Trying to convince Chris McMillian to slow down and focus when he’s talking about legendary New Orleans bars or the rise of cocktail culture is like trying to dam the Mississippi with a sock.
Once he gets going, he stays going. The rivulets of information turn into rivers, and the rivers into oceans. It doesn’t matter if he’s holding forth on the regional popularity of the Julep or pioneering local NOLA bartender Henry C. Ramos and his famous Gin Fizz.
“One question leads to one answer, and one answer leads to another question,” he says in his own defense. “I don’t know how you can live in a place like this and not be drawn into its story.”
These days, McMillian presides over Bar UnCommon, just off the lobby of the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel in New Orleans’ Central Business District. With a sleek, glowing aquamarine crackled-glass bar top, it’s a surprisingly modern stage for someone who occupies history so happily.
Yet customers return time and again. They come for perfectly balanced cocktails, but more so for McMillian’s brand of hospitality—a mix of education and entertainment. On any given evening, you’ll run into a hotel guest excitedly bringing back friends and enthusing about what they drank the night before, asking McMillian to tell the story anew about one drink or another.
While McMillian clearly enjoys being part of the craft-mixology renaissance, (he is on the Museum of The American Cocktail’s board of directors, after all), he still worries that it might be a passing trend.
“We’re riding the crest of it, but that’s because it’s fun” he says. “We forget that these drinks are just supposed to taste good and please average people.”
And you get the sense that for McMillian, the past provides the long view that keeps his job in perspective. “Life is not about the task, it’s about the journey and doing what you love to do,” he says. “You don’t go to your work every day. You go to your life every day.”
Contributed by Chris McMillian
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a cocktail glass.
Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. He is also host of the site Slowcocktails.com.
(Photo courtesy of The Museum of the American Cocktail)