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Bar Talk: The Spirits Handler

Posted on  | July 1, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Alan Walter, Creative Director, Loa, New Orleans, LA

When he worked at French Quarter icon Iris, Alan Walter’s artful cocktails were the perfect complement to the swanky restaurant’s contemporary American cooking. Now, he’s at Loa, the upbeat, candle-strewn bar at the cozy International House Hotel, captivating guests with vibrant “potations” like bourbon with lemongrass, thyme, mint and black walnut bitters.

THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: You have a background in theatre. How does this inform your approach to the bar?

ALAN WALTER: Creating drinks is a theatrical thing, with a moment of set-making to it. As the old saying goes: You may not be able to change someone’s mind, but you can change their mood. A bar space can favor all sorts of communal experience. It’s way more than what is in the drink. It’s about the hospitality exchange, the ambiance and the music. It’s important to have an eye on all those things.

TBN: How does New Orleans inspire your cocktails?

AW: The older I get, the more interested I am in historical details and the past. One of my most successful drinks is a modification of a recipe from the 1940s, the La La Louisiane with Rittenhouse Rye, Carpano Antica, Cynar, absinthe and chicory bitters. Really, the core of it for me is finding creative uses for indigenous things growing here, things that can’t even be purchased, but foraged, like clover and moss.

TBN: You are known for your array of house-made syrups. Tell us about them.

AW: They are the source of things that are inspiring to me: fresh citrus, different leaves and herbs. I have about 20 or so in use at a time, from a  ginger to Serrano pepper and rose petal. In our bar, these are at the bartender’s disposal—as close as the liquor bottles are—and have to be reached for constantly. It’s just one of the tools to make a recipe.

TBN: What are the most popular cocktails on the menu?

AW: A large percentage of the list is found pretty accessible to the audience. I have a cocktail with gin, pineapple-balsamic syrup, St.Germain and Thai basil: the Delilah. It seems to win people over. Another popular one is the Jean Lafitte, with rum, Pisco, Spanish moss, dried lime and fennel. I did not expect that. But it’s not that bizarre when you drink it. It has an earthy green tea taste.

TBN: So it doesn’t sound like you have to do much arm-twisting to get your guests to go beyond the Sazerac.

AW: The ball has been in play long enough that they have gone down that path already. Several factors that help that out, like a little bit of a trust. Or, when people see the theatricality of the bar and say, “Wait, what is all that for?” Then they definitely don’t want to order a martini when they can have a different experience here. The Sazerac is a tried and true drink for a certain drinker. I’m a bit out of love with it. It’s a legacy and profoundly simple, but I’m not sure how much it really expresses New Orleans.

TBN: As a bartender in a hotel, do you notice a difference among locals and those who are spending the night?

AW: Because it’s a boutique hotel, we’re more likely to get a well-versed traveler, the kind of person who can’t be at the Sheraton. I almost have more fun with people who see and taste a lot because then I can pull out the better tricks. It seems that maybe because New Orleans leans out toward the visitor, the cocktail culture has gotten more and more impressive. The locals definitely have a lot of great choices here, and we have a pretty good contingency, but many are casual and happy drinking a beer like they would in Austin or Dallas.

TBN: It’s time for Tales of the Cocktail again, and Loa will be slammed. How do you adapt, for instance, from a regular night at the bar to a crush of guests?

AW: I think the pleasures of the bar fade if you have to wait more than eight to ten minutes for a drink. It’s accepted at some establishments, but it’s really not okay. We have a lot of little tricks that help us. In a cocktail that may have seven ingredients, let’s say three are spirits. As long as they aren’t perishable, they can go in a bottle pre-mixed in proper proportion. That alone can help you have good service for a busy bar even when people are hitting the cocktails.


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