Bourbon Street is to New Orleans what the strip is to Las Vegas: a beckoning stretch of 24/7 partying that brings out the Spring Break in us all.
So the idea that a craft cocktail bar could not only exist, but actually flourish, on Bourbon Street might seem improbable. Yet that is exactly what Bourbon O inside the Bourbon Orleans Hotel does, thanks to the insight, whimsy, and inventiveness of bar manager Cheryl Charming. With an inventive bar program that combines craft and bling, Bourbon O is a bastion of sophisticated, boozy fun in a sea of gallon-size daiquiris.
Charming came to the job as a seasoned bar biz veteran. She has written 15 books about everything from martinis to margaritas, as well as a clever little page turner called “Cheryl Charming’s Book of Bar Amusements” in which she teaches you how to do bar magic and wagers. In short, she knows this world inside and out. So, when she was first approached about the management position in 2013, she didn’t take it lightly.
As she recalls, “I visited the bar five times. I walked Bourbon Street each time and approached the Bourbon Street entrance from all angles. I learned that there was nothing ‘nice’ on Bourbon Street. I knew then that I wanted to have the first fresh craft bar on Bourbon Street, provide a nice bar for the Bourbon Orleans Hotel and keep the fun vibe of Bourbon Street.”
Thanks to the combination of her insight and the willingness of the hotel, overseen by GM Mark Wilson, the Bourbon O has been reborn. It’s not only a shining example of how a quality bar can flourish in an unexpected location, but also how an insightful bartender can shake up the system. It’s no wonder that Charming is New Orleans Magazine’s 2014-2015 “Mixologist of the Year”. In fact, the bar is so popular that, during Tales of the Cocktail, William Grant & Sons created the Monkey Shoulder gin “Speakeasy” in a back room, which guests discovered by walking through a refrigerator.
So how did Charming do it? After getting the management to revamp the space, she reworked the bar program completely with original and classic drinks given imaginative treatments and served by a staff of energetic bartenders who could handle a high volume gig. Not to bring money into the equation here, but just to illustrate the bar’s success, Bourbon O has gone from yearly sales of $250,000 in 2013 to $800,000 in 2015 under Charming and her dynamite staff.
Along with featuring drinks made by her staff, Charming was eager to spotlight the area’s cocktail history and, with that in mind, wanted to bring back the ritual of the Ramos Gin Fizz. In its original incarnation, the drink was passed down and shaken for two minutes each by a line of ‘Shaker Boys’ in the saloon run by Henry Ramos. While the latter was impractical, there was a solution, that being a shaker machine. Charming settled on an Asian bubble tea shaker, convinced s gin brand (Hendrick’s) to buy it for her, and slapped a Ramos Gin Fizz on the menu. It’s the first time since the drink was created 96 years ago that a Ramos Gin Fizz has been shaken for the proper amount of time. Presto, old school preparation with new school bling.
When guests order a Fizz, it comes with the added ceremony of a historical hand out on the drink. Charming also created “an antique looking binder with a feathered pen for guests to sign and called it the Ramos’ registry.” And, just so things don’t get too serious, Charming had a one-of-a-kind life size image of Henry Ramos made so guests can snap a photo with the famous bar man. Craft and kitsch, all in one clever package.
Craft cocktails get plenty of play too. This summer, make-you-smile-like-a-kid drinks such as Rachel’s Candied 75 (Hendrick’s Gin, Luxardo maraschino, lemon, Cava, El Guapo Love Potion #9 Bitters, and a side of mint cotton candy) and Brendan’s Don’t Drink the Water (Montelobos mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, housemade grapefruit-ginger shrub, and white grapefruit/lemon juice) share menu space with classics like the Singapore Sling and the Harvey Wallbanger, as well as the Cable Car, an original drink from bar legend Tony Abou-Ganim that features Sailor Jerry Spiced rum, orange curaçao, lemon sour, and a raw sugar cinnamon rim. And, of course, staying true to the New Orleans tradition of frozen drinks, Charming even includes her own “Slushie Du Jour”, in an eco-friendly cup of course.
And, finally, in keeping with Bourbon Street’s party animal theme, Charming introduced the Bourbon O’s signature Go Cup. But this ain’t just any Go Cup. This baby is a full size, gold-tone plastic Champagne bottle with a piggy bank coin slot, handle, and lanyard. Called the Midas Cup, it allows antsy guests to get their roving drink on, Super Size, with twelve 16-ounce servings. Charming recalls that “At first it was a girly drink, but soon men learned that it’s a ‘chick magnet’ when they walk down Bourbon Street. To date, we sell about 1,000 a month.” And that, as they say, truly is the Midas Touch.