As the bartender at Loa (221 Camp St., 504-553-9550; www.ihhotel.com) in the International House Hotel, Alan Walter is known for his narrative drink descriptions and tinctures, syrups and bitters he makes using local produce and herbs. Walter, who also has a Master of Fine Arts degree in theater, spoke with Gambit about the art of storytelling and how indigenous ingredients help provide a sense of place
: Why do you write narrative drink descriptions?
Walter: I grew up simultaneously interested in writing and science and went on to study art and the classics ... and then finally on to study theater as well. I found my way into bartending because not only was it a means of making money, but it was a creative outlet as well. It's uncanny how it has found its way to my other interests.
It happened in degrees, and the first degree was in naming drinks. ... [S]ome of my drinks would pick up classical figures (or) women in history. The more I think about how taste works and how the palate is sort of like the theater of the mind ... the more it just seems perfect and even overdue to capture a little real storytelling in the process of serving a drink. When you read a menu description that is maybe a little bit evocative, it can really tie the story of our city together in some anecdotal way. You could say that this is really part of the experience of the drink itself. The experience of the drink starts the second someone walks into the door. There's so much playfulness and frivolity and a degree of ritual in consuming the cocktail. It's not the same as having a glass of water or something to eat. The storytelling and the descriptions become a part of what you taste.
What excites you about ingredients native to Louisiana?
W: I've enjoyed the process of making drinks, especially the act of (searching) around in our landscape for things that people might find interesting and that tell us who we are and who we were. There's an appetite for these (customers) that works to our favor in New Orleans and makes it a fantastic cocktail city. (People) like hunting for something that will give them a sense of place. If they can consume it, that's just about as good as if they can take it back home in their bag.
It's the application of (the ingredients). I've done so much exploring around Louisiana that I found, to this day, I still don't think I really have much to lose when playing around with things. For instance, using sassafras or our Spanish moss or even just citrus that grows all around us.
Sassafras with strawberry — that pairs really well. Strawberries might seem kind of easy and overused at this point, but (combining them) with the sassafras — which is real pungent, piney and sharp — that really gave both of those ingredients a fresh appearance to me.
Where do you go to get all your ingredients?
W: Really anywhere and everywhere. For fresh (ingredients)? Maybe from the farmers markets. For dried herbs, there's a place called Rosalie (Apothecary) over in Mid-City that's really great. I'm not a professional forager, but I do go out and pick stuff. In the past, it's been anywhere in (New Orleans) City Park or the neutral grounds or over on the Northshore.