Local Boy Does (Rum) Well

Somewhere in the 1980s a new wave of cocktail aficionados began to take over from the old guard. The traditional drinks of the “old crowd” such as two-ingredient favorites like gin and tonic, martinis, rum and coke and scotch and soda were being replaced by derivatives such as Cosmo, Sex on the Beach, Fuzzy Navel, White Russian and anything using Galliano liqueur.

The new wave did not stop there, and, in fact, the strong, incoming tide has not stopped to this very day. Suddenly the in crowd wanted its own spirited beverages, which combined fresh ingredients, creativity, a concern for proper proportions and high quality spirits. Joe the Bartender was no longer the poster boy for a good time, and now trained professionals, tellingly known as bar chefs, moved onto the scene with New Age music in the background and ferns on the bar.

While properly pouring a beer to assure just the right amount of foam was important, even more important was serving in the proper glass at the correct temperature.

The scene was vibrant and centered on a few trend-setting urban areas, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and, of course, New York. The movement spread globally, encompassing places that could furnish the raw ingredients, like Europe, the Orient, and the Caribbean Basin. Exciting it is still, and the joys of making a beautiful beverage grabbed the attention of the corporate world.

Hotel chains, bar conglomerates and high-end restaurants all became destinations for refreshments unheard of in the years following World War II or even the British-themed `60s. The days of just tossing stuff in a glass were over.

Interestingly, this movement skipped around a community that had actually been making, perfecting and creating cocktails since the early 1800s. The community that shrugged off Prohibition like washing away the burnt palm ashes on the Thursday after Mardi Gras sort of watched and continued making Sazeracs and Ramos Gin Fizzes as if everything old was new again. It wasn’t.

New Orleans, that ultimate party town and good host to as many major visitor events as anyone in America, surveyed the exciting cocktail scene and, with grace and disinterest, said, “No, thanks.”  

But it could not remain so. We understand heritage, fresh ingredients, tradition, creativity in the kitchen and service. Besides, the whole damn movement was just too exciting to sit on the sidelines and watch.

Participation came in many forms. Young mixologists began reinventing local bars and staging special nights built around new concoctions; new beverage outlets sprang to life; an idea took root and Tales of the Cocktail festival proved to have sturdy legs; and a group of New Wave cocktail lovers from around the world decided that in our midst belonged The Museum of the American Cocktail.

Inevitably, major spirit companies seeking energetic, talented and creative bar people came to see that New Orleans has a special approach to service and hospitality. We always thought so, thank you, but it’s nice to be recognized from afar.

Count among the new vanguard of service professionals Danny Valdez, who was just appointed brand ambassador (top representative) for Zacapa Rum, a Guatemalan rum recognized as a top top-tier effort.

Danny is a native, and in a recent discussion, I tested that fact by asking him where he went to school. Bonnabel was the reply, proving beyond all shadow of a doubt that Danny is from here. For those of you not from here and wondering about the validity of that test, whenever a local is asked where they went to school, the correct answer is their high school, not college. Yea, I know, it’s just another local quirk.

Danny’s family had a restaurant up on Magazine Street, El Zarape, which has since gone away. Still, service is in his gene pool. In order to make a few bucks, Danny went to work at Irene’s, and one night they were a bit short-handed. They asked Danny to work the bar. He thought, “What the hell, I can make a few drinks.”

That heavy thud you hear is Danny being swept off his horse and experiencing his life-changing moment. 

He had the great fortune to “get on” at Commander’s Palace, and it was here, just like has happened to so many young people before him, he truly embraced and received an education in the business. He pursued courses of study, read books and learned the beauty of the hospitality business from the best: Ti Martin and Ella Brennan. I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard those words. Beautiful people inspiring beautiful people.

Danny and his local buddy Ricky Gomez saw the opportunity to bring New Orleans to the world of cocktails and began a consulting company, Cocktailian NOLA, offering professional services, like staff training and menu development. The guys were in great demand.

So when Zacapa Rum came knocking on Danny’s door, it was an easy decision. He believed in the product. The new gig was an extension of what he had been doing. And the travel part was not a barrier. He loves it.

Zacapa Rum is quite the amazing product. It is made around the village of Zacapa in the mountains of Guatemala, and the sugar cane used as the base material is grown specifically for the purpose of making rum. Another difference is that most rums are made from molasses extracted from sugar cane. Zacapa instead extracts a honey. Credit the altitude at which Zacapa grows its cane, the acidic volcanic soils, year-round sunshine and the type of cane used.

Local Boy Does (Rum) Well

The company then ages its rums in oak barrels at about 7,600 feet altitude, or as they like to say, “above the clouds.” The cool nature of the aging process at that high altitude translates to a slower maturation in the delicate young years.

So this is Danny Valdez’s new world: up in the clouds, resting heavily on his old New Orleans world, just below sea level. Life, like cocktails, is made from such opposites. A little sweet, a little sour. A little heat, a bit of ice. We wish you good fortune and good journey, Danny.

Along Those Lines

This might be a good spot to mention that Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House has developed the King Cake Bevvy, a new cocktail that seems perfect for Mardi Gras.

Created by Barry Himel, beverage director at Bourbon House, it’s a take-off on the very popular Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch. To the ice cream base is added spiced rum, orgeat (almond) syrup, cinnamon bark syrup and a touch of orange juice. The garnish is micro-planed cinnamon bark and tri-colored sugar. Surely you don’t have to ask what the colors are.

The baby is hiding in plain sight, sitting on the rim of the glass, which does a bit of the mystery out of who is buying the next round.

The King Cake Bevvy will be served through you-know-when.

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