Chris Hannah has had plenty of experience in the restaurant industry—first at Hooters and Pizza Hut, then as a line cook at Legal Seafood and Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland. But where the charms of Pizza Hut and the back of the house in general failed to allure the young Hannah, when he stepped behind the bar, something clicked. Not only was Hannah talented, he was ambitious.
Like many of his mixing brethren, Hannah didn't go to bartending school. He had no formal culinary training. He just bought a cocktail book in 1998 and got started, landing in what turned out to be a fairly useful niche in the industry. His first bartending gig was behind the counter at Duck News Café. Hannah was just 24 years old, but his clientele ranged in age from 40 to 60, and it showed in their drinking habits, which basically emulated their parents' drinking habits, born in the cocktail's heyday. With so many assumed old-school palates to cater to, Hannah quickly became versed in cocktail classics like Stingers, Manhattans, and Gin Martinis.
Not only was he getting at the roots of cocktails, but it was during this job that Hannah also discovered that the cocktail had a life story, a kind of culinary history, one that he was in a position to share. And whether he's behind the bar at Arnaud's French 75 or assisting in the industry's definitive cocktail gathering, Tales of the Cocktail, Hannah's shaking and sharing cocktail history—and defining cocktail future—as a leader in the New Orleans mixology community.
Interview with Mixologist Chris Hannah of Arnaud's French 75 – New Orleans, LA
Francoise Villeneuve: What are you favorite flavor combinations?
Chris Hannah: My favorite flavor combinations are spiced syrups with citrus and a spirit which can be modified nicely by both. In an orgeat-style syrup I like to add clove and ginger to the toasted almonds, instead of raw almonds, creating an enhanced and heavier almond syrup to go with lime juice and rum. It makes a full-bodied Mai Tai. Flavor combinations are more fun with Tiki cocktails because they have a more broad range of flavors, as well as a fresher and livelier end result. My favorite flavor combinations in cocktails (not shaken, but stirred and boozy) are higher quality whiskies and gins with slight modifying ingredients such as amaros and liqueurs.
FV: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, mixology?
CH: Family drew me to restaurants, because I went away to college and never lived where my parents retired. I found solace in the many people like myself who end up working in restaurants and plan family-type events among themselves. I found mixology by way of what I fancied most, in regards to the many avenues there are in the bartending community of the restaurant industry. I'm an old soul and I love to be told a story. Old cocktails have stories—and new ones better have them as well. As far as the craft part is concerned, I came from the kitchen and learned many universal chef mechanics that have helped me create and re-create ingredients, both long-forgotten and new ones, that enable my bar to create a delightful "wow factor" for the guests visiting.
FV: Were you trained in bartending or mixology?
CH: I was trained in bartending. Studying bartending's past enabled me to indulge in today's mixology. No courses, just a continuing education in Bartending's School of mixology.
FV: What are some current trends you've seen in the cocktail market?
CH: Mixing with obscure ingredients is a trend. Traveling bartending and guest bartending is the most amazing trend. Home-made ingredients and signature cocktails are always going to be a trend.
FV: How have trends changed?
CH: Trends to have lists of 20 vodka drinks has changed. Pre-packaged fruit mixes have changed, too.
FV: What goes into creating a cocktail? How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
CH: It's about where to begin, which spirits are the heroes, which are the modifiers, and why. To create a new cocktail takes the hero spirits, the modifiers, and then the combination of them to become a balanced end result. However long that takes is how long it takes to create a cocktail.
FV: What inspires you when creating a new drink?
CH: Reading always inspires me to create a cocktail. An emotional moment can inspire me, too. For instance, I hate the Italy National Team's football club when it comes to World Cup Soccer. I wanted France to win in 2006. So, when the next World Cup came along in 2010, I came up with a cocktail for the country I wanted to win, Holland. I named the drink the Azzurri Curse. The Azzurri is the nickname of the Italian Football National side. It was Genever-based, with Strega (which means "witch" in Italian) and Aperol, orange juice, and lime juice. It was an orange-colored cocktail and the nickname for the Dutch National Football side is the Orangemen.
FV: Any inspiring books?
CH: I read the book The Razor's Edge by [W. Somerset] Maugham and fell in love with the word "haberdashery." Then I found out I had several of them (after discovering the word meant men's tailor) and made a cocktail out of each spirit that resembled my haberdashers.
FV: What is your favorite cocktail to drink? To make?
CH: To drink, it's the Americano. To make, the Sazerac
FV: Where will we find you in five years?
CH: If I'm not running a guest house I'll be in Arnaud's helping history repeat itself.