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Neal Bodenheimer Lives at the Intersection of Cocktail History and Community

In 2020, with the pandemic in full bloom, New Orleans bar owner Neal Bodenheimer was asked if he wanted to lease a historic building a half-block off Bourbon Street. It wasn’t the optimal time to open a new bar—many bars were still closed and struggling. And Bodenheimer, who’d opened the pioneering craft cocktail bar Cure in 2009, was aware his instincts weren’t infallible. He had launched Bellocq in 2011, a bar specializing in cobblers and other 19th-century drinks. (“It was so stupid, but it was also great,” Bodenheimer says.) Later, he’d opened bar and bistro Cafe Henri in the downriver Bywater neighborhood. “We had the concept wrong, the execution wrong, and we read the neighborhood wrong,” Bodenheimer says. Both closed before the pandemic.

“So I was like, ‘Hell no, I don’t want to lease your space in the French Quarter.’” But the building’s history pushed back.

“So I was like, ‘Hell no, I don’t want to lease your space in the French Quarter.’” But the building’s history pushed back. Bodenheimer’s research revealed that Antoine Peychaud, the creator of Peychaud’s bitters and one of the founding fathers of New Orleans cocktail culture, lived in the circa 1830 building in the 19th century. “Sometimes you do projects because you think it’s a good idea,” Bodenheimer says. “For this one, I thought, well you don’t get to engage with a piece of New Orleans cocktail history often.” With the help of longtime Cure bartender Nick Jarrett, who helped develop a cocktail list specializing in New Orleans classics, Peychaud’s opened in May 2021.

New Orleans is among the epicenters of American cocktail history. Viewed from a distance, you can make out three major eras. The 19th century was a time of invention and experimentation, when the ingredients that flowed into this thriving port city—whiskey, Cognac, bitters, absinthe, local citrus, and sugar grown at the city’s doorstep—found their way into cocktail glasses in beguiling combinations. Drinks like the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, Brandy Crusta, and Café Brûlot appeared. 

When much of the country moved away from classic cocktails in the 20th century, New Orleans stayed the course, and chroniclers like Stanley Clisby Arthur created a fabulist mythology, such as that the cocktail was invented here. Antiquated drinks became part of the draw for tourists, a vital part of selling the quirky and quaint. 

More recently, in the 21st century, New Orleans rediscovered its cocktail heritage, with new bars and books focusing on the city’s historic drinking culture. And a wave of big cocktail energy has lifted the city thanks to Tales of the Cocktail, the annual summer conference of bar and drink culture founded in 2002. 

“I didn’t want to write an ego book, or be just the next bar to release a bar book,” says Bodenheimer.

Bodenheimer connects with each of these eras. That confluence is most evident in the recent publication of his book Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, co-authored with Emily Timberlake. (The book’s subtitle is a nod to Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1938 book, Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, which brought Crescent City drinks to the nation’s attention.) “I didn’t want to write an ego book, or be just the next bar to release a bar book,” says Bodenheimer.

“I was a history major and have a deep appreciation for history. It was important for me to put down something that could be a record, that this is what was happening at this time, and this is how we got there.”

The Bodenheimer family has been in Louisiana for generations and in New Orleans for more than a century. His daughter attends the school that he, his father, and his grandfather all attended.

In his twenties, Bodenheimer left New Orleans for a decade-long rumspringa—first to Austin, then to New York. In Manhattan, he waited tables at the Atlantic Grill, found a job in advertising (“It was soul crushing. I lasted three months.”), then returned to the Grill, where he asked to work behind the bar. 

And so he entered into the emerging world of craft cocktails. Pioneering craft bartender Eben Klemm worked as the master mixologist for B.R. Guest, the restaurant’s parent company, and his trainings included a visit to Bemelmen’s Bar, where Bodenheimer was introduced to the work of Audrey Saunders and Dale DeGroff. “Eben showed me there was a world of cocktails beyond the one cocktail book we had behind the bar. It was a revelation.”

Bodenheimer followed this with three years at a high-volume downtown nightclub, then a stint with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “I needed some polish,” he says. All the while, Bodenheimer was working on a business plan for his own bar, which he planned to open in New York. He would call it Cure, an homage to the medicinal origins of cocktails. “I was doing what I thought it took to open a bar,” he says, although his plans failed to move from concept to concrete. ”But I was building it in my mind, figuring out what it would look like.” 

And then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Bodenheimer decided to return to his hometown and be part of the rebuilding. Back home, he found an intriguing mix of the old and new. “Down here, they were still drinking Sazeracs,” he says. And the seeds of a broader cocktail revival were taking root. Local bartenders, including Chris McMillian, Paul Gustings, Chris Hannah, Marvin Allen, Danny Valdez, and Ricky Gomez, were quietly tapping the ancient cocktail canon, while also exploring new tangents.

Bodenheimer dusted off his plans for Cure. He and a childhood friend, Matt Kohnke, became business partners and spent a year looking for a place for their bar, but were priced out of most neighborhoods. “We’d almost lost hope,” he says.

The building turned out to be a century-old firehouse, with original fixtures and ceilings and even the old fire pole hatches hidden from view. “We were just naive enough to think it was a good idea,” [Bodenheimer] says. 

Then they visited a rundown former electrician’s shop on Freret Street, a dingy strip of vacant storefronts and empty gas stations. The windows had been bricked over and a low drop ceiling made the space feel dark and oppressive. But while poking around, Kohnke lifted a ceiling panel in a bathroom and instructed Bodenheimer to stand atop the toilet and have a look. The building turned out to be a century-old firehouse, with original fixtures and ceilings and even the old fire pole hatches hidden from view. “We were just naive enough to think it was a good idea,” he says. 

They bought the building and opened in 2009. The first cocktail list featured classics, with only one original drink on the list. Cure evolved and grew—one of Bodenheimer’s many talents is the hiring and keeping of skilled bartenders—and the bar soon became known for its daily punch and creative original drinks. In 2018 the James Beard Foundation named it the nation’s outstanding bar program.

After Cure became established, Bodenheimer formed the hospitality group CureCo. Bartenders Kirk Estopinal, Turk Dietrich, Nick Detrich (who has since left the group), and chef Alfredo Nogueira joined on to the company’s projects. They opened Cane & Table, a tropical rum bar and restaurant in the French Quarter. They acquired one of the empty gas stations on Freret Street near Cure and created Vals, a Mexican restaurant and bar that took nearly five years from concept to opening. Hurdles included financing, engineering, and a pandemic. “This was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on,” Bodenheimer says. 

In 2017 Bodenheimer turned down another opportunity to say “no.” After several missteps involving racially insensitive social media posts by Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Tuennerman and her husband, Paul, the event came up for sale. Nearly two dozen parties expressed interest, and Bodenheimer was asked to help vet and explain the event to several potential buyers.

“To their credit, Ann and Paul felt it had to be put in the hands of someone who would keep it in New Orleans,” Bodenheimer says. He agreed that was important—the event was staged in the middle of the city’s summer doldrums, bringing to town thousands of generously tipping bartenders and major corporate sponsors. 

Beyond the immediate economic impact, Tales provided New Orleans a prominent voice in the global cocktail conversation. “We talk about the brain drain,” Bodenheimer says. “But [Tales] created a brain gain. It’s one of those events that has really helped create a love for New Orleans from people around the world.” 

“I was reluctant then, and I’m still reluctant. I’m a pretty private person and it’s a pretty public role.”—Bodenheimer

Tales eventually sold to the Solomon family, who run a New Orleans–based event management company. The idea of Gary Solomon Sr. and his son, Gary Solomon Jr., was to establish a nonprofit overseen by a family foundation that could donate to worthy causes. “But they said, ‘There’s one catch,’ ” Bodenheimer says. “‘We’re not going to do it unless you do it with us—we need someone who knows the business.’ I was reluctant then, and I’m still reluctant,” he says. “I’m a pretty private person and it’s a pretty public role.” But knowing the importance of the event to New Orleans, Bodenheimer agreed to become a partner to help steer the organization. 

The focus of Tales has shifted gradually over its two decades. What started as a gathering of obsessives debating bubble-free ice and the composition of extinct bitters evolved into an event with a more professional focus. “Bartenders were turning into bar owners,” Bodenheimer says, and programming was designed to reflect more professional concerns. Educating new bar owners with a basic business education he says is “a community responsibility.”

In 2020 and 2021, Tales went largely online owing to Covid-19. While bartenders missed out on the raucous New Orleans parties and opportunities for chance interactions over frozen Irish Coffee at the Erin Rose, moving online gave Tales the ability to reach a more global audience. “We had something like 112 countries that tapped in during the pandemic,” Bodenheimer says. “There are people all over the world that have a desire to be part of this community.” Continuing to build that global community remains high on the list of priorities as Tales looks ahead to its next two decades. 

“It’s not brain surgery,” he says. “If your community doesn’t support you, you won’t be successful.”

The post Neal Bodenheimer Lives at the Intersection of Cocktail History and Community appeared first on Imbibe Magazine.

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