Something's been lost in contemporary cocktail culture. It’s no longer the subculture it was a few years ago, one of those hidden cultural cul-de-sacs filled with quirky individual passions — people obsessed about tinctures or 19th century history or defunct tiki bars or whatever.
Cocktail culture at some point in the last few years crossed the Rubicon, and now sits squarely in pop culture territory. Too often it attracts new adherents for no other reason than it’s where the cool kids hang out. I mean, who doesn’t want to hang out with the cool kids? So, to fit in, callow newcomers learn a couple of bartending tricks and then grow their Edwardian mustaches. They set their flame on low, and fuel it not with a deep-seated curiosity about bitters or the sociology of ancient saloon life. Rather, they're driven by a deep-seated desire to drink free liquor and get laid.
So last night, it was nice to see some old-fashioned flint-and-tinder flames again, both literal and metaphorical.
I’d gotten an invitation to stop by from Nathan Dalton, the bar manager for Felipe’s, a Mexican joint which has great margaritas made with fresh limes, but it's a place you don't see on those must-visit lists for craft cocktail pilgrims doing the stations of the cross in New Orleans. He said was hosting a small party at his house with colonial cocktails, and thought I might want to check it out.
Well... obviously. I got to his house about 10:30. It’s a eggplant-hued shotgun far out in the Bywater. I walked in, and then, in classic shotgun style, walked through the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. I turned left at the bathtub, whereupon I entered an extraordinary bar. A great collection of intriguing liquor cluttered tiered shelves, and there was an assortment of quality bar tools spread on a tall, long table.
And there was a loggerhead. And a sugar cone. And wonderful antique set of sugar scissors. (Read more about early sugar ritual and culture here).
Nathan was making up a Rattleskull when I arrived, with brandy, rum, wine, and porter, garnished with fresh nutmeg. He made mimbos and bombos, and grog and a lovely Stone Fence with a delicate hard cider and Appleton rum, with some sugar snipped off to round off the tartness.
I helped out with the second round of flip. The loggerhead — an ironmonger friend had crafted it for him and his wife — met the propane flame, and heated for about a half hour. We shut off the lights from time to time, and eventually the loggerhead's head glowed a soft crimson all the way through. It looked like Jupiter viewed through a powerful telescope. We killed the music, and then the loggerhead went into a pottery pitcher full of rum, molasses, and Guinness. It hissed and sputtered and put up a fight as will happen, but eventually it capitulated, leaving a cappuccino-like foam on top. (The liquid-to-loggerhead proportion was a bit too askew to properly caramelize the sugar and burn the grains. But it was still tasty.)
Sometime after midnight we got taking about Campari and then the conversation turned to cochineal, and Dalton got animated all over again. “I got some cochineal!” he said, having recently returned from a trip to Mexico. “You want to eat some bugs?”
He left the room and moments later returned with a sack about the size of three pound bag of flour filled with tiny dead insects. He said he paid $185 for it. We palmed a few — dried, they’re not much bigger than apple seeds — then popped them in our mouths. They were bitter, pleasingly so.
“You’ve got to watch this,” Dalton said, and then mixed some bugs into a cup of water. It instantly turned a deep ruby color, like a shot of Campari. “Now watch this,” he said, sounding more excited than Bill Nye the Science Guy, and squeezed in a bit of lime juice. And it instantly turned a golden yellow — the pH level could change the color, he said. Someone suggested adding baking powder to to try to turn it back to red. Dalton ran off to find some, but none was found. The liquid remained gold. We stared at it, thinking maybe hard looking would bring it back.
It didn’t — nor did the chalk we found. So I finished my Stone Fence, and departed a short while later. I bicycled six miles home through a warm New Orleans night. And I did so feeling more encouraged about where cocktails can take us than I have in a long, long time.