In many ways, Ella Brennan is the Forrest Gump of N’awlins: if something notable in the world of hooch happened, she was there. During Prohibition, she helped her uncle make bathtub gin. Trader Vic squired her around California during tiki’s heyday; she sipped daiquiris at El Floridita in Cuba when Hemingway probably crouched just a few barstools down. And her family built, piece by piece, the bars and restaurants that are now treasured pieces of New Orleans history, from the Absinthe House to Commander’s Palace.
And I got to meet her. Hell, I got to drink with her. 87 years old, and “Miss Ella,” as everyone calls her, still has an Old Fashioned brought to her living room by the staff at Commander’s Palace. I think I want to be her when I grow up.
I wrote about our conversation for Wine Enthusiast, conducted in said living room over said Old Fashioneds. But it’s only part of the story.
The women below also are an important part of the New Orleans arc. On the right, that’s Lally Brennan and (far right) Ti Adelaide Martin, aka “Miss Ella’s” daughter. The two are cousins and co-proprietors of the legendary Commander’s Palace, Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, and cocktail bar SoBou.
And the three women on the left are the “bar chefs” for the Brennan’s empire. (Yes, it’s just a coincidence that a woman helms the beverage operations at each, though it brings a certain neat symmetry to the story, from Miss Ella on down to the next generation of bartenders.) How is a “bar chef” different from a bartender? Abigail explained it this way: Chef = chief. “A bartender is about the hospitality aspect,” she said. ” A mixologist is about ingredients and technique. A bar chef is all of that. Like Ginger Rogers, you do it all backwards and in heels.”
If you don’t recognize where they’re seated, it’s Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick in the Loews Hotel, named for Adelaide Brennan – big sister to “Miss Ella,” and aunt to Lally and Ti. The Swizzle Stick Bar was named for Adelaide’s necklace, Ti explained: “It would dangle in her decollete – a gold swizzle stock would pop out of her necklace and she would lean over and swizzle her Champagne.”
Just as Ella Brennan learned to make cocktails as a child (Eight years old was old enough to learn, she said. “Before that, you let them put the ice in the glass.”) Adelaide passed that tradition down too, Ti reminisced.
“We learned how to make cocktails at a very early age. Adelaide didn’t wake up too early and was never on time. It was always part of our life.”
After paying my respects at Adelaide’s, we headed over to Commander’s Palace, in NOLA’s grand Garden District, where I enjoyed La Louisienne (equal parts Sazerac rye – natch, Benedictine and sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of Herbsaint and Peychaud’s for good measure, two more NOLA products). Although Ferrel wasn’t behind the bar, she had mentioned earlier that she had started out as a hostess at Commander’s Palace, while “a grumpy Italian guy worked behind the bar.” Ti knew immediately who that was:
“Mr. Leroy!” she exclaimed. “He was the head bartender at Commander’s Palace forever. We have a Manhattan riff named after him. With rhubarb. Sweet vs. bitters, and super strong.” She even remembered him growing up:
“It’s the south, and we were little girls. He was Mr. Leroy. She was Miss Ella. To everyone.”
Drink consumed, it was time to head across the courtyard to meet “Miss Ella.” A uniformed server soon followed, bearing Old Fashioneds on a silver tray: “An Old Fashioned for Miss Ella.”
Most of what we talked about that July evening is encapsulated in the Wine Enthusiast Q&A. But good stuff always gets lost on the cutting room floor, right? For example, Ella’s fond memory of the Absinthe House, which her brother Owen owned. Although their mother was scandalized that anyone would try to start a business in the nasty French Quarter, her brother helped gentrify the area. Ella called it “sophisticated” – Owen would wear a black suit in the winter, a white suit in the summer.
“The Absinthe House,” she said, dreamily. “That’s where you’d go to have an Absinthe Frappe, and Absinthe Suisesse, at least four different absinthe drinks.” (Modern-day tipplers, try to reconcile this with your current beer-sticky experience at the Absinthe House – I dare you.) She had a job purchasing whiskey for the Absinthe House, although it was done on the down-low. “Women couldn’t work on Bourbon Street yet,” she said.
“Dummies,” I heard Ti snarl, sotto voce.
Frankly, I can’t fault her for that sentiment. After all, just look at her legacy now.