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Bar Review: An Iconic New Orleans Bartender Returns to His Post

In "Bar Review," Robert Simonson considers Paul Gustings' return to the historic Tujague's—and what it means to be a great bartender.

Tujagues New Orleans

That crazy old cocktail shaker sitting on the bar was a sure sign that Paul Gustings was back at Tujague’s. It’s one of the strangest mixers you’ll ever see: part glass, part metal, a foot tall and about 70 years old. It’s big and one-of-a-kind and draws comment—much like Gustings himself.

If you’ve never heard of Paul Gustings, you’re certainly not from New Orleans and likely not much of a drinker. Born in the Netherlands, his globetrotting began when he was 21 with a coin flip and a trip to New York. (“You gotta go somewhere,” he explained.) Of the places he visited, he liked New Orleans best, and, of all the jobs he considered, he chose bartending, which he had never tried his hand at until alighting in the city.

Perhaps no bartender has worked at more famous French Quarter bars than Gustings. He spent 20 years behind the stick at the legendary Napoleon House, simultaneously doing time at ancient Tujague’s (pronounced “two jacks”), a French Quarter Creole restaurant that dates back, in one form or another, to 1856, and boasts one of the last standing bars in America.

When he and Tujague’s parted ways in 2012, Broussard’s, another old French quarter place, gave him a platform to show off his skills, which include, but are not limited to, a way with classic cocktails and complicated old punches. The new job brought him renewed attention.

Tujague’s, perhaps regretting its error, invited Gustings back into the fold earlier this year. He accepted, with the simple mission “to give people a great experience in one of the oldest bars in the city,” as he put it.

Gustings took his old shaker with him. It’s big enough to double as a vase, with a concave silver rim like the mouth of a metal Venus Fly Trap. He uses it only for Sazeracs, and his is one of the most famous versions of the cocktail in a town where you trip over Sazeracs on the sidewalk.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I went to see Gustings at his post for, yes, a Sazerac. Gustings has a reputation as a snarling old bear of a bartender, something which his physiognomy—bald pate, white goatee, arched eyebrows that seem to say, Oh, yeah?—does nothing to allay. Put a leather jacket on the man, and he wouldn’t look out of place on a Harley. (His demeanor has improved of late, perhaps owing to a sight-restoring operation that removed cataracts from his eyes. He can now recognize anyone who walks through the door—always a good trait in a bartender.) But he has stories, conversation and personality to spare. People have long come to whichever bar he’s working at specifically to see him, and taste his drinks.

The very picture of an old-timey bartender, he looked at home under the bar’s high ceilings, his industry framed by the back bar’s towering cypress pillars, and reflected by a mirror that was shipped from Paris in the 1850s. I watched Gustings stab away with his bar spoon for a short while at a mix of ice, Old Overholt rye, sugar and his requisite, and seemingly preposterous, 11 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. He then strained the blend into an Herbsaint-coated rocks glass and runs a lemon twist over the rim. Because the shaker is ungainly, it’s a rather indelicate operation. The process shouldn’t result in a good Sazerac, but it does—and a particularly dry and pointed one. It is the Sazerac as statement, an argument for the intrinsic virtues of the various elixirs within.

Gustings already had the Sazerac nailed before he came back to Tujague’s, as he did many other New Orleans classic drinks, like the Ramos Gin Fizz. But, given his new position, his work with the Grasshopper is now thrown in high relief: Popular legend has it that the drink was invented at Tujague’s.

Behind the Bar with Paul Gustings

I’d had Grasshoppers there prior to Gustings’ return; they were lackluster affairs that did nothing to make me like or respect the drink more. The present rendition, however, turned me into a convert. Pre-batched and refrigerated, the drink includes both light and dark crème de cacao and white and green crème de menthe, plus a half-ounce of brandy and heavy cream. You’re unlikely to find a more well-rounded, deeply flavored Grasshopper.

You can indulge in other antiquarian delights as well, including a Brandy Crusta and a Pousse Café, both drinks that Gustings has spent long hours perfecting. But he isn’t entirely stuck in the past. There is a section of the debut menu (which only dropped in late August) devoted to new cocktails.

A drink called Her Kiss, a stirred cocktail served in a rocks glass, takes bourbon and agave syrup and spices them with dashes of chocolate mole bitters and, in a post-modern turn, Louisiana-made Crystal hot sauce, which adds just the tiniest bit of eye-watering heat to a simple cocktail. Not currently on the menu, but sampled during one of three recent visits to the bar, is the French 75-like Suzy Q—a sparkler comprised of Peychaud’s Aperitivo (a new product by the bitters company), the French gentian liqueur Suze, lemon juice and simple syrup, all served in a flute and topped with Champagne. The bitter Suze lends a needed backbone to Peychaud’s, which is a laggard in the bite department, and the Champagne lifts the whole up. As with many Gustings drinks, much of the pleasure in the drink is derived from the layering of flavors.

The problem is, Gustings is not always there. The second time I visited Tujague’s, it was as if I’d wandered into a different tavern by mistake. The desultory young man behind the bar offered little assistance in narrowing down my drink order, so I fell back on a couple classics, a rye Manhattan and a French 75. Both were solid and straight-forward. But the magic had left the room and, thus, my glass as well. I could have been anywhere.

This had been an issue, too, at Broussard’s, when he worked there. It is, arguably, unfair to fault a man for having too much magnetism, and maybe it is too early to render a verdict on service. (Maybe—Gustings was four months into his new gig when I visited.) But Gustings’ staff didn’t act like Gustings-mentored bartenders, and the effects were apparent. When the grand old man was behind the wheel, every man and woman at the bar had a cocktail in their happy hands. When he wasn’t, most called out for beer and no one on staff tried to convince them otherwise.

On my final visit, I had a meal in the neighboring dining room. I ordered a Ramos Gin Fizz, which was only passable, and a Brandy Milk Punch—another New Orleans staple. The milk punch was potent and strong and silky, a richly satisfying eye-opener. Whoever made it had a heavy-hand with the brandy and I was grateful. But I still missed having Gustings there to serve it, and to talk about whatever struck his fancy. He’s the kind of bartender you want to write a book about, or, conversely, read a book he’s written.

Within the latter genre, one of Gustings’ favorites volumes is This Must Be the Place, a memoir by Paris barman Jimmie Charters, who watered the Lost Generation during the 1920s and ‘30s. There’s still internal work to be done at Tujague’s if the old joint is to become a brick-and-mortar monument to the kind of bar and cocktail experience the man’s presence promises. But, when Gustings is there, this definitely is the place.

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