Seated at her newest bar, The Mayhaw, Ali Mills munches on a burrito, her young face matured by the strands of silver flowing from her temple. She's pulled the rest of her deep brown hair into a bun. The surface of her New Orleans bar, tucked away in the back corner of the freshly unwrapped St. Roch Market, remains blemish free beyond the dust that gets caught in the sunlight as it falls. It's white, very white, in here. The walls, ceiling, and columns are painted such a bright shade they function as your morning coffee fix.
Mills lied her way into bartending. She walked into her first job interview at a swanky cocktail bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and told them she was out of practice.
"I said, 'I just worked in a wine-centric bar that had a couple cocktails, but I'm rusty on the classics,'" Mills said, her laugh getting the better of her. "They hired me, and the first day I was behind the bar there was only one other bartender and he looked at me and how I was holding bottles and said, you've never bartended before.' I said, 'No! I haven't.' He said, 'You've got balls though. You lied to get in here. I'll teach you… don't worry.'
"He taught me how to be behind a bar, and then I moved back to New Orleans and started working in cocktail bars."
Since then, Mills has worked at every level of the industry, bartending at both posh nightspots and shot-tossing, smoke-soaked dive bars. But out of the rigidity of the city's cocktail menus sprouted frustration.
New Orleans hates change. If you want to update, modernize, renew, renovate, or reimagine something, don't. The rabble will swarm and are quick to crucify. This point of view can be good or bad, depending on whether you're talking about a roast beef po boy recipe or the same goddamn pothole you hit with your car everyday. But this is the reality: the city's folk talk about the best way to avoid change, holding close to nostalgia and their love of "authentic" vintage vibes.
"We had this seasonal rotating menu at Coquette," said Mills of the classy bar she once managed, "but it was such a specific type of program that we, meaning myself and other bartenders I was collaborating with at the time, were frustrated by all of our lists because we could only sell the classic idea of cocktails. Everybody wanted a French 75 and a Sazerac, which are beautiful cocktails but you can only do so many variations on those before you get bored.
"So we started doing all of these weird syrups and tinctures and bizarre flavor combinations. We would put one on the menu and it would just sit there forever and everybody would be like, 'What the fuck is this thing?'"
Dash and Pony, a pop-up bar that Mills created with some bartending friends, grew out of a desire to make people drink that "thing"; a drink that people wouldn't expect or necessarily even want. Mills and her bartending pals sought to break from the established set of rules created by New Orleans cocktail connoisseurs, who detailed what you should do rather than what you could do. Mills wanted to explore the latter. The initial idea was just to have a cocktail party for some friends in someone's backyard, mix up some weird drinks, and see what happens.
To start, 60-70 people showed up. Cash littered the makeshift bar Mills created, a situation she undercut with a quick, "I hope we don't get robbed." But that became a real worry as the backyard idea expanded by word-of-mouth, and it turned out that people wanted to try something they couldn't find elsewhere. The pop-up's popularity exploded, each event becoming a local news story.
"We drank things like marijuana-infused chartreuse and shit, things you could never put on a list. We made a Drambuie-infused tapioca for a bubble tea one time—just these things that would never sell. They were insane. That whole concept grew from there and became what it ended up being, which was a showcase for bartenders to do that."
Chris Hannah, arguably New Orleans' best-known mixologist, remembers the series of monthly popup bars fondly. It was as much about encouraging your service industry brethren, keeping them creatively limber, as trying an experimental cocktail.
"It's always fun to support local friends and bartenders, and it was a party," said Hannah. "Dash and Pony threw a party for us with one-off drinks while working with a different bartender friend each time."
The city's bartenders would descend on one location for an evening of freestyle beverages. As Mills looked for a new spot for December, Hannah volunteered, wanting to play host for that month's event.
"The night we hosted it at my house," said Hannah, "we did the month of December so we had fun with holiday drinks. We were pretty busy but handled it. We made eggnog, the Contessa and the Winter Waltz. We had a Holiday Punch we couldn't name so Ali cheekily named it 'Holiday Fist to the Face.' It took off—everyone fancied the name so much."
That's Mills' style—flippant and derisive but also serious and thoughtful—which served her well as she ran a portable, ingredient-driven bar. But not having a license and accommodating hundreds of people, or strangers, started to wear on Mills. The entire orchestration becoming a exhaustive liability she no longer wanted to deal with, so Dash and Pony died last year. But the desire to have a similar experimental cocktail flexibility continued.
Because of the city's disdain for things new and hip, New Orleans functioned as a cocktail time capsule through the horrifying vodka-soaked period of the '70s and '80s, when America's drinkers made the 1988 film Cocktail look like a documentary. Somewhere in the midst of this flick you have stowed away in your parent's garage, Tom Cruise's character Brian Flanagan—our guide through this tale of booze, suicide, dashed dreams and Elizabeth Shue heartbreak—calls himself "the last barman poet" and tosses out a little ditty:
"Americans getting stinky on something I stir or shake / The sex on the beach / The schnapps made from peach / The velvet hammer / The Alabama slammer. / I make things with juice and froth / The pink squirrel / The three-toed sloth. / I make drinks so sweet and snazzy / The iced tea / The kamakazi / The orgasm / The death spasm / The Singapore sling / The dingaling."
For a tough 15 to 20 years, those were the drinks Americans loved. To get you loaded back then, all a bartender needed was the aforementioned vodka, Sprite, schnapps, various crèmes, a sweet Martini shaker toss, and a roguish Tom Cruise grin.
During this dark age of dogshit palates, New Orleans kept up its carefully curated drink lists. While Bourbon Street started to take shape into the monstrous alcohol pit it is today, many of the city's bars held onto the classic beverages the area was founded upon. Though bartenders undoubtedly slung the period's popular and hangover-guaranteed booze bombs, they refused to stab the New Orleans' storied beverages in the back. The Ramos gin fizz, Sazerac and French 75 would not be lost.
"In New Orleans," Mills said, "we have bartenders who have been making this shit forever, so you can learn from somebody who has worked making the same kind of drinks at Brennan's or Commander's Palace forever and has always had a really solid cocktail bar."
But that defended cocktail culture soon lagged behind the burgeoning New York and San Francisco scenes that started to take their drinking seriously. New Orleans soon became a town of cheap beer, unmanageable shots, and saccharine daiquiris with the occasional mediocre Sazerac peppering a casual evening out.
"New Orleans preserved these drinks. They may not have preserved them perfectly, but they did preserve them," said Neal Bodenheimer, a New York-trained and New Orleans-born bartender who partnered with Kirk Estopinal and Matthew Kohnke to open Cure, the cocktail bar that arguably unlocked the craft beverage floodgates in New Orleans.
"So there was a tradition of drinking cocktails, of drinking real cocktails. That gave us a leg up compared to some other markets because in those other markets you were not only teaching people to enjoy a cocktail, but also what a cocktail was. In New Orleans, people knew what a real cocktail was."
But even when bartenders get to make "real cocktails," that certain, aforementioned boredom, sometimes frustration, begins to grow. No matter how talented you are at combining and experimenting with flavors, you still have to work within a specified theme or program.
In the fall, the group running St. Roch Market approached Mills. They knew her reputation and Dash and Pony's parallels to the show Chopped. Give a bartender a series of ingredients, say the in season produce that the market will feature, and have him/her manipulate it into something you can slurp. Mills had that ability in spades.
"They were looking for somebody who can do ingredient-focused, product-focused cocktails," Mills said. "Because we're in a market, we're going to have classically-based cocktails where we have all of these seasonally rotating ingredients. That's a lot of what we did at Dash and Pony, doing like, 'What is this cool thing that we have right now and what can we do with it?'"
Hannah said it was inevitable for Mills to open a bar that shares the Dash and Pony philosophy, which he believes influenced the greater cocktail culture.
"Because of the name Ali made for herself while toting that bar all around the city throwing a party for everyone once a month," he said, "anything she opened was bound to have been influenced by Dash and Pony."
Only a few years ago St. Roch Market, a former New Orleans institution, hosted immense graffiti, broken windows, deep oily puddles, cracked cement, and a perimeter of chain-link fencing. But since its near destruction by Hurricane Katrina, the city invested $3.7 million into the former market's revitalization, located in St. Roch, a small transitional neighborhood in New Orleans' Bywater district. It's a rundown building people have walked by for years—its symbolism lost on no one.
St. Roch has recently struggled with heavy crime, which all came with the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. After the levees broke, between six and 13 feet of water poured into the neighborhood. Residents evacuated. Five years after the storm almost 40 percent of the homes remained vacant and the area's murder rates were on the rise. Now in 2015, nearly 10 years later, the area has started its comeback, and one of the emerging variables for the neighborhood is the St. Roch Market and the drinks Ali Mills will sling in the back.
There's an undercurrent of excitement to Mills' always seemingly calm demeanor, her nervous ruminations only coming forward when asked about her possible clientele.
"I think it could go from normal neighborhood shopping in the market to people really interested in local foods and crazy vegans," she said, still sitting at her bar, a sliver of burrito sitting forgotten in its tinfoil wrapper. "We have the availability to go anywhere on the gamut… I have no idea. Hopefully I can pull friends in."
She looked down, smiled, and shrugged, falling into a familiar pattern of self-deprecation.
"I'll just call them and say, 'Hey, I'll give you a shot from my personal bottle. Can you come and just fill up the bar?'"