Recently London bar NOLA became the first venue outside North America to be awarded the Seal of the Sazerac, we sat down with owners Dan Priseman and James Triffo for a chat.
The Seal of the Sazerac is awarded every year by the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society (NOCCPS) to the venues serving the best Sazeracs. This prestigious award has previously only been awarded to bars in North America, that was until NOLA opened in May this year.
At a ceremony (well big party at least) Ann & Paul Tuennerman, Founders of Tales of the Cocktail, visited NOLA to hand over the trophy to Dan and James. There was, as you would expect, plenty of Sazerac’s flowing thanks to a preview of new Bulleit Rye from Diageo and Absinthe from Sip Or Mix. It also just happened to be Ann’s birthday so cake and a beautifully tuneful rendition of Happy Birthday filled the air.
It’s a hell of an achievement for a bar only a few months old so we thought we’d better sit down with them to find out a bit more about it. Whilst we were at it we also grabbed some time with Paul.
BarLifeUK: Congratulations boys but how on earth did this come about?
Dan Priseman: I contacted Ann Tuennerman before we opened NOLA, just to ask about charities we might support in the city, and she seemed really interested in the idea of a bar in London promoting the culture of New Orleans. She mentioned possibly arranging a trip to come and check us out, as well as to see some of the great bars in London since she hadn’t been over here since before Tales of the Cocktail existed. Shortly before she and Paul were due to arrive she suggested that we might want to arrange a gathering at the bar one night while she was over, and that she would be awarding us the Seal of the Sazerac, having seen the effort we’ve gone to, to promote New Orleans.
It honestly came as a complete surprise, especially when we realised that we’re the first bar outside of North America to receive it. I have to say it feels great to be acknowledged by an organisation from New Orleans as we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure we’re not a ‘themed bar’ but instead a cocktail bar inspired by the Big Easy and their culture.
James Triffo: I happened to be in New Orleans visiting the city for inspiration and had a chance to catch up with Ann the week before her and Paul visited us. Dan and I were both really excited to learn the Seal was going to be awarded to our bar. It was great drinking Sazeracs with her and the Casbian family in Arnaud’s 75. It really helped me to understand the authenticity of the Sazerac cocktail in one of the cocktail bars that best understands the craft behind New Orleans cocktails.
BLUK: Having Anne and Paul out was quite a coup? Were they as impressed with NOLA in real life as on paper do you think?
DP: I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but they certainly seemed to have a good time while they were with us. It was fun to have them in town, but we maybe shot ourselves in the foot slightly by taking them out the night before they came to us and visiting The Connaught, The Ritz and The Savoy. Obviously we’re a different kind of bar, maybe a bit more relaxed and informal, but hopefully Mr. and Mrs. T had fun with us and enjoyed the party atmosphere that night.
JT: I certainly hope so, as she has really been helping us behind the scenes with contacts that are from New Orleans. Maybe she’s thinking, “good Lord, these guys really need help” but I doubt it.
BLUK: So Paul what were your impressions of the London bar scene on your first visit?
Paul Tuennerman: From the moment we hit the door at our first stop, until we left our last bar five days later, it was clear that the Cocktail Scene in London was, and is, unlike anywhere else. The hospitality was impeccable; the cocktails were flawless; and the number of bars to visit, to numerous to accomplish, which is why I won’t be waiting 52 years for my next visit to this great city.
BLUK: I’m sure you have a few thank you’s you’d like to pass on (like to anyone who helped you paint it for example!) so here is your chance…
DP: Honestly the people who helped us paint did such a bad job they don’t deserve any thanks! (ok, ok, thanks Simon it was appreciated!) it’s difficult to know where to begin as we’ve had a lot of help and support from friends and family alike, but I’ll have a go with a few just to fill space in this interview!
First off my biggest thanks have to go out to our team, Charles, Ali and Abby, who were with us from the chaotic start, and put up with constantly moving goal posts, and of course Ian McIntyre our Bar Manager, who joined a bit later and has brought a bit of calmness to the NOLA show. Next up for me is to thank James for inviting me in on the project as soon as he’d found the space, somehow after everything we’ve been through so far we’re still friends. Obviously my wife Sarah needs a mention, if nothing else for putting up with me stumbling home drunk after late nights at NOLA. Last up from me is just to thank the amazing family of bartenders who came and drank with us and encouraged us through our soft launch, and still seem to keep coming back for more. You guys are our family and will always be welcome at the bar, and you rock for embracing our mission to bring back the Grasshopper!
JT: “No man is an island, Entire of itself” has been my mantra since helping launch Spirit Cartel (my day job) a few years ago. Nothing proves this more than when trying to open a bar with your own personal savings. We’ve had amazing help behind the scenes from many different people and it’s humbling to see how our industry supports each other. Bar professionals (and a few select journos) are like Swiss Army knives in so many regards. You point a camera, microphone, paintbrush or music mixing board in their direction and you generally get amazing results. I can’t think of many other trades where this happens.
A big thank you to Etienne Pansengrau for that initial conversation in Casita last winter that went, “Hey Triffo, I think I may have found you a space for your bar… but it’s upstairs”. Paul Bradley, for pouring his soul (and a couple suits) into the build for us. My amazing wife Anna for putting up with all the late nights, big dreams and naughty behaviour. Chris Greenwood and the Bedroom Bars team for putting up with the builders, dust and design plans that may have had you laughed out of Shoreditch. Finally my partner and very good friend, Dan Priseman. I’m so happy I don’t have to travel all the way out to Guilford to drink your amazing cocktails anymore. We own a bar bitch!
Oh and I can’t forget… I really want to thank Jim and Val Meehan for convincing me to buy a French Bulldog to keep Anna company while I’m busy working late nights and early mornings.
BLUK: Where in the world (if NOLA was shut for the night obviously) would you go to have the best Sazerac?
DP: ….I’d probably choose French 75 in New Orleans. While it may not be the home of the Sazerac, it’s a great bar, and Chris Hannah has never made me a bad drink so I’m sure it would be great. He’s a natural host too, and they have a pretty good selection of cigars so that would pretty much tick all the boxes. Honestly, for me all drinking is about the people you’re with more than anything else, so really I’d be happy to have a Sazerac with friends almost anywhere!
JT: Great minds my man, great minds… I have to say French 75 is a favourite and Modi mixes them perfectly when Chris is away from the bar cheering on the Saints. Cure is another terrific New Orleans bar for great cocktails and not just for the Sazeracs. I just wish more places would let me smoke a cigar with mine.
BLUK: You opened at a similar time to Dead Rabbit yet they seem to have won every award since and this is your first. You’re letting the side down for crying out loud. What do you have to say for yourselves?
DP: Dead Rabbit opened about three or four months before us, and have earned every award and accolade that they’ve gained so far. I’m sure they’ll have a lot more coming over the next few years too, and really I couldn’t be happier for Jack and Sean and their team, they’ve created an amazing place to drink. I hate being compared to any other bars really, there are so many fantastic bars out there, and we’re still pretty new and finding our way, and to be honest opening a bar isn’t about winning awards, it’s about creating somewhere good to drink with friends. Obviously receiving recognition in the form of the Seal of the Sazerac felt amazing, especially after only being open for four months, and I’d love it if down the line the work that the team put into NOLA gets recognised, but I won’t be losing sleep over it if we never have to build a display cabinet to hold all our trophies, anyway they just take up space in the bar that could be used for more rye whiskey!
JT: In my humble opinion awards should be there in recognition of hard work and dedication and as long as we keep ourselves working hard and dedicated to the craft that is the most important thing – no one can see into the future. I’ve seen lots of people taking shortcuts and looking for the fastest way to the top. Personally I’ve been waiting for over ten years to open my first bar and have been actively searching in Shoreditch for over three years for the right space. It’s great that Dead Rabbit had as long as they did to plan and launch – that speaks volumes to me about hard work and dedication. With us moving so quickly signing papers and getting the bar built in 6 weeks I think we’ve had to think about a lot of different things just to get us up and running in a venue we really felt inspired by.
BLUK: You both have other roles in the industry, how do you find it balancing them and NOLA?
DP: For me it’s actually a pretty good thing, as the two work hand in hand. I’m only part time with Four Roses in the UK, so there’s time for both, plus I can use the bar during the day for meetings when I need to and I have a place to invite customers where I can showcase the brand and show how well it works. Really there’s not a lot of cross over between the two, but when there is it’s a positive not a negative. When we first opened and I was working around the clock between the bar and the day job it got pretty stressful, but now that we’re settled in it’s good to have the two roles running side by side.
JT: It’s great having trusting partners that understand synergies in modern business and the fact that while fundamentals and principals remain; the medium with which we work through has changed so rapidly in the past decade if you don’t adapt, you don’t grow. I always feel really encouraged by forward thinking, risk-taking entrepreneurs that are out to break with tradition. The brands I represent have all been hand picked personally and it’s amazing to work with young brand owners that are all out to change the game by offering different and terrific products to keep our industry as dynamic and exciting as it is. The bar is a terrific conduit and opportunity to congregate with lots of people that work in and around the industry and it’s fantastic to see it all from a different angle after working so long with a brand distribution hat on. It’s great to have journalists, wholesalers, brand owners, brand ambassadors and bartenders from all over the world stopping in to exchange ideas in a fun environment that isn’t focussed on the promotion of anything other than our guests having a great time. Which is why we all chose this profession in the first place. Swiss Army knives have lots of different applications it’s great that so many of them have landed in our trade.