The Story in the Syrup

By Lisa Elbert | Cheryl Gerber Photography

By

Lisa Elbert
Cheryl Gerber Photography
Bartender Alan Walter of Loa Bar and His Ship Island Cocktail
Bartender Alan Walter of Loa Bar and His Ship Island Cocktail

Bartender Alan Walter represents the history and people of Louisiana through his cocktail program at Loa, the lounge at the International House Hotel. Walter captures the essence of the Bayou State through a robust syrup program: “Syrup is a core ingredient in cocktails; it drives the drink,” he says. Walter has 75 to 80 syrups and extractions on his bar at all times, and flavors might include Spanish moss, sweet olive, birdseed, or longleaf pine. “My local environment comes into play in my cocktails through the syrups,” he says.

Walter’s Ship Island—a tiki concoction of Angostura rums, mastiha liqueur, and strawberry-sassafras root syrup—is named for two Gulf barrier islands that hosted explorers, colonists, and invaders. It’s flown the French, Spanish, British, Confederate, and Union flags. “The drink’s namesake is a feature in our local imagination, a place historically that we also know from growing up in this area,” he says.

In Walter’s imagination, every ingredient has a history, and every place has a flavor. “The main elements of the drink are meant to evoke a tangible sense of place—for locals, a connection to a memory; and for visitors, an arrangement of the historic landscape,” he says.

The soft, mellow profiles of the aged Angostura rums provide the cocktail’s tiki base, and their vanilla and butterscotch characteristics sympathize with the strawberry-sassafras syrup—flavors from Walter’s youth. (Walter grew up in Hammond, Louisiana’s strawberry capital, and as a kid he often dug up native sassafras root while searching for shards of antique glass.) The syrup adds earthy, acidic, and herbal notes with the ripe fruit set against the pungent sassafras. Plus it ties the drink to the sea. “Ship Island is off the coast of Mississippi, where sassafras has long been used and consumed. I’m happy when I can find a new angle on common flavors. And mastiha highlights the drink’s tiki undertones, which I associate with a coastal lifestyle,” says Walter. Distilled from the resin of trees on Chios, a Greek island, the ancillary mastiha contributes a piney-citrus intensity.

It’s a circular cocktail and story, drawing from complexities of the Gulf—and Walter’s serious repertoire of syrups.

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