Local Cocktails

Mixing with the Locals

My Rouses Everyday, May & June 2018

There’s a French Quarter bartender I won’t name (for reasons soon to become obvious) who was intrigued by a cocktail recipe he saw in a 1905 Louisiana cookbook.

This drink called for orange blossoms to make a syrup, but he couldn’t find any in bloom. So he improvised: Late one night he crept through the Garden District, a lotus looter surreptitiously reaching over wrought-iron fences to harvest rose petals and hibiscus blossoms. From these he made a subtly floral syrup that went into one of his cocktails. It was delicious. It tasted like the Garden District.

While fanciers of spirits and cocktails are increasingly attuned to asking for local spirits — Louisiana now has about a dozen distillers — “local” has other routes of finding its way into a glass, and these may be even more essential. Spirits don’t go “off” since their high alcohol content acts as a preservative. Consequently, liquor has historically traveled far and wide to be enjoyed in distant lands. New Orleans has always been a comfortable landing spot for cognac from France, or whiskey from flatboats floated down the Mississippi River.

Mixers to mingle with these spirits, on the other hand, were often made with juices and fruits and syrups that weren’t designed to travel long distances, especially under the somewhat more primitive conditions of the 19th century. So what went into the glass hereabouts was often local.

That tradition certainly is healthy at Loa, a cocktail lounge off the lobby of the International House Hotel in the Central Business District. Alan Walter, the bar’s longtime creative director, has been foraging for ingredients in South Louisiana for years, always on the lookout for what he might coax into a cocktail glass.

I once walked into Walter’s establishment to find several feet of longleaf pine limb lying casually on the bar, as if resting up after a long journey. I asked him if it was decorative, and he explained, with the sort of nonchalance one might reserve for discussing a minor change in the weather, that he had found it along a road in City Park after a recent windstorm. He brought it in to make a resiny syrup out of its needles. He chopped the needles up in a Vitamix blender with sugar syrup, and after it had steeped for some time he filtered out the needles to crate a lovely, emerald-colored syrup. This goes into a riff he calls the Marguerite, made with tequila, lime and a thyme-infused orange liqueur.

Walter often employs what he calls the “cat test” before experimenting with local ingredients. If he discovers anything potentially interesting, he brings it home and sets it down. If his cat finds it interesting — and plays with it or attacks it or is otherwise engaged by it — Walter figures “there must be some flavor in there somewhere.” So he checks online sources to make sure it can be safely consumed, then sets about experimenting.

A few years back Walter brought home an outsized clod of Spanish moss. The cat wouldn’t leave it alone. So he ended up making a “triple tea” — steeping it thrice — and then adding sugar to make it into a syrup. He liked that it tasted just like it looked — a bit soft and earthy, with a touch of olive. This made its way with good effect into a daiquiri variation he called the Jean Lafitte, with the syrup enhancing the flavors of rum and lime.

Walter has also put in a glass, in one form or another, local bamboo shoots, lemongrass, Charentais melons from the farmers’ market and all manner of citrus he gets from an orchard in Algiers: kumquat, Meyer lemon, blood oranges. He also likes to get Ponchatoula strawberries in a glass — not by converting them into a sweet syrup, but by juicing only the fresh berries, yielding a tart, bright taste that allows him to substitute it for lemon or lime.

Others in search of local ingredients include Ryan Iriarte, head barman at High Hat Cafe on Freret Street. He too keeps an eye out for local products that can enhance cocktails. This includes a shrub he recently made with shiitake mushrooms along with Steen’s Cane Vinegar and Steen’s Cane Syrup — which he subsequently mixed with Rougaroux Rum from Thibodaux, and garnished with a salt rim using Tabasco salt, two more nods to local producers. He also makes a tasty orange liqueur — a sort of local variant of the French spirit Cointreau — using dried peels from local oranges, which is a key element in High Hat’s house margarita.

In fact, those otherwise discardable citrus peels from your local fruit can be drafted to make your own house liqueur. Peel with a vegetable peeler before using the fruit, then set around two cups of peels in the sun (or on an oven rack at low heat, if rain or humidity persists). When they turn a bit dry and hard, add the peels to a two-quart jar and fill with vodka. Let it sit for a week or two, shaking from time to time, then strain out the peels. Separately, make a simple syrup of three cups of sugar and two cups of water, and add the syrup to the infused vodka.

Voilà! You’ve got a house liqueur ready for your very own local cocktails.