New Orleans’ drink history is among the most storied in America. It’s home to the Sazerac, Brandy Crusta, Ramos Gin Fizz, A La Louisiane, Vieux Carré, and Hurricane, among many other classics. But the city’s bartenders aren’t bogged down by tradition. They’re constantly on the hunt for new-to-them flavors and spirits to blend into Big Easy cocktail culture. They’ve found these three shops to be excellent sources.
Hong Kong Market
“We are all low-key obsessed with Hong Kong Market,” says bartender Joe Witkowski of his peers and the mega Asian grocer in Greta, Louisiana.
Witkowski runs the cocktail program at Bakery Bar in New Orleans, which, as the name implies, sells cakes and cocktails. Specifically, Bakery Bar specializes in doberge, an iced layer cake that originated in New Orleans. Witkowski’s drinks are fun and celebratory, inspired by the bakery case and meant to be enjoyed with a mouthful of frosting.
When he’s on the hunt for new ingredients, Witkowski drives to the West Bank, home to Hong Kong Market and an area known for its Vietnamese stores and restaurants. Hong Kong Maket’s produce aisle is filled with asian fruits like Buddah’s hand, sapodilla, canistel, jackfruit, and cherimoya. He buys extra large bottles of fish sauce to give his Bloody Mary base a hit of umami, along with boba for a Mai Tai-chai bubble tea mash-up. If he wanders the aisles for a while, he might tuck into a bánh mì.
“They have everything. There’s a Vietnamese jerky store attached, with almost anything in jerky format,” says Witkowski. “When I’m building cocktails, I love garnishes that don’t just add visuals. I like to serve a snack with a drink.”
In that “little something extra for your drink” category, Witkowski picks up dried plums and candy. He recently ran a Blood and Sand variation inspired by the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. In addition to Japanese whiskey and various forms of cherry, he topped the drink with hibiscus-tea-marinated orange slices and served it with a take-home folded paper crane, courtesy of Hong Kong Market.
Anna Giordana, the bar director at Anna’s, pops into Hong Kong Market for specials that require ingredients like shiso or lemongrass. It’s also one of her go-to stops for tea. “I don’t find a lot of bartenders who use tea as much as I do,” she says.
Anna’s opened in June 2021 in the former Mimi’s in Marigny. The first floor of the double-decker bar is dive-y with a pool table, jukebox, draughts, a beer and shots list, and six or so classic cocktails with a “teeny twist,” according to Giordana. The upstairs menu has a Spanish influence with G&Ts, Kalimotxo, and sherry Negronis.
Still, it is New Orleans, the spiritual home of the frozen drink. “You have to dilute frozen drinks so that they freeze properly. Instead of water, I pair teas with the cocktail in question so there’s more flavor,” she says. For her program at the now-shuttered Longway Tavern, Giordana dispensed a frozen combination of Cardamaro, tequila, cardamom tea, acid-adjusted orange juice, agave syrup, and lime juice. “I didn’t have to use too much of the amaro, because of the tea; it’s good for cutting costs,” says Girodana, who has also run a cold tea toddy with an ounce and a half of spiced orange tea, plus bourbon, Madeira, honey, and citrus.
In addition to Hong Kong Market, Giordana sources tea blends and herbs from Big Easy Fresh Market, Good Thyme Wellness, and two local apothecaries: Maypop and Rosalie Botanicals. “They have walls of herbs in jars, things like marshmallow seed, witchy shit,” she says. (Rosalie also carries tarot cards, crystals, and incense.)
Joey Laura, the head bartender at newly opened Chemin a la Mer at the Four Seasons New Orleans, is also a fan of Rosalie and its “dizzying array of herbs, spices, boutique produce, and arsenal of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients that one might find in the cabinet of a food scientist rather than a bartender,” he says.
The community shop has become especially important as he R&Ds alcohol-free versions of classic cocktails. In his Negroni, Laura replicates the brightness of Campari with citrus peels, then adds gentian root for bitterness, beets for color, and rich syrup for sweetness and body. “The sweet vermouth component is tricky, because it has to hit all those richer, darker notes of what makes a Negroni round and balanced, without making the whole drink a sugar bomb,” says Laura. For that, he uses dried dates, figs, and raisins, plus orange, cinnamon, rich syrup, and wine tannins.
His French 75 digs further into the Rosalie catalog, starting with its faux London Dry gin base, flavored with juniper berries, coriander, Angelica root, and black pepper. He then makes a custom wine acid, mixing tartaric and lactic acids with dried fruits. Citric acid and lemon peel give the essence of lemon juice while allowing the batch to keep longer than fresh juice allows. He sweetens the drink with honey syrup and a rich sugar syrup, lightly carbonates the components, and adds a splash of club soda to finish.
Keife & Co.
William “Wildcat” Greenwell, a co-owner and the drinks maven at Mister Mao, gravitates to Keife & Co. when he’s in need of menu inspiration. “I tend to wander the booze aisles like I do at Peaches, the record store I love near Mister Mao. I like to look for interesting labels, just like how an album cover catches my eye,” he says of the boutique wine, spirits, and specialty food shop in the Warehouse District.
His program at Mister Mao is eclectic, “a mashup of classic cocktails and as many fun and zany tropical drinks we can muster up from our tiny wells,” he says. On a recent visit to Keife & Co., Greenwell picked up Xtabentún, a honey-and-anise liqueur from the Yucatan, that he’s workshopping into a new cocktail with fennel liqueur. He also discovered Italicus on the shelves there and now features the bergamot liqueur in his Bitter Lies cocktail with mezcal, Luxardo, and pisco.
The store also carries interesting honeys and bitters, along with syrups, mixers, and bar tools. Hadi Ktiri, the beverage manager at the Four Seasons New Orleans, first discovered the alpine amaro Braulio at Keife & Co. many, many years ago, which he now uses in his Cocktail Orleans, an offspring of the La Louisiane and Vieux Carré, employing a blend of Italian liqueurs, amari, and overproof American bourbon and served with a piece of dark chocolate. “The way I keep it interesting is to endlessly push for the best product,” he says.
While Keife & Co. doesn’t have the largest selection in town, it’s edited. Ktiri knows that if he needs an aged Jamaican rum or French pear brandy, owner John Keife or another salesperson will have just the right bottle—and will be familiar enough with each of the store’s offerings to make the most helpful suggestions. Once, when Ktiri needed a white wine with which to make vermouth, “John got up from the counter, walked me over to a shelf, and said, ‘Here’s what you’re looking for.’ He pointed to a bottle of pinot grigio for $11,” says Ktiri. “I could tell he didn’t care how much money I was spending. He wanted me to find the perfect wine for the application. That’s why I keep coming back.”