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The Challenge of Chasing a Ghost

Recapturing the past is a tricky thing, but that hasn’t deterred New Orleans’ Jewel of the South from trying.

The citizens of the cocktail community have a rich fantasy life. They’re in business to sell drinks to the customer standing in front of them, yes, but one tattooed foot is always in the past, dreaming of the era when the cocktail was first king and bejeweled bartenders strode behind magnificent slabs of mahogany with the gait of living legends.

This persistent obsession has occasionally manifested itself in self-contained worlds, as bar owners try to recreate what time has erased. The Dead Rabbit is arguably the most famous illustration of this nostalgic drive, with its would-be 1800s New York milieu, but every modern speakeasy and tiki bar owes something to it, too.

Jewel of the South, which recently opened in New Orleans, is perhaps the most arcane recreation of cocktail bars past to come along yet. The work of Big Easy bartending heavyweights Nick Detrich and Chris Hannah, it shares a name with a mid-19th-century New Orleans bar owned by Joseph Santini, whose claim to fame is the invention of the Brandy Crusta, a florid drink composed of Cognac, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, Curaçao, sugar and a long lemon twist. (Detrich and Hannah’s Manolito, which opened last year, is similarly backward-looking, meant as it is to capture a classic Cuban cocktail bar aesthetic.)

Detrich and Hannah certainly found the right vessel for their project: a stand-alone, Creole cottage in the French Quarter that dates from the 1830s. It’s possible Santini himself walked by the building many times. And while the back bar isn’t quite as ancient, having been built in Wales in the late 1800s, it’s just as evocative of an older time.

Given the bar’s raison d’etre, there is little choice but to order the Brandy Crusta right off. Many of the guests around me during three recent visits felt similarly compelled. The room glistened with sugar. (A descendent of Joseph Santini actually even dropped by in late March and sampled his first Brandy Crusta ever.) There was no chance the drink was going to be any less than delicious. Hannah, after all, is largely responsible for rescuing it from the history books, and served it during his long, celebrated career at the nearby French 75 Bar. The drink comes through with a sweet-strong flavor that borders on nectar. The inner flair is there. The outer flair, meanwhile, is not quite.

The glass, a tall, angular wine goblet, would seem a good choice. It does nicely showcase a generous Brandy Crusta—that is, the sugar rim that gives the drink its name, and here takes the form of an inch-thick stripe of sugar. But, because of the depth of the glass, the spirituous mixture only comes up to the half-way point. Likewise, a too-short twist, which barely makes one lap around the glass’ interior, is swallowed up by the liquid, robbing the drink of citrusy fragrance. The Brandy Crusta is all about visual flamboyance; it’s a drink that should wear a high hat of sugar and lemon, a transporting panache that offers a glimpse into another time.

The Jewel’s Brandy Crusta could take a tip or two from its own version of Sherry Cobbler, which looks like an old cocktail-book etching come to life. The same wine glass is filled to the rim with pebble ice and crowned with mint, an orange slice and a cherry. A mix of manzanilla and PX sherries, goosed with a dab of quince paste, makes sure that, while you’re drinking the cocktail in with your eyes, your taste buds are having just as good a time.

Inside Jewel of the South

Also bringing the pomp is the Tuxedo Tails, an ornate take on the Tuxedo No. 2 that calls for gin, manzanilla sherry, maraschino liqueur and orange bitters, and is accompanied by a chilled garnish dish filled with a cocktail onion, olive, lemon peel and pickled quail egg. It’s the oddball on a menu that mainly features drinks that evoke local history, but its over-the-top accouterments help it feel at home. Let the egg soak in the liquor until the end; the rich decadence of its flesh will send you into a momentary fugue state that no ordinary garnish ever has. (If you’re lucky, the drink will be served to you on one of Detrich’s own antique 1950s cocktail trays.)

The Sazerac, however, is a missed opportunity in terms of presentation. It is the city’s most beloved cocktail and another drink that lends itself to flair—the crushed sugar cube, the absinthe rinse, the wielding of the Peychaud’s bitters. Jewel, however, has opted to batch and chill their house Sazerac in advance. I appreciated getting the drink quickly, and the touch of Tremontaine Tabacal Rancio Sec that lent it a distinctive nutty, tobacco-like note. But I couldn’t help but wonder, what would Santini have done?

Jewel’s opening was first announced last fall, but subsequently delayed; it was barely a week old when I encountered it. The drink program—which will expand beyond the current eight cocktails listed—will undoubtedly grow in strength, as will, one hopes, the staff. Hannah is often behind the stick at present, which is good. (On the night I visited when Hannah was absent, the energy in the room was lacking.) A bar like Jewel, which harkens back to the gilded styles of the past, needs to be anchored by a magnetic personality, and Hannah is as much a local legend today as Santini was in his time. And his devotion to old drinks and old bartending traditions makes him a living link to the past.

But, even with Hannah around, trying to reimagine the past is a tricky thing. Even if, against all odds, you do capture lightning in a bottle and evoke some lost charm of days gone by, you can’t live off that charm indefinitely without devolving into a sort of bibulous theme park. Eventually, you have to become your own thing—a bar that exists in the here and now. Perhaps the food, which chef Philip Whitmarsh describes as “Classically modern British with a little Cajun twang,” will end up being a key part of Jewel of the South’s still-aborning identity. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing. In fact, much of the interior, and all of the outdoor patio, is reserved for dining. And while it’s curious to emphasize the food at a place that purports to celebrate a particular saloon and cocktail, if this Jewel of the South 2.0 isn’t going to go full-on Brandy Crusta shrine, it will have to settle on an identity that winks at yesteryear, but still works today.

For the time being, however, this bar raised on the notion of resurrecting Santini’s 19th-century style. As such, this Jewel sparkles some, but could stand to sparkle a bit more.

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