Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sno-Tales of the Cocktail

The Cocktailians have arrived. That's right the mid-summer exodus of bartenders from their home bars to the Monteleone has begun. If you live in New Orleans and enjoy cocktails and haven't made at least one Tales event, one of those prerequisites isn't true. Here is a piece I had a lot of fun writing. Reprinted here, you can find the article with real photos on newstands and at Offbeat.

There are only two ways to cool off once the New Orleans summer comes. I’m talking really cool off, not sitting in an air conditioned room. You can either guzzle a snoball, its slushiness burrowing into the belly of your soul and making you shiver. Or you can get knock out drunk, such that you forget just how hot it is. Or you can kill two birds with one stone and do both.

For seventy-four years, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz has taken blocks of ice and fed them into a machine. This machine turns the ice into something neither gas, liquid, or solid, but an amalgamation of the three states of being. Upon this ice, they pour housecrafted flavored syrups with varieties like Satsuma, cream of cardamom, and nectar cream. The product is so delicious it creates lines outside on a July afternoon that would give Studio 54 pause.

Mardi Gras a half decade or so ago found me in the third seat of a friend’s SUV, one bloody mary, two screwdrivers, and three beers deep at around eight in the morning (all numbers approximate). We were driving down then vacant Freret towards Napoleon from Jefferson, when a friend pointed at a building and said, “Some guy I know is opening a cocktail bar there in a few weeks.” We all laughed and predicted its demise in various amounts of time.

That bar turned out to be Cure. Opened by Neal Bodenheimer in 2009, Cure has become one of the nation’s premier spots to imbibe. In turn, Freret has become a runaway hit with restaurants, nightclubs, and art galleries filling the once abandoned storefronts.  Bodenheimer then opened Bellocq with Kirk Estopinal. Located on Lee’s Circle, Bellocq traffics in cobblers, a centuries old cocktail of fruit, vermouths, sherries, and ice served in a setting evoking the glory days of legal prostitution. In early July, he will expand into the world of colonial cocktails and Caribbean rum with the opening of Cane & Table on Decatur with partner Nick Detrich.

With a deadline looming and Tales of the Cocktail around the corner, I’ve called Ashley Hansen, the proprietor of Hansen’s to ask about sneaking booze into her snoballs. “We don’t have a liquor license,” Hansen carefully mentions, “but every now and then we see someone coming through the line with a flask in their hand.” Her ice is perfect for mint juleps.

Say, Ashley, would you mind if Bodenheimer & Co. came by one day and made some snotails? I made sure to mention this was for an official assignment for a real magazine, and not just personal curiosity, which of course it is. “Sure. But it needs to be before we open or else customers will riot.”

On an otherwise quiet, hot June day, after knocking the cadence to Iko Iko the doors to Hansen’s creaked open and Hansen welcomed in Bodenheimer, Detrich, Peanut, the trusty photographer of this official venture, and this “reporter”. The walls of Hansen’s are lined with photos from the glory days of little league teams, fraternities and bands that became the Radiators. The syrups are stored in old liquor bottles salvaged from Mardi Gras floats back in the “late 60’s or 70’s by my grandfather’s cousin, Thelma” according to Hansen. Jack Daniels becomes strawberry; Bacardi becomes chocolate.

Hansen is no stranger to mixing an adult snoball. She prefers to use rum with her citrusy flavors, “Rum and limeaid is the perfect daiquiri…but I like bourbon with the richer flavors like vanilla or nectar,” she says, adding, “or just pour Baileys on plain ice.”

Its now noon and Hansen’s opens at one so Bodenheimer and Detrich get to work. They unpack from rucksacks rum, vermouth, sherry, blackberry liquor, amaro, gin, and bitters. Bodenheimer steps behind the counter first. While Hansen powders ice, Bodenheimer shakes together Zucca, lemon juice, and Hansen’s strawberry syrup. He pours it over the ice and sticks a fat strawberry on top. The result is a strawberry snowball that got caught up in the wrong crowd.

Next is a variation on a type of gin sour known as a bramble. In goes two ounces of Ford’s gin, simple syrup, and Hansen’s blueberry. The drink is garnished with a wide swath of lemon zest. After taking a sip, Hansen exclaims, “This is so much fun we should share it.”

Conversation and laughter are now moving between the two young bastions of the food and drink world. Talk shifts to doing this as a special event, maybe at a bar. Hansen will bring the ice, a machine, and some staff. Bodenheimer’s team will make the drinks. Plans for late August are called off.

Detrich moves behind bar. Nick moved down from Bloomington, Indiana, a place where combining alcohol, frozen ice, and syrup before 1 pm is generally frowned upon. He originally began bartending at a strip club on Bourbon St. before finding work at Cure, which sort of sounds like the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song. He begins with a rum Manhattan, using Smith & Cross rum. Distilled in Jamaica, Smith & Cross is “hogo rum, a derivative of a French term meaning roughly the sweet smell of rotting meat,” Detrich explains.

Before slick ad campaigns, rum was a distillation crafted by often unscrupulous people. This rum has a funky nose and is perfect with Carpano Antica vermouth, Angostura bitters, and a float of cream of almond. Detrich turns his sights on that reviled classic of cruise ships: the frozen pina colada. Smith & Cross combined with bitters, fresh pineapple, and cream of coconut. Imagine if a pina colada went to live on a hippie commune for a few months. What, your imagination doesn’t allow you to do that? Too bad.

We finish up this serious journalistic endeavor with something simple: La Gitana Manzanilla sherry and Satsuma. Crisp, tart and refreshing, it gives us the strength to head back into the sun. Now, if you want to try your own hand at making snotails, a few tips to keep in mind. One, chill your liquors before adding them to the ice or your snotail will melt too quickly. Secondly, do this as soon and as often as possible. Hansen’s closes with the first rumors of fall. 


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