Words by: Jeff Berry
Photography by: Annene Kaye (1st image) & Layne_Murdoch (3rd image)
New Orleans has always been a magnet for cocktail connoisseurs and chroniclers, mixologists and alcohologists. At Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, my bar-restaurant on Peters Street in the city’s French Quarter, I’ve had the privilege of hosting quite a few of them. Some have even become regulars.
This is the fifth installment of The Peters Street Regulars for Difford's Guide, in which I profile those regulars who are likely to interest you as much as they interest me.
Any bartender can serve you a drink, but how many can sing you one? Off-Broadway performer turned mixologist Abigail Gullo has cornered the market on this particular talent, for which she's known throughout the subtropics. Order a Tom Collins from Abigail and you'll receive a Phil Collins, her genever twist on the old standard, garnished with a Phil Collins vocal belted out by Abigail as she slides you the drink across the mahogany. And, of course, Abigail's Cosmopolitan comes with her rendition of the "Sex and the City" theme.
Gimmicky? Undeniably. But customers love her drinks as much as her solos, because she takes bartending as seriously as serenading. Her original recipes have won her several national cocktail contests — including Heaven Hill's 2016 Bartender of the Year award, which she took home after besting 600 other competitors — and landed her the Head Bartender position at one of the most prominent restaurants in New Orleans, Compère Lapin, whose chef-owner Nina Compton just scored a James Beard Award nomination and a benediction from Food & Wine magazine as one of the USA's twelve Best New Chefs.
Abigail wins Heaven Hill 2016 Bartender of the Year
Abigail's cocktail apprenticeship began at age seven. "My family had this cool bar cart with wheels. It wasn't used very often — my parents were not big drinkers — but my grandpa liked Manhattans. His dad, my great-grandpa Arthur Charbonneau, worked at the old Waldorf-Astoria as a bar man under Oscar Tschirky." Creator of the Waldorf Salad, legendary maitre d' Tschirky was known far and wide as "Oscar of the Waldorf" during his 1893-1943 reign. "That's why my grandpa's drink was a Manhattan, because that was the big cocktail then at the Waldorf-Astoria." Apparently, grandpa liked children as much as Manhattans, because he sired ten of them — five girls and five boys — who between them gave him 44 grandkids. Seven-year-old Abigail competed for his attention against the other 43 by making his Manhattans for him. "He always had at least one, maybe two tops, and he liked his sweet. It was equal parts bourbon and vermouth. It's the first drink I learned how to make. I free-poured. That's the way he taught me. And he liked it on the rocks, too, with bitters and cherries. Angostura bitters was always something that was around the house because of that."
After her early introduction to the Manhattan, Abigail gravitated from mixology to musical theater, which she studied at George Mason University in Virginia. She also studied the way William Powell made Martinis in The Thin Man, and how Joan Crawford built Highballs in Mildred Pierce. The glamorous black-and-white world of these movies spoke to her, and when she came of drinking age she sought out the bygone cocktail-centric world she pined for while watching the late show on TV.
But she turned 21 in 1994, the darkest hour before the dawn of the Cocktail Renaissance. Soon after moving to Manhattan to try her luck on the stage, "I went into the Moonstruck Diner at 9th Avenue and 23rd Street, and I ordered a Rob Roy. The waiter was like, 'Uhhh, lemme see.' And he comes back and he goes, 'we don't have the ingredients to make that.' But it was on their menu! And then when I moved to the West Village there was this place called The Garage, kind of a hip bar, so I go there thinking, I'll bet they know how to do a good cocktail. I ordered a Gibson, but I got a Gimlet."
Shortly thereafter she moved to Ireland to work in the Dublin theater scene. "That's when I finally got serious about making my own cocktails, actually started looking up the recipes, doing research." She shook up the results for visitors to her Dublin flat, gauging from their reactions what worked and what didn't. But when she returned to Manhattan, mixology once again took a back seat to performing; between acting gigs she paid the bills stage-managing, school-teaching, and even nannying, which left little time for experimenting with cocktails.
But not for ordering them, which by the year 2000 was a much less risky business in New York bars. "At this point there's a movement happening. I started going to Windows on the World, where this amazing guy, Dale DeGroff, was making Martinis, real Martinis." From there she branched out to such other first-wave craft cocktail bars as Julie Reiner's Flatiron Lounge, Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club, and Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey.
In these and other hotspots Abigail witnessed the Cocktail Dark Ages evolve into the Renaissance, and began her own evolution from observer to practitioner. By her early thirties, a growing aversion to auditions and a budding affair with a chef spelled the end of her performing career and the beginning of her bartending one; to spend more time with her new boyfriend, she took her first-ever service industry job at the restaurant where he worked, "a little mom-and-pop place in Park Slope called Coquette. I was a brunch waitress, but there was no bartender at brunch so I would make the drinks." This led to regular shifts behind the bar, which to her surprise she enjoyed.
She wasn't the only one. By this time the New York craft cocktail scene was exploding, and everyone wanted to be a bartender. Diving deeper into the scene, Abigail began frequenting Death & Company, Dram, Little Branch, and LeNell's Ltd., the boutique Red Hook liquor store and cocktail-geek salon whose owner introduced Abigail to Dave Catania, alias Cachaça Dave. "Dave Catania was kind of a one-man sales force," says Abigail. "He sold the shit out of cachaça. Back then people didn't even know what it was — until Cachaça Dave came into your life. He meets me and says, 'I think you would be great in sales.' He's starting his own brokerage, selling cachaça, Chairman's Reserve rum, Luna Sueño tequila, and he sets me up and I start hitting the streets with a bag full of booze. I probably hit every Mexican restaurant in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens, to sell the tequila. I started riding my bike around because I was carrying too much booze, it was too heavy. So now I'm going into bars and talking to people and meeting people."
One of those people was Clif Travers, who was opening a high-end tapas bar in Williamsburg called Bar Celona. Clif gave Abigail a shot as a weekday bartender there. "He said I wasn't ready for a busy weekend," remembers Abigail, "and I didn't understand that. At one point, I remember getting mad at him and saying, 'All I'm learning how to do is how to set up a cocktail bar and how to shut down a cocktail bar!' And he says, 'Well you're learning SOMETHING, aren't ya?' And I was like, 'You're right.' I remember that to this day, especially when I have problems with my staff not cleaning up. This is the basic stuff you should learn."
The 2008 Wall Street crash put an end to Bar Celona, but a visit to Pegu Club put Abigail back in the craft cocktail business. "I was so excited to see Erin Elizabeth behind that bar," says Abigail. "She was the first girl I saw behind a cocktail bar. I loved that, and I loved her." Through Erin, Abigail landed a job at another buzz-worthy bar-restaurant, Fort Defiance in Brooklyn. "They needed somebody for brunch, so I said okay. I never worked so hard in my life." She was "a good ten years older" than her managers, "who were all like 24 years old and yelling at me. They trained me to do coffee. I remember my feet hurt so bad. It was a grueling shift, coffee and Bourbon Milk Punches and Sazeracs."
She credits Fort Defiance owner St. John Frizell with mentoring her from "brunch bitch" to prime-time bartender. "I remember he'd be sitting at the bar, and he'd whisper, 'Fill up his water!' 'Fill up her water!' 'Use the jigger!' I'd be like, whaaaa? But finally all that became rote and I was able to relax, talk to people and take care of them. I was proud to work there because the food was so great, and the people who worked there were so great. There was amazing chemistry between all of us, from the servers to the hostesses to the kitchen, and it was kind of lightning in a bottle."
Nevertheless, after two years Abigail moved on to a new East Village bar called The Beagle. "I was ready to learn a new style," she says. "St. John's style was 'House of Pegu.' The bar was set up like Pegu Club, and the way he taught me was very Pegu: keep it clean, keep it simple, use speed-pourers and jiggers, and let the drink shine in itself; if it doesn't need a garnish, no garnish. And I knew that the Beagle was going to be more 'House of Sasha.' It was going to be a lot of Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey guys, which meant no speed-pourers, very precise tool-work, a complex relationship with the kind of ice you use, and your garnish game is more elaborate."
After learning what she could at The Beagle and Fort Defiance, it was time for a more radical move. "At both those places I'd worked really hard, paid a lot of dues, and loved my work, but there was no place for me to go," says Abigail. "And people weren't knocking on my door to open up bars with me. That was happening to people younger than me, and especially to people more male than me. Today I see changes. I see women I came up with in New York doing very well. But back then — and I've talked about this with other female bartenders — we definitely missed out on jobs because we don't have a mustache. At that time, Karen Stanley at Dutch Kills, guys straight up told her, 'No I want him to make my drink, not you.' And she'd say, 'Okay fine, I trained that guy, but whatever.' It was very discouraging."
Abigail at Compere Lapin bar
That's when New Orleans beckoned. At Compère Lapin, Abigail's now enjoying the challenge of creating cocktails that complement the strong, vibrant flavors of Nina Compton's Caribbean cuisine. It's the culmination of Abigail's long-held belief that cocktails and fine dining are not mutually exclusive. "The blowback that I got from within the industry was, no no no, cocktails are too powerful to go with food, they can't go with food. You can't do that. And I just refused to believe it. Everything that I've learned has backed that up. Like using sherry in cocktails; sherry was created to go with food, there's a long history of that. Even the most robust flavors in a cocktail can have a beautiful impact on a dish. Of course, you have to be careful, and you have to be considerate. It's a thoughtful process on both sides, and you have to have a good working relationship. We're doing a new Compère Lapin cocktail menu, and I spent all week tasting cocktails with Chef. And talking about what food it would go with. She thinks a lot like me, in that we look at a drink and as we're tasting we're asking, 'does it take you on a journey? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end to the flavor?' Nina wants the drink to take you on the same journey as the food, to have equal weight with the dish."
After the ups and downs and twists and turns of her own journey from vocalist to mixologist, it's good to know that Abigail still has something to sing about.