There are bartenders who love their craft but are in the industry merely for a season. There are bartenders who get into the business for moments of press or local fame, then move on to brand ambassador-type roles or to support the career they really want to get into.
Then there are those rare, lifelong bartenders who become masters at expertly balanced and innovative cocktails, cocktail and spirits history or maintaining and running a successful bar. The best are also masters at hospitality, ensuring patrons feel special and at ease, catering to a wide and often uninformed array of palates. These consummate bartenders handle diverse challenges with grace and personality.
There are few in the world who have done so the way native Louisianan Chris McMillian has, as he runs his laid-back neighborhood bar and restaurant, Revel Cafe and Bar, with his wife of decades, Laura. Together, they’re hospitality personified. They introduce solo guests sitting at the bar to each other and facilitate conversation and a welcoming spirit. Cocktail pioneer and legend (aka King Cocktail) Dale DeGroff dubs Chris “a national treasure” and famed cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich, “a 19th-century bartender.”
The craft is in his blood, as he comes from four generations of bartenders. His great-grandfather was a saloon keeper, while his uncles owned casinos and nightclubs in the 1930s–40s. Learning his craft at NOLA bar legends like Arnaud’s, he was part of opening and popularizing the now-closed Library Lounge in The Ritz-Carlton. He was also a co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, opening in 2008 in Nola’s worthwhile Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
I’ll never forget my first time at the bar with Chris McMillian back in 2007 when he was running the bar at the Ritz-Carlton, then Bar Uncommon at the Renaissance Pere Marquette. One night, a group of young guys next to me ordered cheap beers. I marveled at Chris’s kind service to all of us — and how they were missing out on one of the best bartenders I’ve ever found while visiting literally thousands of the world’s best bars in more than 30 countries and 35 states.
McMillian famously quoted an 1850s poem, “Then Comes the Zenith of Man,” about the Mint Julep while he made me the best one I’ve ever had (and that includes the hundreds I’ve had in Kentucky). He also made a perfect Sazerac, Aviation, and the best Ramos Gin Fizz of my life. He talked with my husband and me a good couple of hours on and off behind the bar as we connected on drink, NOLA and history. We returned a couple nights later and the same happened again with him and Laura, who is equally hospitable and well-versed on many subjects.
Chris explained that rather than making hundreds of different cocktails, he would perfect the classics, working toward making the best version of each rather than continuously reinventing the wheel. As much as I love innovation in food and drink, to create the new and future classics, this kind of singular focus should be more common than it is. In fact, it is crucial as the baseline for the drink industry.
YouTube videos have been posted of him explaining how to make a perfect Ramos or reciting the Julep poem in his singular, crusty voice. McMillian is an example of what bartenders can be. Of perfecting a craft with respect and true knowledge of history. Of the kind of community that forms around the best bartenders — and in this case, around both Chris and Laura as community-builders and leaders. You can lead from behind the bar. And they do.
What led you into cocktails and the bar world?
I guess it was an intersection between necessity and destiny. I did not enter the food and beverage world until my mid-thirties. I had been operating a small lawn maintenance company when my wife became unable to work as a result of her sixth pregnancy, and my truck broke down. So, she asked her boss if I could do some on-call banquet shifts at the Royal Sonesta Hotel here in New Orleans.
It was there that I discovered the trade magazine Cheers. In it, I discovered the nascent cocktail revival being led by Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan and Tony Abou Ganim, espousing the use of fresh ingredients and traditional methods to create delicious drinks. Something just clicked for me and the rest is, as they say, history.
How does living in New Orleans influence your bar style?
Almost in every way. We in New Orleans are the stewards of a great cultural heritage. We actually invoke the names of 19th-century bartenders and we continued to preserve and serve their drinks when the rest of the world had long since forgotten them. Drinks like the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, the Vieux Carré and the Absinthe Suissesse. Here, you are surrounded by history. It is a living thing.
What is your philosophy on deciding what brands to stock?
My criteria are very simple. Is it an ingredient in my cocktail list? My cocktail menu drives my sales so that is my first consideration. Do I have a bartender who is requesting it? And if so, are they going to take responsibility for selling it? Finally, do I have a regular guest who is asking for it that I am confident will buy it over time?
How do you educate customers on new and quality spirits?
I am not the guy who is going to tell you what’s good. My belief is there are only two kinds of things: the kind you like and the kind you don’t. What I focus on are characteristics and components, so that when you do find something you like, you can identify other products with similar qualities, giving you a higher probability of finding things that please you.
What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in bars like yours?
Make products that are different and better than the established and recognized brands. If they are not different and better, why would I want them? Or the other way is to have your products as an ingredient in a delicious drink that I can dazzle my guests with.
What are some small-batch brands that are exciting you right now?
Oh, gosh, we’ve got ten microdistilleries in south Louisiana alone. I am fond of saying without experimentation there is no innovation. And we certainly find ourselves in a passion-filled and creative environment here.
Besides your place, what do you think are some “can’t miss” or personal favorite food and drink spots when people are visiting your city?
I love Dooky Chase’s for all-you-can-eat fried chicken, Parkway Bakery for a great po’boy, Central Grocery for my muffuletta, Nine Roses for great Vietnamese and Hansen’s Sno-Bliz for the best snoball in all the land.