ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH
Bartender of the
Selling the movement and the
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
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
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