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Past & Presence

New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian says making drinks is only 10 percent of his job.

 

Story by Wayne Curtis

Photo by Daymon Gardner

 

Chris McMillian and I are chatting over lunch at the Napoleon House in New Orleans when he glances through a window and spots a set of arched windows on a building across Chartres Street. “You ever take a look at those arches out there?” he asks me. “They were part of the St. Louis Hotel—the first thing any visitor to this city would see.” McMillian, one of the city’s best-known bartenders, starts explaining why the hotel was a central part of the history of drinking in New Orleans, talking slowly and deliberately. As he continues, his discourse gets louder and faster, and soon he’s on his feet and striding toward the door. “Come on,” he barks, motioning me outside to show me one of those New Orleans stories hidden in plain sight.

Seconds later, we’re out on the sidewalk and McMillian is expounding about these sole remnants of the old hotel, built around the old city exchange in 1835. Half of the vast mezzanine was filled with a bustling, marble-topped bar, and McMillian quotes an 1854 account, which described the bartenders “behind their twinkling wilderness of decanters,” the scene appearing from across the way “like a julep-orama, performed by dwarfs.”

“Everybody talks about the golden age of the 1870s to 1920,” he says in a gravelly, booming voice that drowns out a passing delivery truck. “But I’ve got a thing for antebellum bars.” After filling my head with images of tippling in mid-19th century New Orleans, McMillian at last heads back inside to our table, where we finish our half-eaten sandwiches under the gaze of Napoleon and other long-dead luminaries. “I don’t know how you can live in a place like this and not be drawn into its story,” he says.

McMillian, 48, is as large as a linebacker, with an outsized persona to match. As such, he’s something of an implacable boulder amid the fast-moving stream of contemporary cocktail trends. In an era when The New York Times can offer up a taxonomy of eight different types of modern bartenders  (“the minimalist,” “the neo-classicist”), McMillian remains sui generis, a category of one. “Chris is not just doing historical re-creations,” says cocktail writer and historian David Wondrich. “Chris is a 19th-century bartender.”

McMillian arrived in New Orleans by way of an itinerant childhood spent in Louisiana, Texas, Alaska, California and Hawaii. His family had roots in north-central Louisiana, and during what was intended to be a brief visit with his mother more than a quarter-century ago, he met a woman named Laura, who was tending bar in Shreveport. Plans to return to Hawaii were put on hold; he and Laura married and, over time, had six children. McMillian only half-jokingly blames the Old Absinthe House for their eventually settling in New Orleans in 1984—on an early visit the raffish charm of the bar and the city set its hooks in him and never let go.

McMillian began his career as a banquet bartender, cranking out high-volume drinks at the Chateau Sonesta and other hotel bars. “It teaches you organization and dexterity, and you get comfortable with the mechanical side of [bartending],” he says. He also tended bar at the Superdome, gaining experience with high-volume cash transactions while mixing Bloody Marys by the gallon at Saints games. Meanwhile, he followed a desultory career trajectory through a number of the city’s bars, including two years at the Richelieu Bar inside Arnaud’s Restaurant, which dates to 1918 and feels as if it hasn’t changed a whit since. McMillian’s immersion in New Orleans history developed what would become a lifelong fascination with the city’s historic cocktails. It was at the Richelieu that he gained a small measure of local renown for his version of the Ramos Gin Fizz, a drink invented in New Orleans and as revered locally as is the Sazerac (which was first popularized, he notes, a couple blocks away at the now-demolished Sazerac Coffee House).

His next big move was to the Ritz Carlton’s Library Lounge, an intimate, wood-paneled parlor with stuffed furniture and just a handful of seats at the bar. If working as a banquet bartender taught him quantity and speed, his eight years at the Library helped him hone his skills on a personal level, and to work on perfecting the classics. “I always ask young bartenders: What’s more meaningful to you?” he says. “Having a 27-year-old woman come in and say, ‘This is the best Cosmopolitan I’ve ever had!’ or having a 50-year-old man come in and say, ‘I’ve been drinking Old Fashioneds my whole life, and this is the best I’ve ever had.’”

At the Library Lounge, McMillian began to attract attention for another classic cocktail, his Mint Julep—“made with poem and mallet,” as cocktail authority Dale DeGroff describes it.  As it happens, this drink and venue were my first introduction to McMillian. During a trip to New Orleans in early 2005, I stopped by the bar with my brother-in-law and nephew. By chance, my nephew ordered a Mint Julep. McMillian started to prepare one, when, quite unexpectedly, florid words came tumbling out in his stentorian voice. “The Mint Julep,” McMillian began. “Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it.”

I went through several stages during this surprise performance: curiosity that such delicate words could come from such a large man (the “honey of Hymettus?”), then slight discomfort as I realized he wasn’t just chatting, but delivering a performance (as it turned out, a recitation of J. Soule Smith’s paean to the Mint Julep, written in 1892). Next came utter enthrallment, as McMillian spent the next five minutes luring us into the story of this historic drink—punctuated by the syncopated pounding of a bag of ice with a mallet roughly the size of a Chevrolet. At the end, he gently pushed the silver julep cup wrapped in a white cloth napkin across the bar toward us and said, “Cheers.” 

I intercepted it before my nephew could get a sip. And I would like to state for the record that this Julep was best I’d ever tasted. It wasn’t the bourbon, or the mint, or even the precise technique that made it so good. The dominant ingredient—as in any superb cocktail—was a good story, well told. McMillian delivered a drink that had all the passion and intrigue of the Old Testament, with a bit of the Odyssey thrown in. “For Chris, history is not some academic thing,” says Wondrich. “It’s not that it’s nice to know the history of a drink: For him, it’s essential. It’s the story of his city, his life, of America.”

In the contemporary cocktail renaissance, the spotlight is often turned upon the artistry of the drink itself—whether a precise re-creation of a classic tipple from Jerry Thomas, or a modern cocktail using market-fresh ingredients. McMillian sees his job more broadly, making him the sort of bartender who was once common, and is now rare. “I’ve always been intimidated by these young, creative bartenders doing the over-the-top stuff,” he says. “I don’t consider myself an artist. I consider myself a craftsman. Making drinks is only 10 percent of what I do as a bartender. I’m a host, concierge, tour guide, theater recommender—I do any number of things in addition to making drinks.”

In his role as historian and storyteller, McMillian is also co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, which opened in 2008 within the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on the New Orleans riverfront. There, he and his wife have been organizing monthly cocktail seminars, including recent sessions by cocktail expert Tony Abou-Ganim and tiki drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry.

DeGroff says that this approach truly links McMillian with the bartenders of an earlier time. “I arrived in New York City at the end of an era,” he says, “and I saw what this business is all about: the relationship between bartender and customer. The bartender is a friend, caretaker, doctor, advisor and a whole bunch of other things rolled up in one. With all the fancy and geeky bar stuff these days, we’re losing some of that tradition.” DeGroff says that he’s even had bar owners ask him to conduct workshops for bartenders on the proper telling of a story.

McMillian, DeGroff says, embraces these old-school traditions. He feels at home in the footsteps of the great New Orleans bartenders of the past, like Joseph Santini, who is credited with inventing the Brandy Crusta, and Nick Castrogiovanni, famous for building 30-layer Pousse Cafés at Nick’s Big Train Bar. It probably doesn’t hurt that McMillian is a fourth-generation bartender—“my great-grandfather was a saloonkeeper,” he says, “and my uncles were notorious saloonkeepers [in north-central Louisiana]. My grandmother tended bars.”

That heritage helped him maintain the view that a bar is first and foremost a community center, an idea that can be lost in bar-as-vitrine attitude, in which cocktails are put on display like jewels in a case. “We forget that these drinks are just supposed to taste good and please average people,” he says. “Right now, cocktails are in, and we’re riding the crest. But that’s because it’s fun—and it has to stay fun. People are there for the entertainment. I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh, I went to this bar in New York, and they all had their giant mustaches, but they were very aloof.’ That’s not how it works.”

Today, McMillian plies his trade at Bar UnCommon, a modern cocktail lounge within the 1925 Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, a block upriver from the French Quarter. (The Library Lounge was closed to the public in 2007 when it was turned into a private cigar club.) Opened in 2008 and built during post-Katrina renovations, it lacks the historic patina of much of New Orleans, but McMillian says it suits him fine. “It’s like our city—preserving the old while embracing the new,” he says. “Anyway, a bar is just four walls with people in it.”

Our Napoleon House lunch concluded, McMillian and I wander out to look at some old bars he wants to show me—among them, his beloved Old Absinthe House, which violated Prohibition so many times in the 1920s that the owners were ordered to auction everything off, including the elegant absinthe drip fountains. After being separated for some 75 years, the fountains were finally repatriated in 2005 and reinstalled in a dim back room of the building. “And you’ll never see them if nobody tells you about them,” McMillian concludes.

Much the same could be said of McMillian himself, who tends his bar without a lot of hype or fuss. You could come to New Orleans and never know what you missed. “Chris is a national treasure,” DeGroff says. “There’s nobody around like this anymore. A hundred years from now, people will be saying, ‘Man, there was once this guy making juleps in New Orleans like you wouldn’t believe!’ ” 


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RECIPE: Mint Julep

RECIPE: Ramos Gin Fizz

RECIPE: Sazerac

 

Read our Q&A with Chris McMillian on the poetry of the classic Mint Julep.