Bourbon Street, the famously rowdy strip through the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, isn’t exactly known for its craft cocktail bars. More popular are the dozens of Frozen Daiquiri joints, karaoke bars, and well-worn dives that advertise things like “Home of the Hand Grenade, the Strongest Drink in the World!” It’s a fun (albeit somewhat exhausting) place to visit, but after a while it’s easy to find oneself in need of a respite.
That’s where Cheryl Charming and the Bourbon O Bar come in. Located just up the road from Jackson Square, smack in the middle of Bourbon Street, it’s a bit of an anachronism. Toe-tapping jazz pours out the door, almost imperceptible among the pop ballads and EDM that fill the street. Upon entering, there’s an aroma of fresh spices, and it’s impossible to go more than five feet beyond the threshold without someone politely asking how your day is going.
Turning the Bourbon O Around
But as recently as four years ago, the bar was pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of Bourbon Street. “When I got here to the Bourbon O Bar—I hate that name, for the record, but I can’t get them to change it—the O stood for ‘orgasm,’” Charming explained in her disarming, Arkansan drawl as we sipped Ramos Gin Fizzes. “Because they were selling drinks like ‘The Big O,’ and I just thought, oh my God. These days, though, I have people saying that it stands for ‘oasis,’ because it’s the only nice bar on Bourbon.”
Its status as “the only nice bar on Bourbon” is thanks, in large part, to Charming’s management skills and apparent refusal to take no for an answer. When she took over as bar manager in 2013, her acceptance of the job came with a condition: the freedom and budget to transform it from the ground up.
“When I first came here it was pretty ugly, it was painted blue, and the only good thing was this jazz mural on the wall,” she said, pointing to the vibrant streaks of color above us. “They had these ugly tables and barstools, the wood behind the bar was brown, not black, they were serving juice on a gun, dollar draft cheap-ass beers, and even though it was a beautiful spring day they had all the doors shut, and everyone was chain-smoking. So the first thing I thought was, lots of potential.”
Starting with a fairly small budget—“basically nothing for the work this place needed,” Charming laughed—she gave the place a fresh coat of paint, implemented a smoking ban, hired a brand new team, and overhauled the bar program to embrace a more craft-minded approach. Every detail, from the paper menus (which people are encouraged to steal) to the automatic Ramos Gin Fizz shaker on the back bar, was given thorough attention.
Far more important than any of the renovations, though, was Charming’s overall vision for the bar. “There really is no secret. It’s gotta look good, taste good, smell good, but the number one thing is the people you have working for you,” she told us.
“For me, the most important thing is the exit door, because that’s where people decide if they like you or not. As soon as you leave a bar, you have this feeling where you might think, huh, I really like this place, I think I’ll come back sometime. Or you walk out the door and you think, God, I’m not going back there again. So everything you can do before they get out that exit door, that’s your opportunity to make an impression.”
Like a Sponge
While the turnaround of the Bourbon O Bar seems borderline miraculous, it helps that Charming has a fairly impressive history in the bar industry to draw from. She was born in Azusa, California, but her family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas when she was young. “I still remember at five years old when we got there, I got this feeling, as soon as I can get out of here, I’m gettin’ out,” she told us with a laugh. “It was just so different living out there in the country.”
As a teenager, Charming ended up with a waitressing job at a local pizza restaurant (an escape from the manual labor at her father’s gas station), and eventually made her way to a cocktail-minded spot called John Barleycorn’s Vision. “It was my favorite restaurant in Little Rock because it had these different themed rooms. It had a WWII room, an Arabian room, a Hollywood room… I loved that. I’ve never been a fan of big, open, cafeteria-sized places, I want a little, intimate room that only you and your friends have.”
One day, while waiting tables downstairs, the manager told her she needed to fill in for one of the cocktail waitresses. “I had only heard the laughter and tinkling glassware from the bottom of the stairs, and it was intriguing, but scary at the same time. Like, what the hell’s going on up there? So I went up, and the bartender said, ‘Hey, here’s a piece of paper, here’s a pen’—one of those seasoned bartenders who had tended bar for like 20 years, and was just over it—‘Just try to listen to what they’re saying, write it down, and I’ll make it for ya.’
“I remember I was so scared, but I came back and got the drinks, and you know what? I ended up making more in tips off serving that one tray of drinks than I did working three hours down in the restaurant. I said, oh my God, this is where I belong. So, luckily, that cocktail server who called in sick never came back, and I got her position. That was my first toe in the water.”
Shortly thereafter, in 1980, Charming took a job at another Little Rock cocktail bar. “I got the cocktail server job—I had to lie and say I had a year’s experience—and in six months I was behind the bar, because I studied, I watched, I just sponged everything up. A couple months after that, the owner made me head bartender.”
A Magician Behind the Bar
From there, she went on to have a fairly eclectic career, working for five years on a cruise ship before eventually winding up at Walt Disney World. There, she became famous among the staff for her bar tricks and magic, so much so that she began teaching a class for the other bartenders.
“The staff had all these classes they were required to take, and they’d have to sit through accounting, sanitation, all this boring stuff. But mine was the fun one,” she said, grinning. “Someone told me I should write a book on it, so I started researching how to get a book published.”
Charming figured the best way to learn how to publish a book was simply to ask people who already had. “All I could do was go to book stores when authors were giving signings, wait until it was over, and ask them how they got a book published. Every one of them told me how to do it, but they all said there’s no money in books. One percent, the Stephen Kings and the Sue Graftons, are the ones who make all the money.
People see a drink in the movies, hear it in a song, read about it in a book, and it’s powerful.
“So after 350 rejection letters in a three-year period, I didn’t give up, and finally Random House got back to me. They were only interested because of the Disney World angle, but I got my first book published. What I did was I found everyone who worked at the publishing house, and I sent all of them roses and a note that thanked them for their hard work. Other authors just call up and complain about everything they got wrong, and they were shocked that I sent them flowers instead. Since then, I’ve never had to work very hard to get a book published. They come to me.”
It’s a story that, like so much we discussed at that corner table in the Bourbon O, exemplifies Charming’s commitment to simply being gracious. And it has served her well—over the last few decades, she has published a total of 15 books on cocktails and bartending. She’s currently working on her latest, Cocktails FAQ, which is due out in 2017.
A Mind for History
With a bartending career that has spanned 36 years, Charming has witnessed the industry’s transformational periods firsthand. She takes an almost academic interest in the cultural changes that brought about the craft cocktail movement, and didn’t hesitate to regale us with stories of the bad old days.
“You gotta understand, when I started tending bar in 1980, there was only one vodka behind the bar, and it was Smirnoff,” she explained. “I’ve seen every liquor category just blow up over the years. I mean, back in the day, you’d never see a back bar that looks like a forest like ours. It started with craft beer, then wine caught on and there were tons of new wines, and then finally the spirit brands realized that they were losing business to the other two categories and upped their game to compete. It was really fun to watch.”
Beyond just business, though, Charming says she finds the sociology of the cocktail world particularly compelling. “I got to see things change in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The ‘80s were particularly interesting, because that’s when the AIDS epidemic started. Before that, I mean, it was sex in the corners and free love. So when AIDS came into the public consciousness, no one knew how you got it. You couldn’t have this open, sexual energy anymore. One of the things I find fascinating is how cocktail names reflect the fabric of society. So around that time was when the Sex on the Beach came out, the Blowjob, because, by God, if we can’t do it, we’re gonna drink it.”
Similarly, she recalls a number of occasions when a simple mention of a drink in pop culture—a song, a movie, maybe a TV show—created real demand at her bars. Going as far back as the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca-Cola” in 1945 (a date she knows off the top of her head), the contemporary trend of rappers and pop singers name-dropping booze brands comes from a long and storied tradition.
“In 1962, when the first James Bond film came out, Americans didn’t drink very much vodka,” she told us, leaning forward and settling in like she was telling a campfire story. “When Bond ordered a Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred, vodka spread like crazy. Smirnoff tried to make it big in the ‘40s with the Moscow Mule, and it didn’t really take, but as soon as they saw James Bond drinking that Martini, it changed. 50 years later, he orders a Mojito with Halle Berry, and suddenly the bar is flooded with people asking for one.
“Jimmy Buffet sings ‘Margaritaville’ in 1974, and even though people were making Margaritas before, it suddenly went viral, as you’d say these days. That’s where all the fake mixers started coming in. Then TGI Friday’s opened up in ‘65, and they were on the cover of LIFE magazine for resurrecting the singles bar. They popularized a lot of those frou-frou drinks, frozen drinks, and they started making fake mixers to speed up the process. 1979 was the worst year, for me, because a song came out called ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song).’ Oh my God. I’ve never made so many Piña Coladas in my life.
“Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray, in 2004, made a Pomegranate Martini on her show, and suddenly everyone was coming in asking for one. People see a drink in the movies, hear it in a song, read about it in a book, and it’s powerful.”
None of that rich history would mean much, though, as far as Charming is concerned, if it wasn’t for good, old-fashioned hospitality. For her, that’s the raison d’être of any bar—it doesn’t matter what you’re serving if people don’t feel welcome and relaxed.
“Friday and Saturday night, when it fills up in here and the music starts, you’re going to see the bartenders making Old-Fashioneds, Sazeracs, and a row of Jägerbombs. Because I want everyone’s money,” she laughs. “We have this kind of unique thing where if you want a craft cocktail, we’ll make you a great one. But if you’re just here on vacation and want to have a good time, you work in a cubicle and you don’t care about craft cocktails, great. We’re going to show you a good time, too. We don’t stick our noses up in the air about anything, we’ll make whatever you want.
“It doesn’t matter where you work. If there was a dive bar that wanted me, I’d make that the best friggin’ dive bar you’ve ever seen. You just have to cater to your clientele. A lot of people open bars where they’re only trying to attract one particular kind of customer, and I think that’s stupid. I think you should just see who comes to you and go from there.”
That inclusive attitude, while not unique in the craft cocktail industry, certainly sets Charming apart from a number of her peers. It also probably played a role in the Bourbon O Bar being home to two New Orleans Magazine Mixologists of the Year: bartender Steven Lemley, first—“the best bartender I’ve ever worked with in my life”—followed in 2014 by Charming herself. “Steven just treated everyone like a king or a queen in every way,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about, how you make people feel.”
As for the future, Charming is pretty sure the Bourbon O will be the last bar she ever works at. She plans to stick around for a good long time, but the travel bug is an ever-present part of her life. She told us she’s saving up to buy an RV, and hopes to spend her retirement traveling the country, going “wherever it happens to be 75 degrees.”
In the meantime, though, she’s enjoying the fruits of her labor in New Orleans. A long-time participant in Tales of the Cocktail, living just down the street is exactly where she wants to be—and it doesn’t hurt that she loves her day job.
“The bottom line for me is that I think cocktails should be fun. I’m not an advocate for people drinking when they’re depressed, because it should be an enjoyable thing. And I was always laughed at when the whole mixology thing started, because even though I was using fresh ingredients and making classic recipes, I wasn’t being snobby about it. I came up with a drink we have on the menu right now that I call Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which people seem to love. Drinking adults are basically children—they just want to have fun.”
So, next time you find yourself on Bourbon Street, perhaps a bit worn out by the lunacy for which it is so famous, a trip to the oasis that is the Bourbon O might be just what the doctor ordered.
Cover Photo: Will Shenton