Peek inside Cure. (Cure interior photo: Kevin O’Mara; Neal Bodenheimer photo: L Kasimu Harris)


Having just arrived back in the Land of Cocktails upon accepting Cure’s award for a coveted spot on North America’s 50 Best Bars list, Neal Bodenheimer sits down with Milk Punch Media over Sazaercs to chat everything from bitters bottles to bites around New Orleans.

‘I want nice people to do great things,’ is the type of comment Neal makes while praising a mutual friend. That’s precisely what you think of Neal himself—a nice guy doing great things in the spirits industry, particularly from his flagship cocktail bar Cure in New Orleans, now celebrating 15 years.

Neal and Chris Hannah of Jewel of the South, whose lauded New Orleans craft cocktail bar also remains on the 50 BEST BARS list, carry the torches for classically-rooted cocktails in New Orleans. The principles behind these two New Orleans craft cocktail bars essentially determine how you think and drink classic cocktails with respect to New Orleans history.

The consistent manner in which the bar team at Cure approaches cocktails and hospitality also earned the Uptown New Orleans bar an Excellent rating in The Pinnacle Guide, the industry’s newest rating system with rigorous spot-check interviews and anonymous drop-in reviewers.

All accolades aside, at the end of the day, the New Orleans native and humble partner of CureCo. just wants a well-made drink, too.

Q and A with Neal Bodenheimer

What did your Jazz Fest look like this year?
We did a VIP tent through Tales and Cure and Jewel of the South did the cocktails on the first weekend. You’re out in a field in warm weather but we made it work. Jazz Fest took on the first spirits sponsor last year, Wild Turkey. Every single drop of rye and bourbon was consumed. This year, we had Tito’s. It’s showing off great New Orleans bars and hosting people. It was pretty cool.

Congratulations on making North America’s 50 Best Bars List! How was the trip with your team to Mexico?
Thanks! It was cool. We went from New Orleans to Mexico City and rented a car and drove to San Miguel and then to León.

Did you know the full list of winners beforehand?
You don’t know the full list; you just know that you’re on it or not.

Handshake Speakeasy in Mexico City was Number 1. Did you get to go while there?
I didn’t. We really wanted to go. They were having a huge event, but I’m too old to go pack into a sardine can type bar experience. It’s been on my list twice now and haven’t gone.

Cure bar team (Photo: North America’s 50 Best Bars)

North America includes the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. What cocktail bars are on your list now?
I really want to go to a bunch of the bars in Canada—Atwater Cocktail Club, Bar Mordecai, Civil Liberties, The Botantist, Bar Pompette. They’ve got a thing going on right now.

Fifteen bars on the list were from Mexico. How are they different from U.S. bars?
Yes, and deserve it. Mexico crushes it. So much of what goes into it is: what does it take to staff a bar? What does it take to develop talent? What ingredients do you have access to? We have a great supply chain in the U.S., but we don’t have some of the amazing homegrown flavors they have in Mexico. So you’re never comparing apples to apples. Handshake Speakeasy had 20 people on their team and it’s a small bar. It’s cool that they can do that.

You see a lot more bartending flair in other countries which is not the cocktail vibe in New Orleans.
Yeah, we’re not really flair driven. So much of the ethos of Cure comes out of the slow food movement and looking back at classically-rooted drinks. What we stand for is doing things the best we know how.

As a pioneer of the New Orleans craft cocktail scene, you must feel a strong duty to preserve the classics.
So much of what happens behind the bar is historical analysis and imagination. You can look at a classic spec and even if you have the same product today, it’s not the same product as it was 100 years ago. You’re always trying to approximate. We consult historians and books, but ultimately you don’t know, you just guess. Someone could look at my book in five years and point out all the flaws. I’m thrilled when people find new information.

"Everything tastes better with bitters."

Anyone interested in cocktails and the city of New Orleans should read your book CURE: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em.
Thank you.

Guess which classic cocktail recipe is missing in the book? Milk Punch!
I was probably a little more dogmatic 15 years ago than I am now, but I like the Milk Punch. Milk Punch is certainly within the New Orleans canon but we’re not a daytime spot. We have one at Peychaud’s at a little tiny guest-facing bar in the back that’s gonna have a Dirty Milk Punch. Ever had a Dirty Milk Punch?

Danger Bird cocktail (photo: Sam Hanna)

Ohhh, I haven’t but I love the sound of that! What makes it dirty?
There’s a term in coffee shops or markets where they will call horchata with coffee “dirty.” So Dirty Milk Punch is espresso in milk punch.

That’s perfect. I can’t wait! At Peychaud’s, will it be a daytime drink?
Yes, but it will be going into the evening, too.

What’s your preference for a traditional milk punch: Brandy or Bourbon?
I like both. One is fruiter and one is grainier and spicier, so it depends on what I’m feeling. I don’t actually have a preference; I just want it made well.

You are the indisputable expert, if you will, on the Sazerac. How many Sazeracs do you think Cure has made in 15 years?
Oh, my god. [laughs] I don’t know. Based on a year, five hundred thousand, a million? I could probably look it up or just guestimate and use some historical imagination. [laughs]

Years ago, I met a bartender from New York in town for Tales of the Cocktail who whined he couldn’t get a good Sazerac in New Orleans, so I’m always making a “list” to prove that’s impossible.
Things were tough here for a while for Sazaracs. So much so, that in the previous iteration of Tales [circa 2010] they had something called the Seal of the Sazerac to incentivize bars to get the seal that says you know how to make a Sazerac.

What Sazerac iterations do we see outside of New Orleans?
A lot of people believe Angostura belongs in a Sazerac. To me, here in New Orleans, you want exclusively Peychaud’s. If I was anywhere else, I’d expect Angostura Bitters to be there in addition to Peychaud’s. And it would taste good.

A well-balanced Sazerac must be tricky as I have had lackluster ones, some overdiluted.
Stirred drinks are all about texture. Sazeracs are served up, down, right? If you over-stir that thing, you may as well throw it in trash.

Let’s talk about your nostalgia for the Ojen Cocktail, a lesser-known New Orleans classic made with an anise-flavored liqueur.
It’s a really simple drink. You love milk punch, I love the Ojen Cocktail. To me, it’s one of the great day drinks, particularly Mardi Gras time. If I go to one of the old guard restaurants, I kind of want an Ojen Cocktail to start off. They settle your stomach.

Why don’t we see Ojen liqueur as an ingredient in more cocktails in New Orleans?
It’s interesting. It mimics anisette or sambuca and a lot of products on the market already hit that flavor profile. Ojen became an extinct product and then it was revived by the Sazerac Company. They make it in Kentucky and is neutral-grain based, but the original was brandy based.

As for Herbsaint, we want the red label one at home for making Sazeracs, right? What’s your preference as opposed to the green label bottle?
Yes, that’s the older recipe. I like both. We cook a lot with the plastic cap one. It depends. That one’s a little sweeter.

You believe bitters benefit almost any cocktail, even a Mint Julep!
Pretty much everything tastes better with bitters. There are few drinks that aren’t improved by a few drops of bitters. Ramos Gin Fizz? I don’t put bitters in there, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea. We put bitters in everything.

  Explain how bitters can alter a drink.
Bitters are connectors, like salt in food. I’ve it explained like louvered doors or windows. You have all these flavors that represent a louvre that’s open. When you add bitters, it closes the louvres and connects everything.

Other than Angostura and Peychaud’s, what bitters are essential in the home bar?
You’ve got to have orange bitters. I really like Bittercube Orange Bitters. It’s also good to have some glycerin-based bitters if you’re ever doing non-alcoholic cocktails.

What fun and funky bitters are you grabbing lately?
Fee Brothers Peach Bitters are wonderful, and their Old Fashion Bitters tastes just like cinnamon, so pleasing. Bittermen’s, Scrappys, there are so many. Cocktail & Sons and El Guapo are both great local businesses and always interesting. El Guapo has some cool local flavors like Chicory Pecan.

What other products are essential for entertaining in your home bar?
I think it’s great to have some RTDs in your home bar, Ready to Drink cocktails. I like Drifter, Tip Top Proper Cocktails—there are lot of interesting products out there right now.

The ingredients aren’t always handy to whip up a craft cocktail on the fly. 
Cocktails at home are hard because you don’t have everything at your fingertips. Sometimes my wife will be frustrated with me, but I don’t always have everything set up. If I wasn’t used to working in a bar with great mise en plase

What do you batch for parties?
I love making punch. I call it Mardi Gras Punch in the book, but I flip things in and out of that punch format. I change it up, but the base is always the same.

What are your local go-to New Orleans restaurants with the family?
I love the idea of being able to walk to a restaurant. I live about two blocks from Cure so we use Dryades Street and Freret Street a lot. We’ll walk to Charlie’s Steakhouse, Pascal’s Manale. I really like Costera in my neighborhood and think it punches well above its weight. I don’t love to spend a lot of free time in restaurants I’m a partner in, but my daughter, who’s 10, always wants to go to Val’s.

What’s your go-to cocktail before dinner?
Martini or Negroni or somewhere in between. I will do negronis on the dry side and I feel strongly about equal parts [1:1:1] being a medium-proof drink.

For a martini, what’s your personal preference?
It depends. If it’s been a long week and it’s Friday night, I maybe will do a 2:1 [laughs]. I try and evaluate what someone will do well. Sometimes I will drink wine. I think cocktails all the time, so wine is more lighthearted. Sometimes when you do something for a living, the way that you think about it is more serious. Starting out in this business, you don’t always enjoy going out because you’re breaking everything down. It makes my dining experience so much better to focus on the good things.

For what’s next, I see you will be doing a book signing at Wonderbird Gin in Oxford, Mississippi. Great guys!
They’re doing good stuff. I want nice people to do great things. It makes me happy.

Pro tip: Mondays are Rare Bottle Pours at Cure starting at 4pm until the bottles run dry. Think sips of private stash whiskeys for a steal!