According to at least one occult website, those possessed by the Voodoo spirit Baron Samedi “tell lewd jokes, wear dark glasses, smoke cigarettes or cigars, eat voraciously, and drink copious amounts of alcohol.” (Sounds kind of like a bar regular, right?) Things might be a tad more genteel at Loa, the New Orleans bar that shares its name with the term for Voodoo spirits like Samedi (the spirit of death, resurrection, and—coincidence?—a patron loa of New Orleans). But get Head Barman (and titular Spirits Handler, no pun intended) Alan Walter to serve up one of his liquid offerings and things might start to edge toward the freakier side of fine.
And that’s a good thing. The way Walter mixes it, the cocktail experience doesn’t begin and end in the glass. Not that he doesn’t make fine craft cocktails—his list is mostly that. It’s just that Walter’s not afraid to dig into potable scenarios, complete with props and overt psychological metaphors. “I serve a ‘group drink’ called the Ne’erdowell,” says Walter. “Half bottle of Bulleit Rye, several juices, and mixers, dice, and playing cards,” a sort of tongue-in-cheek sinner’s tableau, “all in good fun.” Another potation-as-revelation is the Ten Years in a Day, a presentation intended to “evoke the kind of country song where a hard liver finally faces himself in the dusty restroom mirror.” The drink—a lonely glass of Cabernet—arrives on “a gilt tray with a hand mirror, and a small etched-glass box of my own homemade smelling salts.” Maybe it’s New Orleans, but the drink sells—once to a customer who “fainted in her barstool convincingly.”
Hold the applause, please. Walter isn’t about parlor tricks. His drinks are multi-dimensional and tartly experiential, like the city they’re born in. They’re also seriously culinary. Take his La La Louisiane, a cocktail update that combines Cynar, Absinthe, Carpano Antica, Rittenhouse rye, and house-made chicory-plaintain bitters. The result is less saccharine than the original Louisiane (equal parts Benedictine, rye, and sweet vermouth, with the requisite local hit of Herbsaint and Peychaud’s). “The ‘culprit’ was the Benedictine,” says Walter, who subbed in Cynar for depth that “still honored the tone of the recipe.” Walter rounds out his darker flavor profile with chicory-plantain bitters. “Extracting flavor from a plantain is about as easy as extracting pennies from a nickel,” says Walter, who uses “alcohol to render flavor from a slightly caramelized [plantain] syrup, allowing the essence to speak up.”
A more straightforward mixo might serve this robust ruby beauty on its own, but Walter pairs it with a few shards of bittersweet chocolate—a taboo among a certain class of bartenders who believe in the sacrosanct perfection of the glass. But Walter’s got a rationale, one you can actually taste. “Palates arrive at cocktails in all conditions,” he says. “I believe the chocolate paired with this drink encourages a certain dialogue for the palate.” It might seem like cocktail pedagogy, and, in a way, it is. Walter’s giving guests at Loa a kind of culinary guide for a richer experience of their cocktail. Like Baron Samedi leading dead spirits through their crossing, the chocolate leads the drinker further into the fruit and earth of the cocktail’s blood-red depth. (Lewd jokes encouraged, but not required.)