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There's This Little Bar Down in New Orleans... Interview With Chris Hannah

Photo of Arnaud's from Arnaud's

Bartender Chris Hannah is an old soul who's perfectly suited for Arnaud's French 75.

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.

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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