For one reason or another, and even though we had drinks at French 75, the bar he runs in New Orleans, we never had a chance to have a talk with Chris Hannah until very recently. We’re glad we finally did, because he turned out to be the closest thing to a cantinero in the United States (Julio Cabrera and Cuban-American bartenders excepted, of course).
We make such a bold claim for a variety of reasons, from the superficial to the substantial. First, there’s Chris’ timeless elegance. Secondly, there’s the city he resides in: “We're always considered the Caribbean's northernmost city. I was surprised to see how similar Havana looked to the French Quarter. But the French Quarter is actually Spanish architecture; it looks the same in Haiti, as well as other former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. Obviously, the music share similarities. Even José Abeal, the bartender who opened what was at one time the most famous bar in Havana, Sloppy Joe’s, bartended in New Orleans before moving to Havana!” Thirdly, there’s the bar: set in a local institution – the almost hundred years old Arnaud’s Restaurant –, French 75 looks like it’s been stuck in time: “When sipping a century old drink, the guest can feel as if he’s travelled back in time to when it was first prepared. There aren't too many places that haven't changed their dining style, and cuisine for a hundred years, and Arnaud's one of them”. As are many places in Cuba!
Over the years, he has managed to transform French 75 into a cocktail destination, without… transforming much. When he took over a decade ago, it didn’t seem easy to attract non-diners to a restaurant bar. But with a separate entrance and the undeniable charm of the host, it happened. “Back then the bar was just a lounge for guest over-flow, a place where they could sit and wait for their table. 13 years later I've kept the same mode of service and drinks, giving guests the same experience.” But now, people actually travel to get drinks there. Chris has also played an integral part in making the city’s cocktail culture better known – we actually caught up with him after a talk on New Orleans at Edinburgh’s Tales on Tour. “The cocktail has enjoyed its longest life in America right here in New Orleans. It didn't follow suit with the rest of the country after World War II when light flavoured this-and-that were the norm. Here, every restaurant continued to have Milk Punches, Pimm’s Cups, Sazeracs, Gin Fizzes and Frappes on the menus. They never went out of fashion”.
Interestingly for a man who has embraced local culture and indeed serves as an ambassador for its drinking heritage, Chris is not originally from New Orleans (he moved there in 2004). This respect for traditions that were initially alien to him may also be one of the reasons he was so receptive to his discovery of Cuba on the trips organized by Julio Cabrera – Chris actually went… 5 times, and is now an honorary member of the Asociación de Cantineros de Cuba. “I was part of the first group of American Bartenders to meet the Association, and I got to make drinks behind legendary bars, such as Sloppy Joes, Hotel Nacional, El Floridita… It will always be a highlight of my bartending career.”
Another important moment for Chris had New Orleans echoes: back home he had discovered Henry Ramos’ grave and made a Ramos Gin Fizz on its inventor’s resting place. With Cabrera, he paid the same tribute to Constante Ribalaigua, shaking Daiquiris in the Colón cemetery. This was not the only symbolical moment of his visits: “The Santiago de Cuba trip was truly special. Julio took us hours into the country to the Daiquiri Mines, which no longer exist, except for a platform for a train that used to go there, and we all made Daiquiris”.
But the trips are not only about visiting historical sites; they are also about creating links with today’s cantineros. Chris has got warm words for José Rafa Malém, the president of the Cantineros, and Rolando and Alejandro from Floridita (who he had the pleasure to host behind his bar at French 75 last July). “It’s such an honour to meet with them, bring them t-shirts, bartending tools and books. Having been there 5 times it's a great feeling to go seeking friends out, staying at their homes, sharing dinners and drinks”. Unsurprisingly, Chris was deeply affected earlier this year by the tragic, untimely passing of Manolito Carbajo, Floridita’s head bartender, whom he calls a brother: “A month before he passed away, he gave me a Floridita jacket which I used to make a Daiquiri there, and we took a photo of me and him behind the bar. Great shot, very sad.” But if there’s one last thing that unites New Orleans and Cuba, it’s that in both places funerals are celebrations of the life of the deceased. Whether in “the Caribbean's northernmost city” or the pearl of the Antilles, we get a feeling that, with that jacket and his respect and love for the cantineros, Chris will play a part in celebrating Manolito’s (and the cantinero’s) work for years to come.