Periodista Tales

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Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 8 — King Cocktail

Continued from Part 7…

It was my last night in New Orleans. I was sitting at the Carousel bar in the Hotel Monteleone, rotating slowly and nursing an absinthe. I always nurse absinthe. Can’t stand the stuff. But it was my last night in New Orleans, so I’d ordered one.

I’d been at Tales of the Cocktail for three days and I felt like last year’s Mardi Gras beads—sun-cracked and still dangling from that iron railing. I don’t know how people last the full week.

I looked at my absinthe. It looked like an antiseptic. I drank to my health.

Since I’d started investigating the origins of the Periodista I’d dug deep into Boston’s craft cocktail world. I’d met the people, pried into their relationships, teased out the story.  And in telling how the Periodista found a home in Boston, I’d also told the story of how a community was born out of a shared passion.

In its way, it was the story of how the cocktail renaissance of the early 21st century had taken shape. Similar stories could probably be found in all the great cocktailing cities of America.

But mine was Boston.

All that time I’d kept my distance. I was an observer. Always leaning in from the far side of the bar. It wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I finally felt like a member of the Boston cocktail community.

I’d also realized that that wasn’t my place.

I was an outsider investigating the affairs of a family, not a member of the family. To be an agent of truth I had to maintain a semblance of neutrality. Journalistic objectivity.

But I’d gotten so wrapped up in the question of my own place that I’d lost sight of my real purpose. I still sought the Periodista, and for one week there had been more cocktail knowledge gathered in New Orleans than any other place in the world.

I’d given myself three days. What did I have to show for it? Okay, a few leads. Good ones. But I’d walked out on who knew how many. I’d gotten too wrapped up in the spectacle, the internal politics of the cocktail world, and my own self-doubt.

I drank some more absinthe.

The bar had closed an hour ago, but it was still full. A man walked into the room. I recognized him immediately. So did everyone else. It was Dale DeGroff. King Cocktail himself.

DeGroff meandered slowly around the rotating carousel. No one spoke to him, but every head turned. He knew it. DeGroff is silver-haired and olive-skinned. He’s what executive types call a room-changer. As long as that room is a bar.

I got up out of my seat. This was my last shot. I thought about John Gertsen and Jackson Cannon the night of the Brawl. The stories are better than the drinks themselves. I owed them the real story. And I owed it to myself to find it.

I walked up to DeGroff and held out my hand. As we shook, I asked him if, in all his years of bartending, he’d ever made a Periodista.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The Periodista guy. I heard about you.”

I didn’t say anything. Not for lack of trying.

“Someone emailed me about it,” he said. “All of Boston is worked up about the Periodista.”

I opened my mouth. Seemed like a good place to start.

“I know it’s in Schumann’s book,” DeGroff said. “I think Charles found it during his research for the book in Cuba. Obviously Cuba’s been sort of out of touch with the world for a while. Their history and their drink culture can be hard to dig up.”

DeGroff looked thoughtful.

“You know,” he said. “I have an old textbook. Around the time Prohibition ended, the best school for bartenders in the world was at the Hotel Sevilla in Havana. At that time, Cuban bartenders were considered the best in the world, because they had seen so much action over the past ten years. So this school became very famous.”

This was it. Why I was here. Who else but Dale DeGroff would have a textbook from a mid-century bartending school based out of a Havana hotel?

“The textbook I have is from the ‘60s,” he said. “At that time, all the older bartenders were still around. They were the ones who taught the new generation, and they all contributed to the textbook as well. The Periodista might be in there.”

I thanked him. He nodded.

“It’s gotta be Cuban,” he said. “This is your card you just gave me, right?”

I seemed to have given him my card. It had become habit over the past 72 hours.

“I’ll take a look in that textbook,” DeGroff said, “and if I see it I’ll send it to you.”

He left. After paying for my absinthe, so did I.

New Orleans was as hot that night as the day I’d arrived. I walked down Royal Street toward Canal, wondering if the streetcar was still running. At the intersection I turned back and looked up at the Monteleone marquee, glowing five stories high.

New Orleans remained a ghost to me. A fleeting backdrop of light, color, and sound. I waited at the streetcar stop for a minute, then decided to walk.

All of Boston is worked up about the Periodista.

I’d gotten my lead, but it was that line that had me grinning all the way back to India House. At that moment, I knew exactly where I fit into the Boston cocktail world. I would never be their brother, but I could be the guardian of their stories. It was a responsibility I’d chosen. It was a promise I would keep. I said my final goodbye to journalistic objectivity.

Because, after all, I’m not a journalist.

I’m a Periodista.

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