A master bartender balances the romance of classic cocktails with a very few deliberate and artful present-day flourishes.
By Chris Hannah as told to Chris Mohney
Chris Hannah tended bar for 14 years at the legendary French 75 at Arnaud’s in New Orleans, with his cocktail menu winning multiple James Beard awards among others. He went on to co-found Manolito and more recently Jewel of the South. That newest place is an eponymous tribute to the bar run by Joseph Santini, inventor of the brandy crusta and one of Hannah’s many historical inspirations.
Back in 2004, when I learned that the cocktail culture of New Orleans had a history and importance equal to jazz, I decided it would be my mission to make sure we got back to making cocktails the way they were made—with proper technique and balance.
Luckily for us, we have all these old books where everyone can do their own research. That’s how I found the Creole cocktail. I went to Satsuma Café for coffee and was just opening one of these old cocktail book reprints they have there, when I came across a cocktail I’d never heard of, and that nobody, absolutely nobody in the whole city was still making. That’s something that I was able to rediscover and bring back. I’m pretty proud of it.
I’m an old soul, and Arnaud’s is an old restaurant. In a lot of American cities, and most of the world, everything has to be new. When I worked at Arnaud’s, I wanted to make sure that an old room kept up with all the new-school places. I love Sylvain and all the others. But the room in Arnaud’s French 75 bar is absolutely beautiful. The restaurant is 101 years old now, and the back bar is even older than the restaurant.
“Count” Arnaud Cazenave, who opened Arnaud’s, was a maître d’ who got a following large enough to open his own spot. My favorite quote of his came when he was being interviewed about his place. They were asking, “How do you think you’re going to be able to thrive in the French Quarter with a new restaurant? How do you think it’s going to be successful?” And his answer was that he was going to keep a delicate balance between the old and the new in his cuisine.
That’s what I decided would be my mantra at the French 75 bar. Yes, we wore white tuxedo jackets and bowties and everything. It looks like it did in the 1920s. But in order to make it the successful bar that it still is today, I was going to keep a delicate balance between the old and the new. We revived classic cocktails, but we also made new takes on them so guests could come in and have some they’ve never had before.
What I realized after working at the French 75 bar for so long is that a lot of bartenders would take the classics and add newer ingredients, and make them have a little better flavor. I didn’t want to rest on our laurels at Jewel of the South, only making the brandy crusta. We wanted to always make the classic, and also have a fun seasonal take on it. The crusta was originally for every spirit, not just brandy. It’s just that the brandy stuck it out in the crusta, like “Alexander” did in a brandy Alexander because of the Alexander’s Gin in the original recipe.
There used to be a gin crusta, a bourbon crusta, a rum crusta. But the brandy custa stayed. We always wanted to make that one—the highlight of Joseph Santini’s crusta cocktail that he invented 150 years ago. We also wanted to have a different take on it, so guests could come in and have the classic, and then have a fun version. For example, the crusta alcalá we did in summer was tequila and mezcal, so it was a little bit lighter for the season.
What I’ve been having to get used to at Jewel of the South is being new—no longer being the classic, no longer being old. Everything I’m doing is against my normal way of talking to guests, because everything is brand new. It’s our first this, our first that. All of that was new for me, because I really am an old soul. I dress like a jazz musician when I’m outside of work. Now it’s a whole new game. I’m embracing that.
Our new bar is an old bar though. There was a pretty wealthy, popular person who opened several places in Washington DC. His name was Ulysses “Blackie” Auger. One of his bars was the Black Rooster Pub. It opened in 1970. He was a real character. He had jet-black hair when he was younger, so his nickname was Blackie.
He went to London and found a back bar in an antique shop because a bar there had closed. The back bar had originally been made in Wales. He had that back bar shipped to DC. Then the Black Rooster closed years later, and the back bar went into a warehouse. And then we found it, and bought it for Jewel of the South.
There are lots of back bars in warehouses. You can go online and it’s amazing how many intact back bars there are. We were swiping through, debating which one we wanted to put in Jewel of the South. I personally was very happy because this one originally from Blackie Auger has four columns, just like the French 75 bar had four columns. So for me, that’s a cheeky and fun way of making me feel at home.
The other equipment’s new, so that’s awesome. There are two wells instead of one, so that’s really, really helpful. The tools are the same we had at French 75, like the spoons and our glassware. Everything is pretty similar. It’s just like a little more colorful, you know. We were wearing different color bowties.
Regarding the coronavirus though, it’s been extremely sad at Jewel of the South. Everyone was let go, and the bar and kitchen taken down and cleaned. The employees as a team have been keeping in contact, and to keep spirits up, we’ve created a GoFundMe and small Jewel online magazine to keep regulars in the know of our goings-on. In our lush courtyard, we’ve planted edible flowers and herbs from seed in hopes to use if and when we’re allowed to open up to the public.