The Bartender Diaries - Lu Brow
“It was just much, much bigger than I thought it would be,” reflects renown New Orleans Mixologist Lu Brow. No, she is not talking about “that little weather incident” (the way most Orleanians now refer to the disastrous Hurricane Katrina). She is referencing the Big Easy’s annual cocktail convention, Tales of the Cocktail, which drew 12,000 people to Louisiana this past July. Brow says, “Its so nice to be surrounded by people who love a great cocktail.”
To call New Orleans a “cocktail town” is an understatement. The city is the birthplace of the cocktail, and overflowing with not only bars, but cocktail lore lingering in the dark corners and crevices of ominously shadowed alleyways, and behind the wrought-iron gates of regal plantation homes. Nearly every dwelling - large or small - has a home bar, and just about every granny has her own family cocktail recipes to pass down to the next generations.
Lu stirs things up at the Swizzle Stick Bar at Cafe Adelaide inside the elegant Loews hotel, in downtown New Orleans. Although Brow describes bartending as “sometimes hard and physically demanding,” she finds camaraderie with fellow female barkeeps and restaurateurs. “When you meet other women in the business, they know what you do… they understand.”
She also collaborated with Ti Adelaide and Lally Brennan on their book IN THE LAND OF COCKTAILS, a delightful collection of stories and cocktail recipes from New Orleans. “It became our Sunday afternoon project, after the hurricane,” says Brow, and describes it as: “a great book about drinking, and comes from a great respect for the cocktail.”
When it comes to defining her own identity behind the bar, she explains: “I like the word Mixologist… [which Lu defines as someone who uses fresh juices, and builds hand-crafted drinks] but I’m most comfortable with Bartender, or someone who works toward creativity. A Bar Chef is on a different level, and works on pairing cocktails with foods, and takes the cooking part a little further. That is an appropriate title for me, too, because I like to cook my own syrups.”
Brow loves to work with food, and first got behind her mother’s stove when she was six years old. She also attributes her understanding of flavor and taste balance to working with acclaimed chefs throughout her hospitality career.
Before Katrina, Lu was a Beverage Manager, and only spent about 10% of her time behind the bar. After the storm, she went to be with her family in Shreveport, not knowing if she’d have a job to return to in NoLa. In the first year after the storm, Brow says that the city cleaned up 26 years worth of trash which had been strewn about. She explains, “200,000 homes were destroyed. It took four months just to get the trash out.”
Right after the storm, a mayor from South Carolina came in to the bar, and shared his experience with hurricane devastation. “He asked if I was committed to staying in New Orleans, explaining it would take at least five years for things to get back on track,” Brow remembers. “If he hadn’t told me that, I would have lost it.”
While in Shreveport - and not able to watch another second of CNN hurricane coverage - a friend offered Lu a job bartending in a gay bar, which catered to men aged 30 – 70. She recalls never having felt more loved in her life: “They even carried the beer for me. I knew after three nights that I wasn’t going back to the dining room floor.”
Back in New Orleans, where she considers brass bands and New Orleans Funk her “heart and soul,” Lu considers the best praise from the old-timers praises her renditions of cocktails originally created in New Orleans itself. She recalls, “About three years ago an elderly gentleman asked. ‘Young lady, do you know how to make a Ramos Gin Fizz? If so, I’d like one.’ Upon tasting it, the man declared, ‘Its perfect. Light as an angel’s wings.’ Beaming pride, Brow shares, “That just made me want to cry!”
Lu is one of the most delightful bartenders (and people) I’ve had the pleasure of meeting while interviewing people for The Liquid Muse. She loves to brighten someone’s day, and it shows. As she describes: “We all work way too hard. Life is hard. [People] come in at the end of the day to enjoy a nice cocktail and get away from it all – a cocktail and a nice conversation.” With a burst of joy, she adds: “I’m so happy to be doing what I do.”