When it comes to the cocktail, historically at least, New Orleans is arguably the most influential city in the world. Not only does it boast some amazing old bars and saloons, but it is also the birthplace of some of the most famous, inspiring, and complex cocktails being enjoyed around the globe today.
Chris Hannah, a well-respected bartender working at the classic Arnaud’s French 75 bar, has seen firsthand the rebirth of these classic drinks. “These drinks are making a revival because of press and the Internet,” he claims. “People want an authentic New Orleans experience, and these famous drinks were invented here. All the tourist brochures have them, and there are so many Web sites that guide tourists to do local things when visiting here. And, well, the Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz are among the things to do.”
“Absinthe is yet another thing piggybacked by this fascinating town,” continues Hannah. “Guests ask all the time if we have absinthe. It’s normal, only I always wonder to myself why they are really interested. Because I say, ‘No, but we have Pernod,’ and they always answer, ‘Oh god, I hate licorice.’ It’s the allure of absinthe that they want. And that’s my job behind the bar: to keep it alive.”
Proud Libations Legacy
The Big Easy’s cocktail culture began its life in the French Quarter, and while much of its charm has been diminished by the tawdriness of Bourbon Street, there remains an uplifting nostalgia in many of its great watering holes (which were relatively untouched, thankfully, by Katrina). Not even a devastating hurricane could wash away the historical importance of this proud and resilient city’s great drinks. Presented below are profiles of the most enduring.
The Sazerac is one of those drinks that is rarely ordered, but every bartender should know how to make it. It also is one of the few cocktails whose preparation method hasn’t really changed since about 1870, when it morphed into what we now know as the Sazerac. This cocktail is held in such high esteem in the Crescent City that it recently was anointed by the Louisiana legislature as the official cocktail of New Orleans.
Originally concocted with Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac as its base (hence its name), the drink moved to rye in the late 1870s, when Americans had a yearning for the taste of something more patriotic. In addition, the phylloxera epidemic in France killed the grapevines and, consequently, the Cognac industry, which is based on grape fermentation and distillation. The drink originally made its home at the Sazerac Coffee House (now, sadly, the home of a Walgreen’s).
The Sazerac started as a tonic of Cognac and a few dashes of the local Peychaud bitters, produced by the apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud at his pharmacy on Royal Street. When the absinthe and sugar were added is anyone’s guess. In his 1937 tome Famous New Orleans Drinks,Stanley Clisby Arthur attributes these supplements to Leon Lamothe, but cocktail historians argue that Arthur’s book has more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese.
The Sazerac cocktail is not for the faint of heart. It’s a powerful drink that, if not approached with caution, will knock you on the floor faster than a Mike Tyson uppercut. When mixed well by a skilled bartender, however, it is as sublime as any cocktail ever created.
A caveat: Like many drinks in this town, the Sazerac is often overly sweetened, and even the dilution by the crushed ice doesn’t save it. Politely ask your barkeep to be gentle on the sugar.
Those who dismiss creamy drinks as passé obviously have never put a well-made Ramos Gin Fizz to their lips. As one unnamed poet once proclaimed, “It’s like drinking a flower.” Sure, the cocktail is a pain to make, but the pure alchemy of such an unlikely combination of flavors is nothing short of extraordinary.
When Henry Ramos first introduced this drink in 1888 to the fine folks of N’awlins at Meyer’s Restaurant, it took off like wildfire—so much so that when he moved over to the Imperial Cabinet Saloon, a virtual army of “shaker boys” was employed to prepare the drink. The cocktail’s popularity soared, and during the 1915 Mardi Gras, dozens of shaker boys took turns in shaking the drink for the 15 minutes necessary to attain the sublime consistency that made the drink a sensation. Many of today’s bartenders overlook the romance of such a wonderful libation; instead they scowl and cringe at the thought of making one.
Danny Valdez, one of New Orleans' renowned bartenders, has a far different attitude. “As a person who makes thousands of Sazeracs and Ramos Gin Fizzes a year and recounts their histories and legacies time and time again, I love that these drinks have made a resurgence in modern mixology,” he states with enthusiasm. “The [impression] on the many who drink knowing how wonderful and culturally rich these iconic drinks are is indescribable.”
Valdez warms to his subject, noting, “Initially, both drinks seem unapproachable. Some dislike whiskey, and others think anything with milk belongs either in a blender or with dessert. That’s when the barman shows why he is a storyteller, commanding their trust and attention by weaving a story and painting a picture of a time when the cocktails made sense—when people would line up to watch a line of men furiously shaking a perfectly crafted cocktail for hours . . . a time when it was not uncommon to have hundreds of businessmen sipping Sazeracs midday while talking business.”
Almost unheard of outside New Orleans (save for the growing band of cocktail geeks around the country), the Vieux Carré (in English, Old Quarter) is a lethal little number. Named after the original term for the French Quarter, the drink was created in the Hotel Monteleone sometime in the 1930s by Walter Bergeron. (Incidentally, the Monteleone was a home away from home for the young Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams; both spent countless hours in the lobby’s Carousel Bar.)
Phil Greene, a local lawyer and cocktail historian who is also a descendant of Antoine Peychaud, relates that Bergeron named the drinkthe Vieux Carré “to pay homage to the demographics of the Quarter. It has American whiskey, French brandy and Bénédictine, Italian vermouth, and two types of bitters, Angostura and Peychaud’s, with Caribbean roots—all reflecting the denizens of the Quarter.”
Less a cocktail and more an eye-catching way of preparing a drink, the Absinthe Frappe became hugely popular in the cafes of Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. Since its arrival in the “little Paris” of the United States in the 1830s, this refreshing little number has been a favorite of discerning locals seeking that wonderful buzz that only absinthe can provide.
Perhaps more famous than the drink itself is the bar that put the libation on the drinking map, the Old Absinthe House, opened in 1807 and now located on the corner of Bourbon Street and Bienville. It’s a remarkable building and a must-see. The front bar gets some of the spillover from the Bourbon Street masses—hardly cocktail sophisticates—but the backbar and dining room is a glorious, timeless space that seems a world away. The two absinthe fountains from the original Absinthe House stand proudly on the bar. What better way to enjoy a little of the green stuff while drinking in a piece of history?
The Mint Julep has many incarnations, and no single bar or state can lay claim to its invention. While considered to be an indisputably American beverage, the julep goes way back to ancient Persia, where the natives consumed a drink called a julab (translated as rosewater), a practice they continue to this day. How julab traveled across the oceans and morphed into our julep is still a mystery. In any event, the julep found its spiritual home in the South and particularly in New Orleans, where it became the perfect foil for muggy, sun-drenched days and balmy nights.
The classic julep is a bourbon-based cocktail, but there are variations that use rum, Tequila, and Cognac and peach brandy (the Georgia Julep, a personal favorite). As with the martini, there are numerous ways to make a julep, but as Stanley Clisby Arthur states, “[a julep maker] takes his life in his hands by even suggesting the way a real Julep should be prepared, for there are as many recipes for this truly Southern drink as there are southern states in the Union.”
Local legend Chris Macmillan, who tends bar at the Renaissance Hotel, is a fascinating character and local historian. If you order one of his famous juleps and ask him nicely, he will make it while reciting a beautiful poem, “The Mint Julep: The Very Dream of Drinks,”by J. Soule Smith.
Worth a mention, but not worth drinking, is the fabled Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s. Caught in the quagmire that is Bourbon Street, the drink is now made from a very sorry-looking powdered mix, and like its close cousin the Hand Grenade, it comes in a branded piece of plastic nonsense.
Basically, it’s a tropical punch, and any decent mixologist can make a very tasty version from scratch using fresh ingredients and serving it in a standard highball glass—not the usual 18-ounce hurricane. The drink was created in the World War II era, when saloon keepers were forced to buy several cases of rum (which was in surplus and was the most popular spirit in the South) with their regular spirits order. A spate of rum drinks was created, including the Hurricane.
Bartender Chris Macmillan shares some final thoughts on the New Orleans cocktails that have stood the test of time. “We define classic as being a standard, model, or guide. These drinks in many cases were the prototypes for their respective drink families and established the principles that guide us today. Simply put, what worked then continues to work today. Here in New Orleans it is quite easy because our visitors come wanting to experience the flavor of the city, and we love to celebrate our culture and culinary traditions.”
The recently reopened Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC) is a noteworthy addition to New Orleans, and the location is fitting, considering the reverence that this city holds for what is America’s greatest gift to the hospitality world. For anyone interested in the fascinating evolution of the cocktail, a visit to the museum at the Riverwalk Mall is a must.
½ oz absinthe
2 oz Cognac or rye whiskey
¼ oz simple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud bitters
Fill old-fashioned glass with crushed ice; add absinthe and allow to sit while preparing drink. Combine Cognac or rye, simple syrup, and bitters in mixing glass and stir with ice. Discard ice and absinthe from old-fashioned glass, leaving absinthe coating on inside of glass. Strain mixing-glass ingredients into prepared old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lemon twist.
Ramos Gin Fizz
2 oz gin
½ oz lime juice
½ oz lemon juice
1¼ oz simple syrup
1 oz heavy cream
4 drops of orange-flower water
1 small egg white
Splash soda water
Combine gin, lime and lemon juices, simple syrup, heavy cream, orange-flower water, and egg white in shaker. Shake very hard for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain into small fizz glass (no ice). Add soda water.
1 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Cognac
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 barspoon of DOM Bénédictine Liqueur
Dash Peychaud bitters
Dash Angostura bitters
Combine rye, Cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, and Peychaud and Angostura bitters in old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Stir and garnish with a lemon twist.
2 oz absinthe
1 sugar cube
Pour absinthe in tumbler. Place sugar cube on a slotted absinthe spoon (spoon with small holes) and straddle spoon over tumbler.
Slowly pour very cold water over sugar cube until it dissolves. Stir and serve.
¼ oz simple syrup
8–10 mint leaves
2 oz bourbon
Muddle simple syrup and mint leaves in metal julep cup. Combine crushed ice and 1 ounce bourbon. Stir well, add remaining bourbon, and stir again. Fill julep cup to overflowing with crushed ice. Garnish with a large sprightly sprig of mint.
1 oz light rum
1 oz dark rum
½ oz Galliano Liqueur
¾ oz orange juice
¾ oz pineapple juice
½ oz lime juice
½ oz passion-fruit syrup
Dash Angostura bitters
Orange-slice and pineapple-wedge garnishes
Combine rums, Galliano, juices, passion-fruit syrup and bitters in ice-filled shaker. Shake and strain into ice-filled highball glass. Garnish with orange slice and pineapple wedge.