Sitting at a Downtown bar for a drink with wine and spirit specialist Tanner Ducote, I realize that I’ve asked him to work on his day off. Asking a bartender to a bar, even if it’s not the bar he works at, is sort of like asking an accountant to meet you at an audit. He’s gracious, however.
A loose-fitting collared shirt hangs from his shoulders; he’s in shorts, the trademark muss in his hair tousled by the course of his day rather than design and handiwork. He smiles kindly under a bristly mustache and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. I order a gin drink, he sips a Pellegrino and grapefruit. He’s got a test in the morning, he explains, no time for spirits. He’s immediately interested in the cocktail I’m having, a breezy mixture of gin, honey, lemon and grapefruit served, from what I can tell, straight up with a twist. He’s the drink expert, not me. We talk about balance. I had hesitated to order this drink (of which I would summarily consume three) because it seemed bitter on paper, due in large part to the purported conspiracy of gin and grapefruit. When I delight in its lemonade-like refreshment, Tanner explains to me that it’s all about balance. One microgram off and the whole ship sinks.
“Measurements are key just like in any sort of chemistry or whatever you’re doing. You have to have the correct ratio of acid and sugar and bitter. Whatever you’re going for it has to be balanced,” he says. “An unbalanced cocktail tastes horrible.”
Tanner strikes me as the sort of person who’s found balance in his life. There’s a lot of joy in homeostasis. He and his fiancé, Jared, are planning a wedding, at this point looking at a destination nuptial in Maine. His sister is expected to make a near-complete neurological recovery from a tragically brutal car wreck with a recidivist drunk driver. He spends time away from his duties as wine and spirits manager at Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro in classes and in pursuit of finishing his degree in microbiology. He suspended his undergraduate track many years ago to double down on a career as a mixologist or beverage concierge or booze wizard or whatever term folks are using these days to refer to the time-honored shamen otherwise known as bartenders. He’s come a long way since busing tables at Sicily’s Italian Buffet in Broussard.
He’s an autodidact through and through — someone I take would have fi lled the confi nes of his skull with as much beverage and wine knowledge that he has, regardless of its marketability as a skill. He recently passed his fi rst level sommelier exam with the fifth highest score in his class, and from what I can tell did so mostly leaning on the info he gathered from a personal curiosity about wine. He made bar manager at Marcello’s Wine Market Café at 22, created the drink menu and managed the booze stores at the short-lived Elephant Room a couple of years later. His trajectory to success in the service industry was shaped and fueled by 10 years of excellence and a dedication to genuine chemical understanding.
“I love knowing things. I can’t stand ignorance, I can’t stand for myself to be ignorant about something,” he says.
It was a foregone conclusion that he would follow up his first level sommelier exam with a dance through the second level, which transmutes mere wine sniffers into vested clergy. Instead, a chance drive by Tulane during a trip to New Orleans reminded him how much he loved viruses. He pumped the breaks and went back to school, re-enrolling at UL Lafayette shortly thereafter.
You can still find Tanner behind the bar at Jolie’s most weekends. I push him to make a connection between his love of drink and his love of microscopic organisms.
“I love bacteria and viruses. They’re such crazy cool little organisms, because they can do so many crazy things. These itty bitty things can do so much that you would never imagine,” he says.
It’s clear by the way his eyes light up that this is a new passion, something that will sustain his insatiable need for information and understanding, one that’s clearly served him well in his work lubricating fine diners around Lafayette. Perhaps there’s no direct connection between a love of drink and a love of infecting fish with mosquito-borne diseases for the good of science, but the passion he displays is contagious. Passion is what makes self-teachers great company and great communicators of information. While you still can, pull up a chair at Jolie’s bar, grab a well-balanced drink and learn from a gifted and dazzling mind.