There's This Little Bar Down in New Orleans... Interview With Chris Hannah
Bartender Chris Hannah is an old soul who's perfectly suited for Arnaud's French 75.
When you go to New Orleans, you get drunk. Tourists tend to treat the French Quarter like a Las Vegas of the South. I lived in Baton Rouge for three years, and visited New Orleans many times. It was probably six months before I realized there is more to NOLA than drinking. But hey, the drinking is excellent!
That’s part of the problem -- everybody who has ever been will excitedly impose upon you the story of the greatest night of their lives there and demand you pop in to the bar where it all began so you, too, can have the misadventure of a lifetime. Or drink the world’s original Sazerac recipe. Or sit where Tennessee Williams sat. Or drink out of a plastic grenade that is bigger than your head. Or meet a famous stripper.
I have a dear friend, born and raised in Baton Rouge, who has been tending bars in the French Quarter for more than a decade. In all that time, she has only given me one recommendation for a bar that wasn’t the one behind which she was serving. That bar is French 75, the charming sidecar attached to Arnaud’s, on Bienville between Dauphine and Bourbon. It’s technically just half a block from the chaos, but once you’ve stepped inside, you may as well be a thousand miles away and a hundred years in the past.
The head bartender there is Chris Hannah, by all accounts the nicest famous bartender alive. He first acquired an esteemed reputation among locals -- no easy feat in the French Quarter, where you can always just walk ten paces to some other bar. He’s been there since 2004, earning local love as a leader in his cocktail community when he didn'tt ditch out of the city after Hurricane Katrina. Hannah became part of the Prohibition era cocktail revolution that launched French 75 to the top of every “best bar in America” list from year to year, and Hannah’s charming innovations have garnered constant attention from Tales of the Cocktail. He was at French 75 before he got famous, and he’ll likely be there long after.
Why would you leave a place that once gifted you the chance to serve cocktails to Hunter S. Thompson just a month before he died? Why would you leave a place with the world’s greatest and most secretive house-blended bloody mary mix? I dream about that bloody mary, sometimes. It’s not just the horseradish; it’s not just the right texture of tomato juice. Does it have some kind of shrimp juice in it, or Guinness? Is it some quality of the bathtub it’s made in, like the virtues of a cast iron skillet in cooking? Maddeningly, Hannah will never give up the secret recipe.
Over the years, I’ve had many pleasant chats with Hannah about the beauty of the bar culture at French 75, what makes him tick, this and that. Hannah, impeccably hospitable even at a distance, was happy to have another conversation for the readers at PopMatters.
Baltimore and New Orleans are both seafood-heavy cultures (and of course the town of Duck, North Carolina). I know your dad was in the Navy. What else draws you to cities on the water?
I guess I’ve developed a sense that no place is more special then where water meets land, and accessing it has always been important. That has been a running joke inside myself because I can do nothing with the Mississippi River. Port cities have a tendency to be very interesting places and usually attract a vast mix of people, which in turn creates many cultures in one area. It’s why New York has such a great history, and same for New Orleans.
Yes, water has always been a pretty important part of my life. Maybe I associate the edge of water and land with the ability to leave more freely and easily? Everything is behind you when you’re at the edge of the water and land; it’s special.
What’s the allure of travel bartending? If you had to leave New Orleans for another American city, which one would it be?
For me the allure of travel bartending is reminiscent of our jazz musicians here in New Orleans. I often loved chatting with the members of my restaurant’s jazz trio about their travels, showing the world New Orleans music and representing our town. So whenever I get on a plane to another country I feel like I’m close to doing what Satchmo did back then. I have been very lucky to have bartended New Orleans Nights in several countries, and I love representing NOLA’s cocktail history.
I often contemplate moving to Charleston; it’s the only other American City I think I’d move to. After these two options, it’s gonna have to be an island… flower shirt and straw hat every day.
What did you learn from working in kitchens for eight years?
What helped place my bar up at the top was what I learned in the kitchen. Ten years ago a lot of ingredients needed in classic cocktails weren’t available, so I made them. I’ve made my own Orgeat, Falernum, Allspice Dram, Crème De Mure and many other syrups and ingredients in the French 75 Bar, and all for over a decade now.
My experience in the kitchen making soups and sauces helped this work to be second nature. Same can be said for cocktail creations, knowing what flavors work together because of what I cooked in the kitchen.
Work ethic and sense of urgency have a big role in working a busy bar as well, and this I attribute to the kitchen. I attribute all of the French 75 Bar’s success to the kitchen. There are codes for chefs and one of them is to always teach someone how to make something, don’t withhold ingredients and recipes; you’re always teaching.
What’s the difference between a bartender who has mixology training and one who doesn’t? Has your lack of formal credentials in this area cost you anything, or has it been a kind of advantage?
For me, an interesting difference between a bartender who has mixology training and one who doesn’t is that the one who doesn’t more often than not will actually be a better bartender. I appreciate the mixology training and people who are striving for it to educate themselves and others. But it always ruins it for me when young bartenders use knowledge for something other than their cocktail-making arsenal, and instead to selfishly make themselves look good, forgetting the hospitality part altogether.
I think for me my advantage has always been wanting to bartend for that whole hospitality bit, before I ever realized it could put me in a newspaper or a magazine. I always ask myself, when bartending isn’t pretty anymore, who’s going to keep bartending?
How does publicity impact what you do? Does recognition from James Beard or Tales of the Cocktail make you feel pressured, or grateful?
Sometimes it affects me because I do feel like I need to keep making drinks when I really just hope classics and house staples are enough. I’m tired. I rent out the other side of my house and that’s a second job, and then working New Orleans’ seasons and conventions has me spent. Next thing you know, it’s my 30th year there.
I'm grateful to be on any list that these people write up. It makes me think I’m actually doing a good job to be on these top lists of bars where my immediate peers are working, because I know how amazing they really are. Then you go to the James Beard Awards and see how impressive a group of people you’re amongst actually is. It definitely does remind me that, at the bar, we can’t rest on our laurels and keep making the same drinks. We need to continue to create and explore. But I’d be lying if I told you I can’t wait to be the age when it’s OK for me to just make five drinks and have the guests happy they came for those, just those five.