Latin and Caribbean spirits are making waves across the country, and bartenders in New Orleans are riding the wave, creating cocktails that go beyond familiar tequila drinks and tiki creations. Rum and pisco, the clear grape-based brandy produced in Peru, Chile and elsewhere, are popping up on cocktail menus all over town.
Pisco is the star at the Pisco Bar in the recently opened Catahoula Hotel (914 Union St., 504-603-2442; www.catahoulahotel.com), where bartender Nathan Dalton pays homage to the South American spirit in classic and original creations. Similar to a Moscow Mule, the Chilcano combines pisco and ginger beer; the Chilcano Granada adds passion fruit and pomegranate juices to the mix. Guests who order the Coolest Kid in Class cocktail get a brown paper lunch bag containing a plastic bag filled with Goldfish crackers, what looks like a juice drink pouch and a handwritten note from "mom." Though gimmicky, the aluminum pouch contains a potent blend of chamomile-infused pisco, sherry, apple and honey. As a bonus, it's the perfect to-go drink.
At Loa in the International House Hotel (221 Camp St., 504-553-9550; www.ihhotel.com), bartender Alan Walter's riff on the pisco sour includes Spanish moss syrup he infuses himself. "(Pisco) is a great summer spirit," Walter says. "The reason I use the moss is that it has a sort of green tea flavor and a sweet earthiness." The drink comes in a glass with its rim coated in dried fennel and dried Moroccan lime. There's also a refreshing take on a pina colada Walter playfully named the Agricolada, made with rhum agricole — a rum distilled in the French Caribbean from sugar cane juice — coconut water, pineapple and an egg white.
Earlier this year, author and rum historian Wayne Curtis kicked off a series of educational seminars and rum tastings at the renovated Palace Cafe's (605 Canal St., 504-523-1661; www.palacecafe.com) new Black Duck Bar, home to the New Orleans Rum Society, a club for rum enthusiasts. The upstairs bar is as good a place as any to begin a primer on the spirit, as the list includes 130 rums. The cocktail menu includes classics, such as Mai Tais and daiquiris as well as original drinks like the Foster the People, a summer sipper made with Ron Matusalem Clasico Solera 10-year-aged rum, banana liqueur, cane syrup, lemon juice and El Guapo Polynesian Kiss bitters.
"I think rum has always been a backburner spirit in New Orleans," says Nick Detrich of Cane & Table (1113 Decatur St., 504-581-1112; www.caneandtablenola.com). "It's something that's always been prevalent. In this climate, people seem to turn back to rum."
Detrich often looks to history for inspiration when creating the cocktails for the bar's "proto-tiki" menu. By reading travel logs and ledgers from the early 1800s, he came up with the concept for the Smoak and Plank cocktail, a smoky sour-type drink which includes the bar's house-made cherry bounce — modeled after Martha Washington's brandy-based recipe (the bar makes its version with rum) — mezcal, grenadine and fresh lime juice. There's also a drink inspired by the Puerto Rican tradition of mixing Scotch and coconut water. The drink is made with Monkey Shoulder blended scotch, Don Q Gran Anejo rum, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao and frozen coconut water in place of ice cubes. "The drink changes as the ice melts and it becomes more and more refreshing," Detrich says.
Rum-based cocktails are the only kind on the menu at El Libre (508 Dumaine St., 504-309-2699; www.ellibrenola.com), the tiny Cuban hideaway in the French Quarter specializing in Cuban coffee and pressed sandwiches. Classic drinks include mojitos and daiquiris. The Hemingway daiquiri features white rum, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, sugar, lime and fresh grapefruit juice. The El Presidente, a drink popular during Prohibition, features white rum, white vermouth, orange curacao and grenadine made in-house. Bartenders likely will expand their rum-based cocktail menus as New Orleanians rediscover the Latin and Caribbean spirit.