Perfecting the Art of the Cocktail
We shadowed Alan Walter of Loa, International House's hotel bar, to find out how he spends his day to work his liquid magic at night
Something told me to expect the unexpected, even before I lifted the vintage coupe glass (mysteriously etched with the name "Ethel") to my lips and took a sip of a Tangled Hearts, a pale pink elixir made with gin, mezcal, tea rose, strawberry, and strawberry-lime dust ($12). I'd seen Alan Walter, the newly appointed creative director at Loa, arrive for work earlier in the day. He was sporting a retro dinner jacket, a bolo tie, and a vaguely Victorian haircut, and since unique style usually suggests independent thought, I was already intrigued.
Alan has a Master of Fine Arts in directing, and once worked as a playwright, so he feels at home in a theatrical setting—and that's what he's created at Loa. His cocktails are clean, austere, and made with unusual spirits, fresh juices, homemade syrups, and an abundance of local ingredients. "A bar serves many purposes for many people," Alan says. "It's for romance and courtship, business meetings with colleagues, or a quiet moment for solitary reflection." Each drink on his hand-stamped Potations, Preparations, and Libations menus, printed on the back of vintage Keno cards, reads like a short story. There's the Francene (rum, fresh Muscadine juice, shiso) and Ten Years in a Day (a glass of Cabernet served with a hand mirror and smelling salts). Ordering a second cocktail, I started to wonder what it actually takes to create all that magic behind the bar. So, I asked Alan to take me along on a typical day.
9:30 a.m. - RISE, SHINE, AND SHOP
Alan hops in his 1965 Pontiac Bonneville and heads out to replenish bar supplies, hitting off-the-beaten-track ethnic grocers such as Hong Kong Market (925 Behrman Highway, Gretna; 504/394-7075). At Hong Kong Market, he stocks up on shiso, several varieties of fresh mint, galangal, fresh turmeric, and large bunches of lemongrass and gingerroot. He uses the lemongrass to create three syrups: a pure lemongrass syrup, a lemongrass-celery syrup that finishes his Blueberry Aquavit, and a lemongrass-pine needle syrup.
11:30 a.m. - HAVE GARDEN SHEARS, WILL TRAVEL
"I do a bit of creative foraging for some unusual local ingredients that I can't buy in markets," Alan says. Depending on the time of year, that means picking clover along the 17th Street Canal in Lakeview and Spanish moss (an experimental ingredient that he uses to make tea) from live oaks and cypress trees in City Park. He also steeps pine needles—"I get them from neutral ground off of Robert E. Lee Boulevard in Lake Vista," he says—in alcohol to make a syrup used sparingly in several drinks, such as one made with lemongrass and tequila añejo.
12:30 p.m. - SEARCHING FOR STEMWARE
"If I'm going to spend a lot of time creating a cocktail, I might as well put it in a glass that's really pretty," Alan says. This & That Antiques and Vintage (Jefferson Flea Market, 2134 Airline Drive, Kenner; 504/461-0133) is the source of many of his favorite finds. "This place reminds me of my grandma's house," he says.
2 p.m. - SEEKING JUICY FRUITS
"Hollygrove Market & Farm [8301 Olive Street, New Orleans; 504/483-7037] is a community garden and a great spot for organic satsumas and other citrus fruits, such as grapefruits and navel oranges that are grown in Louisiana's Southern Parishes," Alan says. "It's a market with a mission, one of the first spots in New Orleans to bring the community garden back. When I'm done, I sometimes grab a bowl of jambalaya from a nearby food truck for lunch."
4 p.m. - TASTING AND JUICING
After arriving at Loa, Alan spends time tasting wines, spirits, and craft beers from various local distributors. "They bring in selections that they think I'll be interested in, such as wines made by smaller producers that will enhance our eclectic menu," he says. An hour before opening, Alan supervises the bartenders as they slice citrus fruits, place bouquets of herbs in water, simmer and strain new syrups, and juice any of the 12 fresh fruits and vegetables that Alan considers the anchors of their beverage program. "Fresh, unpasteurized juices can change so radically from day to day," he explains. "So we juice apples, ginger, cucumbers, plums, pineapples, satsumas, lemons, limes, and more through a top-loading juicer and citrus juicer."
5 p.m. to midnight - HAPPY HOURS
Once the ice is stocked and the signature playlist queued, Alan cinches on a necktie and prepares for the night—and no two evenings are ever the same at Loa. "You never know whether it will be 10 or 30 people," he says. "So our bartenders have their ingredients already prepared in case they have to make a lot of drinks immediately." For someone who enjoys theatrics, staging each evening certainly has plenty of payoffs. "I love finding the perfect ingredients or hunting down the perfect glass," Alan says, "and the end result is that we make people happy."