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Photo of Arnaud's from Arnaud's Restaurant.com.

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.

After Hurricane Katrina

When you get inspired to craft a new cocktail, where does that seedling come from? Is it a response to the changing season, or to another cocktail you had somewhere, or for a special ingredient?

Seasons and ingredients are where the seedlings come from, true. New ingredients come out, new seasonings and sugars available to modify spirits with, and then new takes on seasonal classics are often afoot. For me it’s always literature, and sometimes music, where I get names and direction from. If I read an interesting story or find a character in a book who sticks with me, I’ll envision a cocktail pairing that relates. This is how I came up with the Walker Percy, the Night Tripper, the Movie Goer, The Vargas Girl, Penn Warren Punch, et cetera. I like stories, and I like that all cocktails have a story.

Traveling enhances future cocktails as well, yes. When I went to Brazil for the World Cup, I rather liked a fun Caipirinha in a neighborhood in Sao Paulo, and when I made a fun version of it I named the drink after the neighborhood, Vila Madelena.

The more books I read and old blues and jazz songs I listen to, the more ideas I get for names of cocktails. I’m still working on the Sweet Lucy. Of course, it helps to live in such a colorful city as New Orleans, full of characters that run the gamut: musicians, literature, local personalities, et cetera.

What was the first book you read that really changed your life? What kind of books do you generally like to read? What are you reading right now?

First book? Where the Red Fern Grows, it began my love for a good story. When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. There are two books that changed the way I even write my emails, Love in the Time of Cholera and All the King’s Men.

I generally like to read good dialogue; I enjoy making imaginary friends in these books and the vicariousness of being in the book along with the story, so good character development is always a plus. Period pieces are a guilty pleasure; I’m an old soul at heart. Right now I’m reading, The Savage Detectives.

Where is your lab space? Do you experiment with making new cocktails at home, or mostly at French 75?

Lab Space is both, home and the French 75.

What neighborhood do you live in?

I live on the cusp of the Lower Garden District and Central City. My house is a large, green Victorian double on Jackson Avenue, columns and porch and all. It’s a lot of work, but on the plus side, I haven’t looked for a place to rent in ten years. Built in 1904, and I always tell people I have the tallest Bird of Paradise in the city.

Like you, I’m a huge fan of the Americano. Any theories as to why bitter cocktails and amaros are coming back into fashion lately?

Bitter cocktails are coming back in fashion because the ingredients are becoming more readily available. Before we only had vermouths to modify spirits with, now with the resurgence of cocktail culture, our liquor distributors are importing many more liquors. Amaros are proving to have a much more bold mouthfeel compared to vermouth.

Also, our culture loves new and different, and so when guests leave the house they want to venture where they can get it. Another reason for bitter cocktails coming back is for the low-proof trend, such as the Americano. Bitter liquors have a backbone in a tall drink similar to straight spirits like gin and bourbon, but with less bite. Bitters like Campari and Aperol and the newer, similar liquors have much lower proofs than bourbon, vodka and gin, but have a bold mouthfeel and mix well with wine and sodas. Also, we have more warm months than cold, so tall and refreshing is called for a lot more down here.

Does wearing a white jacket at work drive you crazy? How do you get stains out? What do you like to wear when you’re not working?

I’m too used to the white jacket at this point. The way we set the bar up helps for getting fewer stains. I definitely have a bleach pen behind the bar and bleach at home for washing the jackets and shirts. I think because of the past 13 years of wearing black and white that my personal wardrobe is what it is, which is very colorful and plaid.

Tell me the story of that crazy upstairs museum full of creepy mannequins at French 75?

They’re all reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor, at the end of the day. It’s the history of Arnaud’s daughter’s Mardi Gras Queen gowns, and they’re amazing. Even if you’re not into ball gowns, you have to appreciate the pictures of the gowns on the woman while she was at her ball, and that they’re still there, in front of you to see. I think I’m torn between the Champagne Gown and the Patriotic Gown, as to which is my favorite.

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Photo credit: Brian Huff

Where did you go to college, and what did you study?

I went to Campbell University and North Carolina State University, Bachelors from Campbell. Business Administration. Took me nine years and finished at night school while running a kitchen during the day, but I did it. I also attended University of New Orleans for a second degree in Hospitality and Tourism, but haven’t finished yet. Four classes left. Was going to use this to help get me into Guest House running.

Is the dream still to open your own bed and breakfast? What’s stopping you?

No, not really the dream anymore. I think what’s stopped me was how important the bar got, and renting and running my house. I always thought before moving down to New Orleans that I’d finally wear bowties and cufflinks and buttons, various colors to match the colorful theme that is New Orleans, welcome guests to the city, et cetera. Well, I guess I got the bowties and cufflinks and buttons right.

In more than 60 articles that have been written about you, there isn’t a single mention of your age or race. Do you want to discuss it? And what’s your zodiac sign?

Yeah, the majority of the bartenders who jumped on the cocktail revolution wave I’ve found myself lucky and happy to be on were mostly white, in the beginning. Thankfully that’s changing, and thankfully also, those who are in my community are all very open-minded and socially liberal. I’m very happy there’s no room for bigotry in my cocktail community, and not just because of my race, personally, but because I like to think I’m a forward-thinking American, as well.

My dad is black and my mom is white, and yes, most people don’t know. I’m not embarrassed by this at all; when I find myself telling people I’m Hawaiian or Puerto Rican (because that obviously looks more believable) it’s more that I just don’t trust the conversation with certain people and don’t have the time for them.

My parents are amazing, and also, I lived on a Navy base my whole life. I thought everyone was mixed! I wouldn’t do anything to not be bi-racial, in fact I feel sorry for you uni-racial people sometimes, such a bore (teasing). Sure, there are some drawbacks for not looking black. The main one is when I’m around white people who don’t know, and hurtful and hateful things come out of their mouths. But on the upside, Obama is half black and half white. Ace in the hole for life for me.

I’m a Taurus.

Age? A lady never tells…

How on earth are you still single? Is it hard to distinguish because people who want to date you because you’re a famous bartender and people who might actually be good prospects for a long-term thing? What are you looking for in a mate?

Tough question. After the hurricane, the people who ran in my circles were only the curious, intellectuals who saw an interesting time and place that was New Orleans and only planned on living here two years before moving back to New York, D.C., Chicago or San Francisco, and reality. Professional service industry workers my age didn’t come back to town, were already married or dating and I guess I was relegated to sleeping around, no real dating options. Those days of people wanting to date me because of Bar Fame are over!

My bartending position doesn’t live up to the normal stigma and hype of a bartender’s reputation. That sort of standard and conventionalism in regards to “life of a bartender” lies with those behind the hip and cool bars, not my beautiful, fancy old school bar. Sorry to bore you.

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