Martin Sawyer

(1921 – 2018)

We have no beef with bright-eyed young bartenders. They’re full of energy and eager to try new concoctions. The best ones can make a Tuesday night feel special, even if you just ordered a gin and tonic.

Here’s a secret: the best bartenders retain those qualities no matter their age. Even if that age is north of eighty. Even if they’ve been behind the stick for six decades. Martin Sawyer was one of those bartenders. His life behind the bar offers us a telling story of the twentieth-century South.

Sawyer was born in New Orleans in 1921, the year Warren G. Harding was inaugurated twenty-ninth President of the United States. Prohibition was the law of the land. In the South, Jim Crow ruled the social order. At six, Sawyer saw the Mississippi River overrun the levees in the Great Flood of 1927. At fifteen, in the height of the Depression, he left school and began working as a grocery delivery boy, making a dollar a day.

During World War II, Sawyer found work at a New Orleans shipyard. A couple of years into the war, defense production slowed, and layoffs followed. A friend of Sawyer’s was about to start work at a French Quarter bar called the 500 Club. The only problem was, the friend couldn’t read very well. Sawyer could. Did Sawyer want to come work with him as a barback—slicing fruit for garnishes, scooping ice, deciphering the orders from waitresses’ notepads? Sawyer took the job.

He could read. And he had a keen eye and a sharp memory. Sawyer began learning the trade alongside his friend, and eventually he could make the all the drinks himself. Old-fashioneds. Whiskey sours. Tom Collinses. Pink Ladies and Grasshoppers. Sawyer was working at the 500 Club during Carnival in 1949, the year Louis Armstrong came home to ride in the parades as King of Zulu. He dropped in the 500 Club and played a few numbers with the house band, the Basin Street Six. Sawyer had his picture made with Pops, but some time over the years he lost the photo.

One night, Sawyer was called to define the color line. A group of would-be customers waited at the door, and there was a problem. They might be black. The manager couldn’t tell for sure. So he found someone who would surely know. He sent Sawyer to the door. Sawyer looked at the group. They were definitely African American, same as him. He turned to the manager. “No, they’re not black,” he reported. The group was served, thanks to Sawyer’s subversion.

From the 500 Club, Sawyer moved to the bar at the Casino Royal, a cabaret. From there, he went to Brennan’s. Then, as now, the white-tablecloth establishment drew hordes of tourists and locals alike for Sunday breakfast. And then, as now, cocktails flowed. Sawyer mixed milk punch and Bloody Marys in five-gallon batches to slake the thirst of 1200 Sunday diners. For fifteen years, he shook gin fizzes, too.

In 1971, Sawyer moved around the corner to the Rib Room at the Royal Orleans Hotel, where he would serve the rest of his career. He could mix any drink a customer wanted, but he had a special way with Sazeracs and mint juleps. Somewhere along the line, Sawyer had learned that the original New Orleans Sazerac was made with brandy, before rye took its place. So, with a nod to the old and the new, he made his Sazerac with brandy and rye. He knew how to toss the glass with a flick of his wrist to distribute the anise-flavored liqueur in the glass. He expressed the lemon peel to make the surface of the drink “sparkle,” as he put it, but he didn’t rub the peel on the rim of the glass. If that hit of lemon oil is the first thing you taste, he explained, it diverts the palate.

Sawyer’s mint julep was a thing of unconventional beauty. At the Rib Room he served it in a Collins glass, perched on top of a cocktail napkin, cradled in a tea-cup saucer. When he wasn’t in too much of a hurry, Sawyer often packed crushed ice around the glass while he was mixing the drink, so that the vessel got even colder. He muddled the mint and sugar, taking care not to muddle too hard, he said, because he didn’t want you to catch flecks of mint in your straw. He mounded the ice and poured the bourbon, and finished the drink with a trifecta of garnishes: an orange slice, a maraschino cherry, and a sprig of fresh mint. The latter he frosted with a dusting of powdered sugar—an incongruous bit of snow in the subtropical Crescent City.

In 2005, Sawyer turned eighty-four years old. Thirty-four years into his tenure at the Rib Room, he was thinking about retirement. That August, Hurricane Katrina made the decision for him. Sawyer eventually returned to the city after the storm, but his bartending days were behind him. The Southern Foodways Alliance honored him with the 2005 Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award.

On December 25, 2018, at the age of 97, Martin Sawyer passed away. He bartended for 62 of his 97 years. His obituary is online here.

Photos by Amy C. Evans