Though Neal Bodenheimer began his bartending career in New York, working first at Atlantic Grill and then with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality, he’s best known for his contributions to cocktail culture in his home city, New Orleans.
Bodenheimer, whose family has lived in the city since the late 1800s, first felt compelled to return in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Partnering with longtime friend Matt Kohnke and fellow bartender (and Violet Hour alum) Kirk Estopinal, he opened the James Beard Award-winning Cure in 2009, which is largely credited with sparking the city’s craft cocktail renaissance. Two new bars would follow: Bellocq, which closed its doors in 2016, and Cane & Table, a “proto-tiki mecca” in the French Quarter that offers Caribbean-inspired food and drink—an homage to NOLA’s nickname, the “gateway to the tropics,” owing to its history as port city and trade hub.
In addition, Bodenheimer is now taking responsibility for yet another New Orleans institution, the annual cocktail conference, Tales of the Cocktail. Faced with heavy criticism over not only racial insensitivity on the part of founders, Ann and Paul Tuennerman, but slowness in response to issues like substance abuse and sexual harassment, the festival’s future, for much of last year, was uncertain. In December, it was announced that it had been purchased by Bodenheimer and the Solomon family, who were looking to usher Tales forward under new leadership.
Case in point: in an open letter published in June, the Board outlined a variety of upcoming initiatives, including a 2018 partnership with the non-profit, Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR), and a plan to “go strawless” at this year’s convention in a push toward sustainability. As Bodenheimer told PUNCH Contributing Editor Robert Simonson last December in an article for The New York Times, “We need to find a way to give bartenders better access to education,” and “work on some of the big issues that face our industry.”
So what does Bodenheimer do in his (seemingly minimal) downtime? To find out, we asked him to take a stab at our Lookbook Questionnaire to share the first time he ever got drunk, the weirdest drink request he’s ever gotten and the craziest cocktail experiment he’s ever attempted. —Lizzie Munro
Owner of Cure and Cane & Table; Board Member of Tales of the Cocktail Foundation.
What do want to be when you grow up?
I feel pretty grown up these days between businesses, mortgages, life insurance, a house, a wife, a kid, a dog and tuition. Really, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. But I’d love to get to relax more, spend more time mentoring others in the industry, and giving back.
Best thing you ever drank:
Vintage Perrier-Jouët Marc de Champagne. It was nutty, musty, rich and creamy. A unicorn.
Worst thing you ever drank:
An iguana and venison pechuga. Funky beyond description and not good funky.
First time you ever got drunk:
My brother and his high school buddies decided it would be fun to get me and my friend, Matthew Kohnke, drunk. We were 12 or 13 years old and my parents were out of town and I was in the “capable” hands of my teenage brother. My parents used to let me collect mini-liquor bottles that they brought back from trips, so Pete and his buddies decided that we should drink the whole collection in one sitting. I definitely puked on Matt at some point that night.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The Crescent City Soul compilation. It’s the music that I’ve listened to my whole life and it never gets old.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Cleaning bathrooms in other bars and restaurants.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Your time is valuable, so don’t be afraid to pay professionals.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Many years ago, I attempted, and quickly abandoned, a cocktail based on the flavors of green curry. Suffice to say it was a very bad idea; you can ask my test subject.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Going to the playground with my four-year-old daughter and getting a nectar cream Sno-Bliz after. (In New Orleans, all activities revolve around drinking and eating.)
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Scotch and orange soda.
Your favorite bar, and why:
I keep on thinking about all of the bars that I love that have closed or been changed. I really loved Grace in TriBeCa while it was around. I used to live around the corner in a loft with no walls. Grace had everything you’d ever want in a bar: great staff, great booze, great food and great community.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
La Mère Brazier in Lyon.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Venetian Spritz or Negroni if I want something heavier.
All depends on the quality of the wine bar, but a txakolina rosé, a dry riesling or a high quality Piedmont nebbiolo are all hard for me to pass up.
A Bud and a shot of reputable Cognac.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Water + pain reliever + time = recovery.*
*Break glass in case of emergency: hair of the dog.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Drinks that look amazing, but taste somewhere between mediocre to undrinkable. The minimum threshold in the drinks business in my humble opinion is that your drinks have to taste good; it’s a simple idea that is often missed.
The last text message you sent:
“I 100 percent agree with you and you were right the other day. Between Westworld and this I just can’t take you being right this much.”