MyNewOrleans.com
Chris McMillian
SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Bartender of the Year:
Chris McMillian

Selling the movement and the city
Bar UnCommon, Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, 817 Common St., 525-1111, BarUnCommon.com

If there are stories you want, then stories you will most certainly get. Do you want to hear about the colorful history of this city? Do you want to know about how certain cocktails came to be invented? Are you interested in why fresh ingredients are better than mixes?

You should speak with bartender Chris McMillian at Bar UnCommon in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel in the Central Business District.

McMillian hails from Shreveport, but he has pretty much lived all over, the son of an itinerant mother. After stops in California, Alaska and Texas, he was ready to settle down with his own family in Austin. His mother was living in Algiers, so he visited in 1984 – during the World’s Fair.

A vibrant cocktail and drinking scene caught his interest. Since the family’s experiences working in bars goes back several generations to Ireland, Chris decided that Austin could wait. Almost 30 years later, it’s still waiting.

“I really never wanted to stay in one place so bad in all my life. I was truly hooked by this town,” McMillian says. “I got on with a number of bars. I had to make a living for my young family. But the bonus was the fantastic surroundings associated with my profession. I was impressed, actually in awe.”

McMillian worked banquets at the Royal Sonesta. He tended bar in several swanky places. There were rich experiences to be had, and with so many places ready to give this bright, hardworking young man a chance – as well as a decent wage – suddenly the future was in view.

It was an easy step from there after he saw several bar service trade publications on the boss’ desk. “Here was a topic that looked interesting. A bit of alchemy, hardware and glassware knowledge, interfacing directly with the clients, and an interesting array of raw products, all combining into a pleasurable experience,” McMillian says. “I thought I could really get into that.”

Also about this time there occurred a renaissance of cocktails with New Yorkers Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Gamin extolling the virtues of fresh ingredients and freshly made drinks. The stage was set for Chris to walk on and ply this craft. He did so locally at the intimate, but no longer open, Library Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

McMillian didn’t only learn how to make cocktails; he immersed himself in the history of the drinks and even researched literary references. He has completed a series of 20 videos (available through nola.com) not just about making cocktails, but also on the proper service of and stories about the drinks.

One of his most-requested roles/drinks is his performance of the poem “Ode to a Mint Julep,” penned in the 1880s. While reciting the tribute to this very Southern cocktail, McMillian creates the classic iteration, muddling mint, adding bourbon and crushed ice, sweetening to taste and serving the drink in its proper silver cup. The Smithsonian Institution on the Mall in Washington, D.C. requested that Chris stage a performance in the atrium of the National Museum of Natural History. The presentation was filmed by the museum and is now part of their permanent collection.

McMillian and his wife, Laura, together over 30 years, were founding members and still serve on the board of directors of the Museum of the American Cocktail, based in New Orleans, yet actually created by famous mixologists from around the world.

Each month the couple stages a seminar activity at the museum, located in the Riverwalk inside the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, bringing noted mixologists, historians, authors and industry thought leaders to New Orleans to meet with Museum members and developing talents. Education and the betterment of the field are McMillian’s passions.
“The people I admire in my profession are now my dear friends,” McMillian says. “I’m happy that I’m considered one of the leading lights of the awakened cocktail scene. And I’m even more amazed at the travel opportunities and the memorable experiences this has afforded me, taking me literally around the world to spread the gospel of this exciting pursuit.”
McMillian continues to ply his craft at Bar UnCommon. He devours history and how-to books as well as periodicals. And he loves to tell stories about New Orleans’ culture and history. He is a charming, gregarious man. Just the sort of guy you hope you find while enjoying a libation.

– Tim McNally

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