One glance at the cocktail menu at Loa, the gorgeous jewel-box of a space at the International House Hotel in New Orleans, pretty much tells you all you need to know about Bartender Alan Walter. Titled “An Extravagant Taste of Place,” and filled with playful, poetic prose he writes himself, the menu is a virtual lovefest to the city’s culture, ritual and romance, a hodgepodge of unusual spirits, homemade syrups, fresh squeezed juices and local ingredients that are steeped, shaken, stirred, and, above all, thoughtfully curated.
A playwright who spent time in the professional theater world – he earned a BA Degree in the classics at the University of Dallas and later an MFA Degree at Louisiana State University -- he infuses a sense of story into every cocktail he creates.
Self-taught in the world of bartending magic and someone who definitely works to the beat of his own drummer, Walter started digging deeper into the idea of flavor when he started making drinks for fun. “It satisfied a desire to keep studying science in some way and yet allowed me to be artistic in another way, enabling me to stay creative on other fronts,” he says.
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Bottom line: What started as a job needed for income years ago –he previously worked at Iris in New Orleans and at a variety of other bars before landing at Loa - suddenly became a joyful occupation that feeds into his love of literature, theater and history. And though Walter is now busy pursuing songwriting, he remains devoted – and passionate – about cocktails. So much so that he makes his own syrups, tinctures and teas created from local produce, sources his own herbs and shops the cocktail glasses and other accoutrements necessary for his craft, thrifting them at antique stores and flea markets. (Favorites include gold pharmacy ware and thick old beakers.)
A philosophical eccentric who treats his bar like a sophisticated apothecary, he gets things other people don’t and makes things others can’t. Only he, it seems, would cook up birdseed syrup concocted from his own birds-of-Louisiana blend and then stir it into a drink dubbed the Wild Birdseed Old Fashioned. Or create a shiitake liqueur made from the stuff of local gardens and hives.
Other innovations -- a Cuban Sazerac (Matusalem Gran Reserva, rum, sugarcane, banana liqueur, Peychaud’s bitters), an Absinthe Suissesse (Kubler absinthe, coconut milk, vermouth bianco, egg whites) and a Bona Dea (St. George Terroir gin, Absentroux herbal wine, Suze, thyme liqueur, fresh dill) –draw from the soul of the city. They’re modern New Orleans classics --liquid expressions of its exuberant, irreverent culture.
Walter is the first to tell you his inventions span the globe from Sicily to Senegal, Venice to Vietnam, Marseilles to Madrid, with a mixture of Haiti and Havana.
When asked to describe his style, he says “All over the map.”
“I like to think that I’m making things with acknowledgement that we’re the northernmost Caribbean city,” he explains. Which is why, the classic Sazerac is reinvented under his hand with floral bitters -- a nod towards New Orleans’ tropical conditions.
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Bright herbal fresh bitters – ingredients with heat that go well with the climate –form the base to his approach. He’s also very taken with items that are off the commercial grid. “So, to me, that’s led me to anything nonpoisonous,” he says. “I like to find where flavor is hiding and to take a journey to figure out to draw it out and showcase it.”
That means playing with items like Spanish moss, bamboo or even pine. “I think these things are interesting – not because they’re amazing in any way – but because they provide some flavor beyond the normal spectrum.” He then experiments, seeing what they might pair best with. Should they go with basil or grapefruit? A light or dark spirit?
A first-time visitor walking into Loa will see fistfuls of tarragon, thyme, Thai basil, and rosemary sitting in water glasses at the bar, though options are ever-evolving. Walter recently had chocolate mint someone brought in from a farmer’s market; he also has contacts that sometimes bring in greenery from a nearby swamp. And, he admits he’ll often spend time roaming grocery store aisles, visiting area farms, checking out apiaries, even consulting witch doctors. At any time of day or night, cocktail epiphanies are born.
The city is Walter’s inspiration and brings with it little love affairs with indigenous ingredients. It could be any herb – he recently played around with dandelion root, which turned out to make a wonderful infusion and a great syrup. “So as each thing comes along, it kind of provokes me to think, how will it fit into the big picture and what category of liquor will it befriend first?” he explains. “Does it want to be in a gin drink? Or with darker stirs?”
Under his guise, ingredients seem to come alive. “The flavors themselves are the prime inspiration,” he says. “To me, flavor is its own language.”
And while he works with anything and everything, Walter admits Chartreuse is his favorite liquor because of its complexity and rich tradition. He also loves Italian liquors. “The Italians have a tendency for bittersweet – as you see in Aperol or Campari or in Strega or Galliano,” he explains. “These things go well with herbs and are one reason I enjoy using them.”
Once he has his ingredients – he rarely uses more than five – it could take him days or seconds to come up with a new creation. Says Walter: “It just comes from an intuition.”