The soul of New Orleans finds perhaps its fullest expression in this sensual city’s many special occasions. Locals raise a glass to all of life’s significant moments and, well, a good many of the minor ones too. A veritable nightly ritual, cocktails are steeped deeply in local culture and the citizenry’s psyche. "In our celebratory culture, the cocktail bar has its own vantage on the city," says Alan Walter, the gifted “Spirit Handler” at Loa in International House. "You see a doctor when you feel sick. You see a lawyer when you know you're in trouble. And, people come to my place when they fancy themselves at their best."
Walter takes his craft seriously but his role lightly: "I’d put it on par with a secure but minor appointment in a royal court. Yet there is an experiential and whimsical nature to the cocktail in which I find great meaning. Like a song, a story or a painting,” he says, “the inner spiritual being and the outer human being in each of us feeds on these tiny morsels of art. Done well, that gestalt epiphany moment delights beholder and artist alike.” Walter is an artist, and the signature “joie de vivre” evident in New Orleans’ sophisticated sensual pleasures, especially great food and cocktails, draws him to this city like no other place he has been.
The back shelves at his Loa bar in downtown New Orleans reveal the full complement of classics, but they showcase an impressive roster of esoteric spirits too. There are not only one dozen aromatized wines, nine grappas, unaged whiskies and armagnacs but also myriad gins and the wood-aged Chartreuse VEP. No spirit is off-limits when it comes to Walter's recipes, but he clearly favors the artisanal, which is to say excellent spirits made by passionate artists in their own small-batch distilleries. Elisir M.P. Roux, Delourd Aragnac, Homericon Mastiha and Koval 47th Ward Whiskey are but a few of his favorites.
With all due reverence to spirits and their origins, when it comes to mixing them Walter’s approach is a modern expression of a distinctly American style which began in the nation’s old West with saloons of that time serving improvisations of available spirits hailing from all manner of ethnicity. "I want to see what a spirit says when it enters the ring and encounters another spirit." He has neither hesitation nor compunction in matching less-than-likely partners (gin and scotch, brandy and tequila) or in blending his own, among them six aperitif wines.
Well read and keenly interested across a broad spectrum of disciplines, Walter’s menus radiate the same. Even by the popular standards for the finest cocktail bars worldwide today, Loa is an ambitious operation. Walter’s carefully chosen bartenders serve a four-page menu, replete with nearly four dozen recipes that each include house-made ingredients produced daily by Alan himself. Says hotel owner and entrepreneur Sean Cummings, “It’s unreal. Most afternoons he turns loa into some sort of pop-up kitchen, with a portable vintage stove that makes our entire lobby redolent with one of his 30 proprietary syrups in some state of aromatic reduction. He’s a Johnny Depp-esque eccentric and a ridiculously talented guy. In an age of sameness, his is a refreshingly personal style born of great originality. He brings exceptional craftsmanship to his craft.”
In Nashville, where he resided for a year after the 2005 Katrina flood-catastrophe, Walter managed Zola Bistro and served drinks from a cramped service room. "I had to do something. Anything. I was bored, and there was just enough distraction in my downtime to rule out reading a worthy book." Before each shift, he began running across the street to a grocery store to procure a bag of random ingredients, which he incorporated into cocktails for Zola clientele. On slow nights, he’d create cocktails just for staff. And when the time came to head back to New Orleans, he called his friend Laurie Casebonne, who had just opened the tiny and extraordinary Restaurant Iris with boyfriend-now-husband, Chef Ian Schnoebelen. "I basically said I think I've got some strong ideas about what we could do at your bar."
With Casebonne granting virtually free creative reign, Walter had an fitting venue from which to serve his bespoke menu of cocktails. And at Iris, he elevated the art, earning not only a widespread local following but significant media recognition at roughly the same time that Chef Schnoebelen became one of Food & Wine’s Top Ten New Chefs of 2008. Humorously, the stage directions for each new cocktail took on a familiar theme - chef brings ingredients into restaurant, while bartender raids pantry in search of the curious and new. "What the !*@#% did you do with the parsely?" yelled Schnoebelen from the kitchen the day Walter first poured his “Gin Parsley Julep”, a recipe soon thereafter published by Food & Wine.
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