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Bourbon Streets: An Agoraphobic Yankee Finds Whiskey in King Cake's Court

No Quarter

Friday came. Tourists had been steadily spilling into town. Streetcars stopped running by noon, as people set out lawn chairs and self-crafted grandstands on the trolley tracks that run down the median of St. Charles St.

The worst part: the entire French Quarter stops serving drinks in glasses. Which makes sense, because otherwise you’d have wild drunk people walking on glass shards. But . . .

In Coop’s — where “the not-so-elite meet to eat” Cajun food — we were hustled up to the crowded bar and found ourselves grinning at the Lagavulins and cocktails on the menu. But Camille couldn’t convince the overly-busy bartender to give her a break on the plastic cup. Tolerating the crowd was possible — even fun at the moment — but it just didn’t feel right doing that to the drinks. We shyly crept away.

After an early (and tasty) dinner at a mercifully tucked away place called Café Amelie, we woke from a hotel nap with weird desperation. “We can’t finish the night before 10!” Camille blurted. I still can’t figure out why, but something snapped in me. I started searching Yelp for the best cocktail joints, ready to indulge things that felt like mistakes before even leaving the hotel room.

No Quarter part II:

The Polo Club Lounge

The website for the Polo Club Lounge — located on the second floor of the Windsor Hotel in the more conventional downtown of the American Sector — promised this cocktail:

The Port Ellen — $15

Laphroaig 16 yr, Bulleit Rye, Lillet Rouge, Chambord, with Angostura, Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange Bitters

Camille thought it looked like a goofy hotel bar, but she saw my determination to get the damn drink.

On the way, we ran into the Hermes parade at Magazine & Gravier St. It was winding down, and the streets had no barricades. A smattering of paradegoers clapped at the small floats and the marching bands comprised of tired children. We watched a while. I caught some flowers; a young kid gave Camille a big plastic green cigar. It had a weirdly intimate touch. Then we continued on our way . . .

Giant paintings of hunting dogs adorned the Windsor lobby, and a more frenetic, family-oriented array of tourists crammed into the corny Lounge. I guess it used to be a jackets-only place. But those were as absent as the cocktail ingredients that had brought me there.

“How about the Fall in Love,” Camille asked the distracted bartender. He leaned over and flipped through the cocktail book while saying they were out of the All Spice Dram, “So I could make it for you but it’d be an entirely different drink.” Something in his voice sounded defensive, cold. Almost nervous.

Just another sight from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Joshua Sparks)
Just another sight from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Joshua Sparks)

Camille went for an Old Fashioned, and I — moping — followed suit. At least he had asked our whiskey preference (Camille arbitrarily requested a Woodford); the next guy who ordered an Old Fashioned wasn’t asked, and the barkeep poured in Evan Williams like it was growing on trees. Which, when you look at it, it all is in a way.

No Quarter part III:

No Victory

Missing out on the Port Ellen left an empty spot in my heart, and the clock was ticking. I was dragging Camille around, declaring we’d find some good goddamn cocktails as if for her benefit. All the sudden, in the spirit of some moment, I was demanding the spirit of the moment — or some spirit concoction: The Cocktail, in its city of origin.

At the Polo Lounge I’d spastically flipped through Yelp on my smart phone to find Victory, the nearest open place in the American Sector. (Proximity was key, since the streets were still basically closed.)

On our trek, we passed bulldozers pushing beads and litter into huge garbage piles that they then lifted into giant bins. Where would this junkheap be sent? I thought, as Camille took blurry pictures of the scene. We were repelled by what we saw, so naturally were trying to record it all. But why? Are our brains that untrustworthy that we need digital backup? Where would these pictures, which were quickly compiling, end up anyway? Locked on our laptops? Stuck on digital card files? Would all of it eventually wind up at some dump too, atop the mountains of beads, which the bulldozers collected from the streets with the faceless determination of tanks crushing over war-strewn rubble?

We’d stuffed the parade beads as away as possible, mostly in Camille’s bursting purse, and we stood at the Victory bar.

A female bartender was working hard mixing cocktails; but the male bartender stood talking to two customers, looking at things on their cell phones. He kept not looking at us, walking by us, walking back by us . . . even though we were the only people waiting for anything.

Waiters and bartenders are famously “laid back” in New Orleans, with which I have no quarrel. (A few nights before I’d patiently waited 40 minutes for the waitress to replace my glass that was covered with traces of pink wig fuzz of some kind). But this brush off became somewhat humiliating. Was he telling us something? Was he sensing I shouldn’t be there — that I’d come to some crazy place and tried to be sane? That I was trying to wedge into some bullshit “middle,” keeping the crowd at arm’s length while taking snapshots of the bulldozers and videos of the post-parade cleanup crews, who gathered and dispersed garbage on Canal St. with eerily droning leaf blowers and high-powered hoses?

The thing was I hadn’t come to New Orleans looking for whiskey. I didn’t plan on doing a story at all. But the more She lured me with a curling index finger, the more I salivated for some image that formed in my head somehow. It was a rug the place was slipping under me, like reversed film footage of the age-old parlor trick. Even as I’m back in Chicago, typing about this at a Damen St. café, sitting by the heater because it’s 2 damn degrees outside, I think of New Orleans more and more.

The bartender waltzed by us one last time, not looking at us in that way where he was looking directly at us. With a nod, we left. We chanced the Sazerac bar even though there was 15 minutes until closing. The barkeep filled two “Elijah Craig Old Fashioneds” with two huge helpings of Maker’s Mark and not much else. Goddamn, I thought, I know it’s closing but . . . suddenly the drinks seemed very expensive.

We took the drinks to our rooms and kept the glasses.

No Quarter part IV:

Quarter

Saturday, after watching the impressively large Endymion parade with my brother Steve, his wife Gertrude, and little Clyde-Jonathon, we needed a place open until midnight. We walked down Magazine St. looking for Capdeville — another Yelp find — and were so relieved when we discovered it was tucked away from the crowds on a non-thru street that might as well have been an alley.

A geometric, jukebox vibe. A crowd of regulars. A great, bearded waiter. A tasty duck confit club and BBQ beer burger. A neat Blanton’s. A welcome respite.

Ending on a High Note

With plans to go to another parade Sunday night — Bacchus — we woke late. After Capdeville the night before, we got cocky I guess, and we went for the weirdest sounding place we could think of: The Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone, known for its rotating circular bar.

My impressions of it are few, because we only lasted there a few seconds: the carpeting on the outside stairs and all through the hotel lobby were covered in a horribly messed over plastic lining, which was tearing at the seams from the pedestrian traffic, the sticking beer-soaked shoes, and the rough beads caught in sneaker treads.

The bar itself was a madhouse. Adults clambered together, kids hung from their parents, and every cocktail was (of course) in a nondescript, sad little plastic cup, as if college pranksters got their hands on the municipal zoning books and decreed all glassware to Phi Beta Kappa rave standards.

“We’re here, we have to do it.” Words were just coming out of my mouth. Even though I saw the panic all over Camille’s face I tried pulling her deeper into the place. “The rotating bar is full but there are seats all along the lounge back there.”

Some of the crazy action at the Spotted Cat. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Joshua Sparks)
Some of the cool kats hanging  at the Spotted Cat. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Joshua Sparks)

My voice was foreign to me, was droning like a rationalizing H.A.L. 2000 and yet, a spastic mania. Had I gone crazy? Was I no longer on a trip anymore, but bending to the idea of what a trip should be? Or what a trip there should be? What should a trip be, anyway?

She panicked — “WE HAVE TO LEAVE!” We found ourselves walking all the way through the French Quarter back toward Marigny, where we’d ambled a few days before.

We were tired of the crowds, the plastic cups, were wary of skipping around the vomit on the sidewalks, were concerned that we were used to it already. I don’t think we touched anything the entire walk.

The Spotted Cat had seats at the bar because it was still pretty early. We sat there a long while, feeling home, breathing out. We missed Sunday’s parade with little Clyde-Jonathon, but we watched two really fun bands playing Dixieland standards and a modern Ella Fitzgerald-type swing, respectively. Despite the plastic cup and the whiskey selection that only stretched as far as Bulleit and Knob, it was one of my favorite times in the city.

Which only got better at Mimi’s in the Marigny, a two-level house that is smoke-filled bar downstairs (bars still allow smoking in New Orleans), and a highly delicious Tapas Bar upstairs. The place, which had been recommended, is open through 5 a.m. on weekends and I believe serves food as long as they’re open.

Getting some pool in at Mimi's in the Marigny. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Joshua Sparks)
Getting some pool in at Mimi’s in the Marigny. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Joshua Sparks)

In a lowball bar glass, I got a huge Laphroaig pour in the red-lit room upstairs, where a three-piece band featuring an accordion, upright bass, and hand-hit drum created a cool, murky atmosphere.

Camille had quit almost 10 years before, and I never had in the first place, but downstairs we bought a pack and joined the smokers. And I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time: a dense cloud hovering over the heads of the barflies, and over the pool players, dimming the lights.

I wish . . .

. . . I was back in New Orleans already. It’s freezing in Chicago for the love of Jesus. I loved New Orleans, the weird Mardi Gras scene, the train travel, and knowing that some tasty itineration of my warming, barrel-soaked friend was inviting me to pull up a stool at every bar in town.

I want to go again, in some off season, to wander once more through the streets, sipping from a hip flask as I watch the river roll. When getting around, I’m sure, will be a little big easier.

Joshua M. Sparks

Living in Chicago, drinking as many whiskies as I can whenever I can. I write for Courthouse News Service in my square job, and script-write and watch movies as a hobby. Currently, I’m going through bottles of smoky single malts while I catch up with the French New Wave.

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