Jewel of the South

Opened in 2019, this creole cottage-set bar has quickly become a must-visit for any cocktail aficionado. Hamish Smith gets the lowdown on the offering 

WHAT: A New Orleans tavern serving refined renditions of the city’s favourite classics

WHO: Owners: John Stubbs, Victoria Espinel and bartender-owner Chris Hannah

WHERE: New Orleans, US

If you’re a cocktail nerd and you’re new to NOLA, you’ll have a checklist. But once you’ve ticked off the likes of Carousel Bar & Lounge, Napoleon House and French 75, where some of New Orleans’ classic cocktails were invented or popularised, you’ll likely want to try something that’s more New Orleans now. There are a few contenders, but Jewel of the South is probably the city’s best, leaning as it does from the present into the past. Set in a creole cottage on the fringe of the French Quarter, this restaurant bar seamlessly transitions from its tavern-esque main room to its leafy courtyard and dining room upstairs.

While the building lends classical vibes, it was owners John Stubbs and Victoria Espinel who brought authenticity to the liquid offering of this 2019-opened bar. Teaming up with local hospitality figures Nick Dietrich (formerly Cane & Table) and Chris Hannah (ex-French 75), the bar had two of the best drinks minds in the city. They knew the New Orleans cocktails and how badly these drinks needed a caring home. While Dietrich left during the pandemic, Hannah has gone on to cement his status as the pre-eminent drinksmith of the city – helping to put New Orleans back on the (fine) drinking map. While Hannah was busy making and serving some of the best drinks in town, I spoke to his partner, John Stubbs, about how Jewel of South has quickly earned its name.

The team, from left: Paul Greagoff, Shaun Merritt-Williams, Chris Hannah, Shannyn Brand and Vince Lund

So, John, how did you come to open Jewel of the South?

The building that Jewel of the South is now in is a creole cottage and had been a residence for 200 years. I purchased it for rentals but at the last minute, the city decided to ban short-term rentals in one neighbourhood – this one, the French Quarter. So immediately this property was worthless [as a rental] – I didn’t know what to do with it. Nick and Chris – who I knew – came to me with this somewhat esoteric idea to revive Jewel of the South, a New Orleans cocktail lounge owned by a guy called Joseph Santini in the 1850s. He was the creator of the Brandy Crusta. I thought it was nerdy, but a great idea. I was going to be the financial partner and landlord, with Chris Hannah the creative force and Nick Dietrich the operator. After the pandemic it was me and Chris and I had to learn how to operate a bar and restaurant. Now I’m all in on Jewel.

Is it fair to say that this is a one-stop shop for great renditions of NOLA classics? Yes, we’re known for doing the classic cocktails of New Orleans. There is a lot of care and intention that goes into them. I don’t think there are many people more informed or experienced on New Orleans classic cocktails than my partner Chris Hannah, who runs the bar programme. Certainly nobody has ever made more French 75s. And classic does not mean static. For example, the Jewel Sazerac is unique – different from other Sazeracs in town, with Madeira and rancio sec instead of cognac, Herbsaint instead of absinthe, served undiluted straight from the freezer like a Dukes Martini. We feature the classic Brandy Crusta [Remy 1738 cognac, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, lemon, Luxardo maraschino, Angostura bitters], a facsimile of the original recipe, but also playful, seasonal versions, that may, for example, swap the base spirit for something else, such as mezcal. Then there’s the Upper Crusta: a richer, fuller version with Remy Martin XO cognac, Grand Marnier and Cointreau.

Chris Hannah is considered one of the US’ best bartenders – what’s he like to work with?

In my opinion, Chris is one of the world’s best bartenders. He has exceptional understanding of history and the foundations that underpin his craft. He is also an artist and an innovator. This unique combination allows him to elevate and advance craft cocktails with rare nuance and precision. Beyond his work as a developer, he is a committed hospitaliarian (a word Bobby Stuckey from Frasca Food & Wine taught me) and creates a warm and welcome environment for anyone in the room. And again, this is done delicately – you don’t even notice. But you feel it.