous cocktail culture — since the mid-1800s, this city has been the only one in the US to have one, along with its own indigenous Creole cuisine — and tweaked it in new and compelling ways.”
As a luminary of the drinks world, Berry has the blessing of most of the Nola old guard but there are other incomers who have rubbed people up the wrong way. “After Katrina, everyone from Brooklyn felt sorry for us so they thought they could come down here and tell us what to do,” says Paul Gustings, a straight-talking veteran of the Nola bar scene who spent 35 years tending biker bars, dives and high-class cocktail joints before winding up at Broussard’s, a beautifully restored bar in the French Quarter. “And while we may have more bars than we had before Katrina, you still have places like the Lower Ninth Ward [the worst hit, largely African-American, district] which are whole areas of devastation.”
And that’s the uncomfortable truth about all of this — while the largely white, cocktail-sipping middle class of New Orleans has seen a big jump in living standards post-Katrina, the lot of the African-American majority has not improved at all, with a recent report putting the disparity between the incomes of white and black households at 54 per cent — far higher than the national average of 40 per cent. Yet Cure’s Estopinal believes that the trauma the city has experienced in the past 10 years could still end up being the making of it.
“The culture of New Orleans is out there in a way that it really wasn’t before the storm,” he says. “When something is almost destroyed people pay attention. New Orleans was seen as baby Vegas in a lot of ways. Now I think people visit and are interested in the history of the city . . . Now it’s up to New Orleans to write its story.
Alice Lascelles is the author of ‘Ten Cocktails: The Art of Convivial Drinking’ (Saltyard)
Illustrations by Nomoco