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6 Things You Should Know About New Orleans' Booze Culture

A local spirits writer tells all.

In 2005, spirits writer Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails (as well as this feature on Caribbean rum), moved to New Orleans—just months after Katrina swept through. "I had been twice the year before, when I was working on my rum book," he says. "And between those two trips I decided I should probably live there because it felt like home instantly."

Wayne and his wife waited a few months, then decided to go ahead and make the jump. "Stoplights weren’t working, people were shell-shocked, and no one really knew what was going to happen to the city," he recalls. "But then people started to gain a little more confidence and come back . . . it was an interesting time to see how we could figure in."

And he's been sipping and rumming and writing there ever since. In May, we joined him for an architecture tour of New Orleans' historic French Quarter during  AFAR Experiences New Orleans. He distills a little of his Big Easy booze knowledge for us:

1. It’s America’s classic spirit city…
“There’s a lot going on right now. There are new places opening up, such as the Ace Hotel and its two bars. But what makes New Orleans distinct is that it doesn’t chase trends like other cities do. It’s always been a spirit city—you could get a Sazerac or a Ramos Gin Fizz or Brandy Milk Punch at any time over the last 100 years and that hasn’t changed much. You don’t see things flare up and disappear, you don’t see many of the molecular mixology-style bars cropping up, you hardly see any barrel-aged cocktails or trends other cities seem to have embraced. New Orleans, in large respect, seems to be keeping its head down and doing what it’s always been doing. Even the new places that are more inventive are anchored to the classic New Orleans scene.” 

2. . . . Yet it still manages to surprise people.
Life beyond Bourbon Street: “Everyone expects the booze and beads and boobs scene on Bourbon Street. But there’s a whole world outside of Bourbon Street where there’s a lot more interesting drinking happening—the neighborhood bars are pretty sophisticated."

The to-go thing: “People still seem to be surprised about the to go-cup culture. If you’re at a bar and need to leave before you’ve finished your drink, just grab a plastic cup and take it with you. I think it’s extremely sophisticated. I’m always in a foul mood when I travel to other cities where they don’t let you do that.” 

The 24/7 thing: “In other cities, there’s such a last-call culture where everybody orders two drinks, pounds them down, and then goes out on the street at once. But since bars don't have a closing time, you don’t see that much in New Orleans. People can come and go and drink at their own pace without pressure.”

3. Katrina changed the drinking scene.
“Kirk Estopinal and Neal Bodenheimer are two of the most influential guys in New Orleans’ modern cocktail scene. Both are natives who left the city after Katrina. Neal ended up bartending in New York City while Kirk worked at the Violet Hour in Chicago. When Neal came back to New Orleans a couple years after Katrina, he wondered why no one was stepping up the cocktail scene, modernizing it a bit, like they were in New York. He and Kirk joined forces and launched Cure. They’ve opened two other prominent bars since then, Cane and Table and Bellocq, and they’re getting ready to open a fourth place. 

"10 years ago no one knew what a Sazerac was. Hardly anyone knew what a Ramos Gin Fizz was. And now it’s not uncommon to find those in newer craft cocktail bars around the country. That’s been a big influence on the city’s recovery. People pay a little more attention to our music, food, and drinks. After Katrina came through, people around the world were suddenly concerned about the loss of this amazing culture. In that respect, I think Katrina pushed some of the culture out to an audience that might not have been receptive to it before.”

4. Respect your bartender.
“I see a lot of people come into a bar and they know a lot about craft cocktails and they want people to know it. They tend to question the bartenders—and I think that’s a mistake. You can always learn more from your bartender than you can teach them. Be open to what they are trying to tell you, particularly about what’s going on in the city. I recommend going in for an early drink, around 7 or 8 or 9 o’clock, and asking your bartender where you should go to hear music afterwards, because the good music tends to be in neighborhood bars and out-of-the-way places. A good bartender serves as a sort of concierge for the city.”

5. You can’t beat a po’ boy at midnight.
“If I’m in the French Quarter, I’ll often end up at Erin Rose, a neighborhood dive bar. There’s a window in the back called Killer Po’ Boys that serves more creative version and is open ‘til midnight or one most nights.”

6. There’s no shame in day-drinking.
“In New Orleans, you can go to a bar at 10 in the morning and nobody judges you for it. You go and you chat with people and it’s a different experience than going to a bar at 10 at night. But it’s fine—day drinking’s just fine.”

AFAR Experiences New Orleans took place May 18–20 2016. Learn more here.

>>Next: Five Weird, Awesome Things You Have to Do in New Orleans