The making and drinking of great cocktails has become cultish in the past few years. Where to go, what to drink, what not to drink. (hint: rhymes with wodka) — so much to know!
I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing — those who first saw the Beatles in a basement bar in Liverpool probably felt cultish — but I hope it's not where the cocktail revival ends up. I'm hoping it eventually comes squinting out of the speakeasy basements and finds its way into the mainstream. The ultimate goal, as I've said before, is one day to be able to walk into any airport bar and get a well-made old-fashioned. That won't happen if the making of great drinks remains a cult endeavor.
I'm always looking for evidence that good drinks are moving into the light of day Most often, I'm disappointed. It seems that more and more aboveground bars are now hitching their trains to the cocktail revival and are claiming to be serving classics, but then deliver luridly colored drinks that somehow manage to be too sweet, too sour and too artificial tasting, and all at once. This does not advance the cause.
But here's some good news: I did find an example of a mass-market bar heading in the right direction the other day. Granted, it's not TGIFridays or Margaritaville. It's the restaurant in the brand new wing of the huge National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It's called The American Sector., and is a big, brightly lit affair designed for volume. It's also one of a half-dozen restaurants in town overseen by celebrity chef John Besh. The food's quite good, not surprisingly. But I was also impressed by the drinks.
To start with, there's a nice, large list, which includes $7 cocktails like the Blood & Sand, Sherry Flip, Herbsaint Frappe, and Pimm's Cup. For another dollar, you can get a Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, or Mint Julep. But Besh's people also did some digging in local archives, and came up with drinks from a 1940s cocktail menu at the Blue Room at the old Roosevelt Hotel (which has recently reopened in a nicely refurbished state). These are priced at $9.50 and include the Aviation, Big Mamou, and Creole Cocktail.
I went with the Creole— a mix of Southern Comfort, lime juice, Benedictine, and sweet vermouth. Anything with Southern Comfort sends up alarms; it's really easy to make a treacly mess of it. But this was nicely balanced, full and complex, and tasted just like a classic should. On future trips, I'm aiming to work my way through the list, starting with the Sazerac, which, of course, is the baseline cocktail for judging any bar in New Orleans.
And this was a nice touch -- for $6, you can order a "Sector Soda," which comes in a quart siphon bottle filled with a house-made flavor like lemon-grape, cherry, or nectar. (On nectar: it's a New Orleans thing. If you have to ask, you won't understand.) I had root beer, which was way more interesting and complex than most anything I've had out of a can.
Bottom line: worth checking out.
The American Sector, National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA, open daily 11 to 11. Restaurant & bar is open to the public; no museum admission needed.