Words by Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry
Photography by Annene Kaye
In the age of Social Media, cocktail bartending is all about promoting yourself. Thirty years ago in New Orleans, it was more about defending yourself. Paul Gustings, whose career bridges both eras, began bartending in the French Quarter when standard bar equipment included not just a cocktail shaker but a baseball bat and a loaded revolver.
With a 1980s clientele that ranged from offshore oil-rig roughnecks to warring biker gangs, Paul quite literally rolled with the punches. Today he's the elder statesman of a more genteel Quarter cocktail scene, an internationally acknowledged master of mixology and barroom diplomacy.
Just don't ask him to smile.
"My face hurts when I smile too much," says Paul. "That's not the way I do things. I had two couples standing at the bar one time and they asked, 'Do you ever smile?' I said yeah. They said 'Oh? When's that?' I said, 'I'll give you three examples. Give me $100, I'll smile. Or you could just say something original. And if you leave, I'll burst out in laughter.' They stormed out. Never been so insulted in their entire lives. Next morning, five minutes before I opened, they were there. My question was, 'If I'm such an asshole, why are you here? Again?' So obviously there has to be something else to it."
Paul's cantankerous charm has become something of a calling card. Along with the mean Sazerac he spent decades perfecting, his ornery barkeeper act has earned him a profile in the New York Times and an invitation to hold court at the James Beard House. But after getting to know Paul at Latitude 29, where he regularly pulls up a stool after a shift at his current roost, Broussard's Empire Bar, I've begun to suspect that - like most good actors - Paul's performance comes from a place of truth.
"Every so often I rub someone the wrong way," admits Paul. Like the time he hit a customer over the head with a meat tenderizer "because he snapped his goddamned fingers at me. You don't do that."
Paul grew up in Wijlre, a small town in the southern Netherlands. He was groomed to become a high school German teacher, "which I decided I really didn't want to be." Instead he went to work for Brand Bierbrouwerij, a local brewery founded in 1365. "When I started working for the brewery, I realized that I really liked that stuff they put in a bottle," he says. "So I worked there for a while and then one day I decided, I need to go somewhere. I got an atlas of the world, and I flipped a coin. And New York City it was. So I bought a one-way ticket."
Paul hit Manhattan in 1979, but after two weeks there wanderlust struck again and he began crisscrossing the U.S., Canada and Central America. Just under a year on the road, he discovered New Orleans and found it pleasingly familiar. "This place reminded me a lot of where I grew up. Not the weather, obviously, but the prevailing attitude: If you don't get it done today, we'll get it done tomorrow. Doesn't always work out for the best, but it's, 'Hey, what you doing? Nothing? Let's go get a drink.' And I kind of like that easier way of doing things, which is the same way they do them in the south in the Netherlands. Same amount of mountains too. None! Zero!"
Paul had never tended bar before he came to New Orleans, where in 1980 he took a kitchen job in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. "I was making no money whatsoever," he remembers, "and I was very unhappy. So I walk into this bar to drink my sorrows away, and I'm watching the bartender and I thought, 'You know what? I can do that.'" He set his sights on the Dream Palace, then a popular Frenchmen Street music club. "Doctor John, the Meters, the Radiators, the Neville Brothers - they all played there, so it was a very well-known place. I went in every single day for three weeks, and I'd say 'Hey, you got a job for me yet? I want to work here.' They got tired of me coming in, so they just gave me a job. And I had a great time."
His next gig was at Funky Butt, a biker bar on Toulouse Street. "That was a great bar. It's Tropical Isle now. There was another biker bar across the street from Funky Butt called Davy's. They really didn't like each other. They would shoot at each other across the street when they got pissed off. They had guns behind the bar, guns everywhere; our regulars were the Galloping Gooses, Outlaws, Bandidos - not at the same time, because that doesn't end well - and also hookers, strippers, bouncers, off-duty police officers."
Those officers appreciated Paul's bar management style, which he'd learned by observation in Wijlre. "In the town where I grew up, the bartender ALWAYS took care of EVERYTHING. Never called the cops. Ever. Because if you call a cop once, you had him at your door every day, just to make sure that everything was fine. You didn't want that, and he didn't want that. So at Funky Butt we policed ourselves. Everything was handled by the staff. I mean, I've kicked people out in all kinds of different ways, literally picking them up and throwing them out the door. I've chased people down the street with a baseball bat. That's making it sound like New Orleans was the wild, wild west - it was not - but there were a lot more people then who'd get thrown out of bars than there are now."
There were also a lot more people getting killed. The annual New Orleans murder rate topped 400 in 1986, when Paul graduated from biker bars to the Napoleon House. Even at this storied French Quarter institution, Paul had to be ready for anything. "I remember at the Napoleon House this guy comes up to the bar and he goes, 'Hey asshole, what kind of fuckin' shots you got in this dump?' This was the mid-'80s, so I always had a gun behind the bar. So I reach in the drawer, and I have two of them. I said, 'I have the correct shot for you here. You have a choice. It's a .357 or a .45. Which shot would you like?' And he goes, 'You're an asshole!' And I go, 'Would you like to bet your life on that?' And he left."
Six years into his bartending career, Paul still had no formal training. His first day at the Napoleon House, owner Sal Impastato told him, "Here's the register. There's the bar. Here's the ice machine. Somebody comes in looking for me, I'm not here." Paul laughs at the memory: "Great training manual!" This was still the Dark Ages of the cocktail, when the Snakebite, Long Island Ice Tea and Jack & Coke ruled the day. "The cocktail lounge of today was something that didn't exist. There was no 'Let's go to a bar, I want to have an Aviation.' Huh? A what?" But New Orleans, unlike the rest of the country, did have an indigenous cocktail culture that not even Prohibition or industrial sweet & sour mix had been able to kill off. "At Napoleon House we had the Ramos Fizz, Pimm's Cup, Sazerac. They were always around. And you'd better know how to make 'em."
Paul taught himself how to do just that. Graduate school began the day he discovered a dusty old bottle of Bols Parfait Amour on the Napoleon House back bar. "The label was in Dutch. Which means that in 1986 it had to have been there for around 30 years. I'm like, 'What the hell is this?' So the very first time I made a drink - I didn't know what the hell I was making - it was gin, some sweet & sour, and Parfait Amour. Without even knowing it, I'd made a Blue Moon. Purely by mistake."
By the time he migrated to Tujaques, another famous old Quarter landmark, he'd discovered Jerry Thomas's 1862 bar guide, The Bon Vivant's Companion, and expanded his cocktail repertoire apace. "I started working at Tujaques in 1997. I'd make punches out of the book - the Nuremberg, the Clarified Milk Punch - and people would say 'Wow, this is really good.' Nobody else was making them." Encouraged by the response, he began creating his own drinks, which brought him to the attention of local media and eventually David Wondrich, who cited him in his Esquire cocktail column.
As Paul evolved, so did the Quarter. Bikers and oil roughnecks gave way to foodies and cocktail connoisseurs in search of the town's best Sazerac. Today those in the know make their first stop Broussard's, where Paul puts his unique spin on even the most touristy of drinks, such as his Improved Grasshopper. When I ordered one shortly after moving to the city, I asked Paul what makes his version an "improved" Grasshopper. He snapped, "Because I make it."
While it's an uphill battle to coax Paul into talking unironically about mixology, on the subject of service he's a fount of wisdom borne of accumulated experience: "Making the drinks, the mechanics? That's no big deal. I can teach anybody that. What cannot be taught is the interaction, and the personality that you have to have to be on stage every single day. It's showmanship. You have to sell yourself. How do you do that? There are many different ways. Some people smile." Paul frowns. "You know, FAKE." Another thing Paul won't do: "When people walk into my bar, I never ask how they're doing. Because if they answer you, you have to stand there and listen to them. And a lot of bartenders think it's a really good thing to ask customers where they're from. No. That's a bad thing. Because if the first question out of your mouth is 'Where you from,' that means nobody who comes into your bar is from HERE. It means you have no local clientele."
Another Gustings Don't is asking guests how they like the drink you made for them. "No," he insists. "You know it's good. Because if you don't know it's good, then why do you have it? Asking means that you doubt. And you should not doubt yourself, because you know what you're doing. It's the same thing when I see people straw test. It just drives me up the wall. It's insecurity: if you know what you're doing, you don't have to taste the drink because you know you did it right. On top of that, as a customer I want a discount. You drank my goddamn drink!"
Although Paul's been a French Quarter bartender for 36 years, during which he estimates he's made over 22,000 Sazeracs, he feels no compulsion to move on. He loves what he does, even if he's not smiling when he does it. When I ask if he has anything special planned for his 60th birthday, he replies, "Yeah. I'm going to work. What, I'm gonna take a day off? And do what?"