Bourbon Street's Campy Cocktails Transcend Taste

There are things you can’t get at quiet cocktail bars far removed from the chaos of New Orleans. For one, you’ll never have a man who’s holding a bible scream in your face, or watch a bartender pour a shot of Fireball into a guy’s mouth and then...

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Feb 13 2015, 8:20pm

Photo via Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

"Oh, God. If I could only eat a dick," shouted the man only a few blocks from the neon lights, swaying crowds, ukulele-toting gutter punks, and enthusiastic strip club hype men of Bourbon Street. Frustrated, alone, and hopefully drunk if he was going to be that candid with strangers at 9 o'clock on a Friday night, he stumbled his way out of the French Quarter and disappeared from view, his proclamation forever a mystery to those within earshot.

I shrugged. I was just here for the shitty cocktails.

Such was my most recent entrance into New Orleans nightlife, but it's hardly unique. Other visits to Bourbon Street have included gangs of children sprinting from car alarms, loud alley sex, packs of feral cats, a large naked man holding his genitals while slowly smoking a cigarette, and, no matter the time, various drunken figures collapsed on stairwells and by the sides of buildings.

The 'cocktail renaissance' has caused people to scorn the sugary drinks as disgusting, pre-mixed trash. A valid point, but that's not their function.

For many, this is reason enough to avoid the French Quarter section of the street. Turning down it will provide you swift insight into a frighteningly possible apocalyptic scenario in which frat bros, guidos, and uninformed red-faced families rule the world from various outposts called Tropical Isle, Pat O'Briens, or Jesters Mardi Gras Daiquiris. Places where you can buy the Hand Grenade, Shark Attack, Hurricane, or the titular daiquiri. Drinks that'll make your gin blossom bloom.

This perspective, combined with the "cocktail renaissance," has caused people to scorn the sugary drinks as disgusting, pre-mixed trash. A valid point, but that's not their function.

"It's not about it being a good drink," said bartender Steve Yamada. "It's more about a social interaction. Sometimes it feels like that's been taken away from it."

Trust Yamada. As the president of the New Orleans Bartender's Guild and general manager of Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29, a popular New Orleans tiki bar, he's the shadow king and guardian of New Orleans' social interactions and a self-described fan of The Hand Grenade, New Orleans' most powerful trademarked drink. Located at Tropical Isle, this drink is so trademarked that no one knows exactly what's in it, and its owners have put out a $250 bounty on imitators.

"There's a huge backlash recently," Yamada added. "People will talk about the cocktail renaissance now, but it's kind of sad to see people completely dismiss some of those older drinks."

It is sad. Really sad. Because the collective contemptuous shrug we're giving these beverages gives a cold shoulder to history. And there's a hell of a history.

Pat O'Briens is perhaps the oldest Bourbon Street institution. Allegedly, it started as a speakeasy during Prohibition, when visitors entered with the password "storm's brewing." Now it's much easier to get onto the premises, and its famous Hurricanes are a lot more expensive, but they're still a good time. Plus, Pat O'Briens has a kickass courtyard right in the middle of the French Quarter. Lots of fire and fountains.

Chris Hannah's most frequent Bourbon Street stop is Pat O'Briens. If you don't know Hannah, then your fingers might be slightly removed from the pulse of New Orleans cocktail perfection. He's the head bartender at Arnaud's French 75, a swanky cigar and spirits bar.

He's not only interested in the drinks because of what they've done for cocktail history. What he feels is almost closer to gratitude, and he champions the symbiotic relationship between Bourbon Street and the craft cocktail crowd.

"The times in the Quarter are up-tempo," he said. "A go-and-have-fun attitude that doesn't have time for the meticulous measuring, dry-shaking, double-straining, and careful garnishing habits found in a mixology scene. Could you imagine the troves of people flooding the Quarter all wanting Ramos Gin Fizzes? I'd have had Tommy-John surgery a long time ago."

But of all the bartenders I spoke to, the most fanatical was Abigail Gullo, the head bar chef at SoBou restaurant and the Eater Awards' 2014 Bartender of the Year. Her love never strays from Tropical Isle's Shark Attack. Perhaps the least well-known of the Bourbon Street drinks, the Shark Attack experience includes your bartender yelling, "EVERYBODY OUT OF THE WATER! A SHARK ATTACK IS ABOUT TO OCCUR!" clanging a bell, blowing a whistle, and then dunking a plastic shark with a mouth full of grenadine into your drink. That's a $9 beverage but priceless entertainment.

I won't ever forget the night I got every drink on Bourbon Street and ate overpriced pizza next to a dumpster.

"I resisted it for so long," Gullo admitted. "My first friend who told me about the Shark Attack, I laughed in his face. I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? No. You will never catch me drinking that.'"

But as a self-described theater nerd, she couldn't get past the lights and action of a good show. She enjoys the drink and toy shark so much, she started a hashtag, #sharkonthetown, that pictures Gullo and others with the plastic sharks in various locations around the city. That well-reasoned point of view is a product of her knowing the drink is more than just a beverage—it's an experience.

"It basically is a vodka sour," she said, "but it's not just that because it comes with a show, and there's a script and bells and lights and whistles."

Arguably, there are more smiles, high-fives, and fist pumps per capita on Bourbon Street than anywhere else in the world because of these drinks. It beats out the Vegas Strip, Broadway, and every other tourist trap you can think of, because Bourbon Street and its drinks came about organically. It's the original American version of fun. Here, everyone's on the same level, riding high on the idea that doing stuff tomorrow isn't their problem right now. And when it comes down to it, that's what is the most important part of drinking—joy.

That's what I want when I drink. I love cocktails—I'm a fervent gin martini fan—but there are things you can't get at quiet cocktail bars far removed from the chaos and the rabble. For one, you'll never have a man who's holding a bible scream in your face, or watch a bartender pour a shot of Fireball into a guy's mouth and then forcefully have him motorboat her. But you'll also gain something memorable. I've spent many a night quietly sipping at bars filled with dark wood and tea candles, and those nights all bleed together. But I won't ever forget the night I got every drink on Bourbon Street and ate overpriced pizza next to a dumpster. Those quiet bars are great for introspection, but if you want stories, if you want to be part of New Orleans' fluid and ever-expanding history, Bourbon Street and its drinks are key.

That's why Gullo keeps close ties to it. She wants to be part of that story, which is why she explained to me a suspect history of the Champagne coupe. Allegedly it's a mold of Marie Antoinette's left breast. As I mulled that over in my brain, I slurped up the last of my finely crafted martini but started to choke as Gullo told me her own Bourbon Street fantasies.

"I have this dream that what I do in the world of drinking is going to be so impactful that one day they will model a coupe after my breast," she said, indicating her ample bosom, "and it will be a punch bowl served on Bourbon Street filled with a really good homemade fresh juice cocktail. Still huge, still going to get you loaded, but not going to give you as bad a hangover."

"Just a little more classy," she added, positioning her pointer and thumb an inch apart. "Just a little."