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Chris McMillian Gives Eater a Cocktail History Lesson

Photo: Josh Brasted

Chris McMillian, who opened the Ritz-Carlton's Library Lounge and (as rumor has it) makes one of the best mint juleps in the city, is one of the old sages of the city's cocktail scene, able to recall historical facts of the hospitality industry in New Orleans with all the casual familiarity of an uncle giving an overview of a family tree. A fourth-generation bartender and Louisiana native, McMillian pretty much has the perfect CV for co-founding the Museum of the American Cocktail, which he and his wife Laura have used to organize monthly cocktail seminars with industry leaders and some of the world's best bartenders.

It's easy to overlook members of the old cocktail guard in New Orleans right now, especially when so many young mixologists, as McMillian says excitedly, "are expressing their own aspirations for excellence and self identity through their work," but McMillian, who now tends the bar at Kingfish several nights a week, has been around long enough to know that cocktail crazes come in cycles. New Orleans has been discovering and re-discovering and re-re-discovering cocktails and cuisine since it styled itself as a hospitality mecca in the 1880s, and there's no misinterpreting the signs of the times?the city is in the midst of a full-blown cocktail renaissance.

There's a lot going on in New Orleans right now, in terms of new cocktail bars opening up and new mixologists making names for themselves. You being a seasoned cocktail veteran, I was wondering: what are some of your favorite new places? Who are some of your favorite new bartenders?

I work five nights a week, the sixth day I sleep, the seventh I have lunch with my wife [laughs]. If you don't serve lunch, I don't get to go to your place. However, through the cocktail museum itself, I've had the opportunity to participate in the ongoing education and the careers of many of today's young bartenders in the city. We've had a speaking series over the time that we've been there, and we've been able to bring in some of the best speakers from around the country. Almost every significant cocktail bar in the city has been involved in this program, and has volunteered at the museum, which allowed them to work with industry leaders and gauge the best professional practices. While we certainly can't lay claim to the burgeoning cocktail trend in the city right now, we can and do feel like we've contributed in some way to the cocktail renaissance in New Orleans.

I think we would have started to revive and rediscover the cocktail on our own. I mean, it wasn't consumer generated. Customers didn't come in bars and say, "Hey, I'd like a cocktail made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients." Starting in New York, then around the world, bartenders started doing these things for themselves so that they could take pride in their work and gain satisfaction from what it is that they do. It's grown so explosively over the last couple of years that it's taken on a life of its own. Certainly you have to acknowledge people like Neal Bodenheimer, and his mentorship of people like Kirk Estinopal and Nick Detrich, and what they've done within their organization. You have to recognize people like Kimberly Patton Bragg and Steve Yamada at Tivoli and Lee. You have to look at Travis Sanders at the Monteleone, and Ian [Julian] at Dominique's. And you can't forget about Ed Diaz and what he's done at Bar Tonique. There's a whole vibrant community of young people who are expressing their own aspirations for excellence and self identity through their work.

Do you think this city, more than most others, is a good staging ground for younger people who want to open their own place and start concocting their own drink menus?

There any other number of markets, like Dallas or Houston, that also have cheap rents and organic cocktail cultures growing out of them. New Orleans, though, is a city that, from its earliest inception, had a strong hospitality industry that catered to travelers from all over the place. We have here a culture and tradition here of taking pride in the work we do in the hospitality industry. There was a real culture of independent craft cocktails before the craft cocktail craze. 25 years ago, New Orleans was still renowned for its excellence within the service industry.

It is a unique market in some ways. Usually, hospitality jobs are jobs we take for intermittent periods in our lives while we're in transition. In a city like this, we have 35,000 rooms, 1,100 restaurants, 1,500 food and beverage outlets in a community of less than 350,000 people. There are genuine opportunities for careers here that don't necessarily exist in the rest of the country. You find that this model of New Orleans as a resort destination was created in the post-Reconstruction, 1880s era, and we've been operating under it ever since. To me, the most revealing epiphany I ever had was that I realized, not only am I a player in something that's going on now, but I'm a living piece of that continuing history, that continuing story.

Is that realization what led you to your involvement with the Museum of the American Cocktail?

I think it certainly came out of that. Look, you can't live in New Orleans and not be immersed in its history and culture; those are the things that attract you to it. When visitors come here and ask what they should do, I say, "Well, you can eat, you can drink, you can enjoy our history or architecture or music. Those are the things that New Orleans celebrates. Through the museum, I started speaking in public for the first time and excavating subjects about the hospitality industry through things like Tales of the Cocktail. That led me to look deeper into the history of New Orleans' traditions. We have historic examples here we hold up cross-generationally of great service, and the more I explored the history, the more I realized how much the service industry down here has changed, but also stayed the same. Fashion comes and fashion goes, and cocktails seem to be rediscovered every other generation. Whatever our parents are enamored of, we tend to reject, and the cycle continues.

What are some of the craft cocktail trends right now that you think have real staying power?

At one level, we're being led by the greater culinary world. Cocktails have always been a product of both globalization and what's local. You made liquor out whatever grew where you live, and you mixed your drinks whatever your trade network brought you from other places. The more extensive your trade network was, the wider palate of ingredients you had. New Orleans, because of its role as a port both of goods coming from the interior of the United States to the world, and from the world to the United States meant that New Orleans has had a more diverse palate than most other communities.

As consumer choice has grown, I think it's become pretty clear that we're not going back to the days of pre-made mixes. We're seeing the cocktail world reflect the greater culinary trends of the locavore movement. The idea of using one fresh seasonal and regional ingredient is not something I think we're ever going to go backwards on. Consumer expectations have been raised, and in large part thanks to the bartenders. They led this, and as they introduced consumers to these craft cocktails, consumers started to have higher expectations, which they then passed on to the bar owners, which results in a company like this hiring someone like me. It's a reflection of the change in the marketplace: in order to be competitive, you have to offer higher-quality goods. I just don't see us going backwards on the quality of drinks we're currently producing.

What are some of your favorite cocktails to make? Some of your favorite ingredients to work with?

I differ somewhat from craft cocktail makers. Our society has more access, through Food Network and Bravo, to the food and beverage industry. There's more perceived glamor in the industry, but when I started, it was a different model. I started with a separate premise, which is that, no matter what, the drink has to taste good. I didn't start with the idea that it was about me or my own creativity, or that I was a chef trying to express my culinary brilliance or understanding. There are people in this community who have true culinary prowess, and their drinks are not traditional drinks; it's a whole new form, almost. There are people who bring the whole range of flavors from the kitchen to the bar. I look to the classics. In order to do something well, you have to imitate that which is done well until you gain an understanding of it and can make improvisations on your own. For me, it's about proven methodologies and process. Most of my drinks are all classic drinks, and my favorite ingredients? Bourbon, gin, vodka, Scotch, and rum. For me, the drink is a device to engage people in a hospitality experience. It's not the experience itself.

· Kingfish [Official Site]


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