Friday, September 7, 2012

Spirit Handler - Alan Walter

When one thinks of New Orleans, religion rarely comes to mind. Far from it. Yet, surprisingly, there is an almost "miraculous" sense of spiritual connection, one subtly encounters on a daily basis in this multicultural, multilingual city. A rare admixture of Native American, French, Spanish, and African ancestry (to name a few), combine to form the high "holy" Cajun and Creole cultures. What do these devout congregations have in common? Be it the Virgin Mary, Voodoo Queens, or the nine Muses, New Orleans relishes any opportunity to celebrate!

All spiritual practice is deeply rooted in worship. Furthermore, there would be no worship without "spirits," whether a divine presence, or rather, a divine cup of wine. True to form, there is no worship in New Orleans without great food, drink, music, or the god-fearing love of football! (Yes, their beloved team is called The Saints).

This brings me to one "spirit handler" in particular, Alan Walter. A native of Louisiana, Mr. Walter is a true professional in the field of cocktail "offerings." His expert knowledge of herbs, nature and just the right mixture of poison, has created an abundance of successful cocktail programs at some of the most prestigious restaurants throughout New Orleans. Currently, Alan is Creative Director at Loa, the cozy corner bar anchoring the International House Hotel, in the heart of downtown. If libations were a part of everyday religious ritual, Loa would be the perfect altar.

Named after the local deities of Haitian Vodou, Loa serves as the intermediary between Heaven & Earth. Upon entering the bar, you are immediately greeted by the "garden," an herbal forest of fresh thyme, oregano, basil, lemongrass, sage, parsley, dill, and various other "healing" elements; fresh squeezed juices, along with an eclectic array of home-steeped bitters and syrups (Spanish moss and clover tea anyone?). All potions are thoughtfully housed in a menagerie of glass bottles and carafes, casting a colorful glow in the late summer sunset, like a beautiful stain-glass window. The "play of expectations" has already set in - one of the secret ingredient to a great cocktail, according to Mr. Walter. The other secret to making a great cocktail is, “the proper balance of bitters and herbs. Without those ingredients, there would be no sweet. The energy of a cocktail relies on the 'bite,' which causes the cocktail to sing."
Clearly, I've stumbled across the keys to the kingdom!

Bartender by night, botanist by day, Mr. Walter frequents his favorite local grocers, Dorignac's (Metarie) and the Hong Kong Market (Gretna), daily to select the best in-season local produce. Next, the long laboratory hours of juicing, steeping, boiling and reduction begin, creating all the juices, syrups and bitters that make Loa's drinks so special. Unlike most mixologists, Mr. Walter's alchemy is more often than not the focus of fresh fruit and herbs, the "simple delights," as he notes, and not necessarily the main spirit. For example, a few summer drink staple ingredients include dill bitters with Meyer lemons, pineapple balsamic syrup, and watermelon pan dan syrup. Perhaps these seem a bit daunting for the home bartender, but definitely worth a trip downtown.

Bottles of Housemade Bitters & Syrups
Like many of the aspiring chefs Mr. Walter has previously worked along side with, the cocktails at Loa are ambitious, but not fussy. Under the expert hands of the entire talented staff, each drink is carefully hand-crafted to an unassuming perfection; truly a delight to watch, as well as taste. As one pair of bar patrons astutely (yet foolishly) observed, while Mr. Walter calmly prepared one of the most original and refreshing drinks I have ever tasted, "there must be 10 ingredients in that drink! I'll stick with my beer."

It's true, not everyone believes in "spirits," but like the slogan of this city, that has seen its fair share of hard times in the recent past, you're either in or you're not. Count me in! Especially, after a magical visit to Loa.

For the ambitious novice, Mr. Walter shares two of my favorite Loa cocktails:

2 ounces dry gin (ex. Gordon's London Dry Gin, or Beefeater)
1/2 ounce pineapple balsamic syrup*
1/2 ounce St. Germain liqueur
10 leaves of Thai basil (when shaken with the ice, enough to bruise the basil for proper seasoning)
Shake with ice and double strain into glass.

*Pineapple Balsamic Syrup: in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, mix one freshly peeled and cored pineapple with 2 cups of balsamic vinegar (or more, depending on the size of the fruit). Bring to boil, then simmer over medium heat. Add sugar to taste, and stir frequently, until mixture has reduced down to about 1/2 cup. Let cool completely, then strain mixture, pressing on solids to extract a little extra juice. Store in a tightly closed jar or bottle.

The Third Wheel - Better In Cocktail Form

The Third Wheel
1 ounce dry gin (ex. Gordon's London Dry Gin or Beefeater)
1 ounce St. Germain liqueur
1/2 ounce of Galliano liqueur
1/3 ounce of Maraschino liqueur
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
handful of fresh oregano
3 drops of grapefruit bitters
Shake with ice and double strain into glass.
Add a splash of soda water.


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