I’ve had some memorable times at Cure, the New Orleans cocktail bar. They’ve usually occurred in the sweltering heat of July during the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival. Sneaking off to the Freret outpost was a requisite side trip for any serious cocktail nut. Over the years, I’ve solidified relationships with many editors and bartenders there, but my most remarkable encounters have been with the drinks. Drinks with lots of bitters, lots of Campari, lots of Cynar. So much Cynar. Odd drinks, status-quo-shattering drinks, “rogue cocktails,” as they were termed by two Cure bartenders who self-published a slim book of recipes in 2009.
On my most recent visit to Cure, I got lucky. The bar, which just turned 10, was commemorating the milestone with a greatest hits menu, and some of the earliest rogue cocktails had returned for a victory lap. Names like the Union Jack Rose and Defend Arrack drew instantly on happy taste memories. The names next to the drinks, a who’s who of Southern bartending, were an equally welcome sight: Kirk Estopinal, Maks Pazuniak, Turk Dietrich, Rhiannon Enlil.
As the young bartender on duty set down my first cocktail, she glanced down at the menu. “I’ve never met any of the people who made those drinks,” she said. That deep bench of drink-slingers (commonplace names need not apply) who helped build Cure’s reputation drink by drink has mostly moved on to play for other teams.
But her boss and Cure’s co-owner, Neal Bodenheimer, is still very much around. Bodenheimer has never been much of a bartender or a drink-creator, but he is the soul of Cure. It was his and partner Matt Kohnke’s quixotic faith that the then dangerous Freret neighborhood could sustain a craft cocktail bar that gave New Orleans—a town long set in its drinking ways—its first toehold within the modern cocktail movement. Located in a renovated turn-of-the century firehouse, Cure became a home for all the city’s striving bartenders. And Bodenheimer was smart enough to let them steer the ship.
Lately, Cure has come into its own. I don’t mean in terms of product—the bar was always worth a visit on drink-merit alone—but in terms of national renown. Last year it won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program, and two months prior, Bodenheimer, along with the locally prominent Solomon family, assumed control of Tales of the Cocktail, which in recent years has been troubled by controversy. Suddenly, the once quirky upstart assumed a mantle of gravitas.
Cure, which could be coltish in its early years, seems to have settled into its bones. It goes about its business in a quiet, commanding way, serving up superior drinks and flawless service with aplomb. In short, it’s a full-grown bar in a neighborhood that’s also come of age in the past decade. In a way, Cure, Freret and its customers have raised each other, gradually nursing one another into cultural and commercial health. (A recent refurbishment of the space aids the general feeling of revitalization.)
A typical Cure menu inspires indulgence. Each drink is a fascinator, made up of unusual ingredients that spark curiosity. I started with a Pyrenees, partly because it embodied what I think of as a Cure cocktail: weird, improbable, playful and, in the end, deceptively simple. A long drink, it had a base of génépy, the herbal liqueur, and was topped with grapefruit juice and a salt rim. The génépy calmed the juice’s tartness, and the salt kept the mix at attention. Sure, it was essentially a génépy Salty Dog. On the other hand, it was a génépy Salty Dog! Sometimes genius is one ingredient away.
Part of the allure of many Cure drinks is their surprise endings. For instance, I expected more of a bitter hit from the Madame Duvalier. In addition to Old Tom gin, it contained the aperitivo Cocchi Rosa, the gentian liqueur Salers, 10 drops of orange bitters and four drops of aromatic bitters. But the end result was unexpectedly creamy and nutty.
Sometimes the surprise backfires, though. The Two Dope Boys in a Cadillac, which brought together La Favorite Vieux rhum agricole, fresh lemon juice, cane syrup, a muddled strawberry and a full ounce of Cynar, seemed like a thrilling combination. But sweet and sour overwhelmed the agricole, muting its usually bold effect. The result was an anodyne drink. The Defend Arrack, a drink from 2010, however, did not disappoint. For starters, where else can you find a cocktail so forward with Batavia Arrack, the rum-like spirit made from sugar cane and fermented red rice? The apricot-flavored Marie Brizard Apry matched the arrack in flavor strength; both were held in check by a tight perimeter of lime juice.
Apart from the seasonal list, the regular menu is refreshingly democratic. At happy hour, drinks like the Sazerac, Pimm’s Cup, Negroni, Tommy’s Margarita and eight others are all offered for $6 (all cocktails are usually $10 and up). For the wallet-wavers, there are “reserve cocktails” ($17 to $32), essentially classics made with high-end or high-proof spirits. A notable outlier on that list is the Gunshop Fizz, a taillight-red, bizarre modern classic created by Estopinal and Pazuniak in 2009. One of the original and most famous of the “rogue cocktails,” it’s made with two ounces of Peychaud’s bitters and topped with Sanbitter, the nonalcoholic Italian soda that tastes like Campari on the wagon.
That Cure remains a NOLA staple is remarkable given how much the city’s craft cocktail landscape has evolved since 2009. Where there were once only one or two outposts for brave new drinks (classics, like the Sazerac, were always well represented at hotel and heritage bars), there are now dozens, including Latitude 29, Jewel of the South, Manolito, Twelve Mile Limit, Compère Lapin and Revel. As local competition has flourished, Cure has stayed relevant and fresh, while also being acknowledged as the source of the scene’s flowering.
Bodenheimer and company went on to open other bars after Cure. Bellocq, a Lee Circle hotel bar that billed itself as a cobbler haven, was a deep dive into an obscure genre. Café Henri, in the Bywater, aimed to be an approachable, neighborhood restaurant. Both have since shuttered. The rum-oriented Cane & Table, which survives, is a natural addition to the French Quarter with its charmingly en déshabillé atmosphere and tropical and tiki style drinks. But none exceeded Cure’s achievement, which has always followed its own muse. And instead of striving to remain young forever—as many cocktail bars can be tempted to do—it’s followed in the footsteps of the idiosyncratic, iconic New Orleans bars that came long before it. Cure’s lucky to live in a city that honors age, oddity and personality. So are its customers.