New Orleans might not lay direct claim to being the birthplace of the cocktail; the credit is a contested one involving matters of semantics and publication. Where the subject is libations, the recording of details can rightfully get a bit fuzzy. But nevermind all that, because New Orleans lives up to one of its nicknames—The City That Care Forgot—and more or less goes about behaving as though the honor is theirs. As the home of the Museum of the American Cocktail, and the preeminent annual bartending conference Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans owns its piece of cocktail history more so than any other American city, and is indeed the home of some of the longest standing classics.
Daniela Jagemann is director of marketing for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, and offers the following insight as to the longevity and ferocity of New Orleans’s cocktail scene, “I think our cocktail culture stems from hospitality in a general sense. In the South, the first thing that happens when you enter a space is that you’re offered a drink; and with that the cocktail culture evolved and continues to do so. The professionals here have always been at the forefront and have taken that seriously and want to maintain (the culture); its existence and resilience.”
A classic cocktail is largely accepted to be a drink still in common rotation that originated between the 1862 publication of self-entitled Professor Jerry Thomas’s “Bar-Tenders Guide,” believed to be the first cocktail recipe book, and the end of Prohibition, in the mid-1930s. Those classics with a New Orleans pedigree provide a storied look into how many cocktails came to be: a peculiar alchemy between the medical, the cultural, the political, the corporate, and the pleasurable.
If you seek a cocktail to act as a metaphor for all that’s wild and wonderful about American cocktail culture as a whole, look no further than the Sazerac. In some circles, it’s thought of as being the oldest American cocktail. Other libatious scholars are keen to dispute that. It may or may not be the first cocktail to utilize absinthe, whether imported legally, illegally, or made locally. It shifted gears at some point during its tenure, from being a Cognac-based drink, which was popular with the Franco-American culture, to utilizing rye whiskey, which was easier to come by. There’s some suspicion that its back story was somewhat fabricated and post-dated by a business man hoping to profit from its burgeoning popularity. It’s the official cocktail of New Orleans. No, it isn’t.
In a 2009 interview between David Wondrich, beverage scholar and author of “Imbibe,” and the Times-Picayune, Wondrich provides the following texture as to the staunch loyalty of New Orleanians to the Sazerac: “This is the real story. The rest of world went changing and, you could say, (following) other gods. And in New Orleans people found the best cocktail and they stuck to it with just grim determination through Prohibition and every fad and trend.”
Amidst the controversy, here’s at least an undisputed detail: Around 1830 a Haitian immigrant apothecary in New Orleans named Antoine Amédée Peychaud created a gentian-based bitters with a light floral character and a riotous magenta color. It was, and remains, the defining characteristic of a proper Sazerac. You can swap out just about any other ingredient for a different brand or similar-flavored component, but without Peychaud’s Bitters, it’s just not a Sazerac.
As storied cocktails go, it’s possible that the Sazerac is the least ostentatious on the surface. It is prepared chilled and without rocks but down, (no fancy stemware,) and often with a discarded garnish. But its flavor is all strength and voodoo. Whether you subscribe to its claim as the preeminent potion in The Big Easy, any NOLA barkeep worth his or her salt better make you a good one.
Where to have one: Because they’ve staked a particularly audacious claim by naming the bar for the cocktail, visit The Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Shake Things Up
If the Sazerac is all about understatement in its appearance, the Ramos Gin Fizz is all about the showmanship. It requires a minimum 15-minute creation process. The shaking of a Ramos nearly requires a brigade (and at one time, had one) for an outcome that is more perfumed, boozy soufflé than beverage. “It’s almost like a shake,” says New Orleans bartender Murf Reeve, an appropriate comparison, given the action involved. “The flavor is light and bright,” even if the effort is anything but.
And where the Sazerac story is haunted by speculation and rumor, the RGF has an air-tight, uncontested tale to support its creation.
It goes: In 1888 Henry C. Ramos put a spin on a pre-existing variant of a Fizz cocktail at his bar, the Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street. A typical Fizz consists of gin, sugar, and lemon juice, shaken then topped with soda. A Silver Fizz adds egg white for extra froth. Ramos, in a decadent burst of moxie that could only be born in the laissez-les-bon-temps-rouler spirit of New Orleans, took a Silver Fizz and added heavy cream and orange blossom water. Orange blossom water is a by-product of the distillation of bitter oranges for their essential oil, likely something introduced to the U.S. via the French/Caribbean population in New Orleans. The drink moved with him to a new bar he opened, The Stag, in 1907, where Ramos employed upward of 35 bartenders just to shake the drink in shifts in order to keep up with demand.
Finally, the Ramos Gin Fizz was forever preserved into the archives when Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long flew a New Orleans bartender from the Roosevelt Hotel up to New York City’s New Yorker Hotel to teach the staff there how to make it so he would never be without his favorite drink.
Bartender’s note: If you’re going to order a Ramos in New Orleans or anywhere else on earth, proceed carefully; keep an eye to how busy the bartender is, and an ear to his or her enthusiasm for your request. If either seems amiss, recant, or suffer surly service or a poorly made Ramos. If a bar explicitly lists it on its menu? Fair game.
Where to have one: Basically, if it dares to be on a menu it probably means the bar has done its homework, and you’re more likely to find the necessary enthusiasm in a younger brigade of bartenders: Bar Tonique, and newcomer Angeline are worth a go.
Let’s first address the prononciation here, ostensibly the most complicated aspect of the drink and its history. “VYOO car-AY,” translates to Old Quarter in French, and refers to what we now call the French Quarter in English, where it was born, and after which it was named. For the purposes of sounding more native than less, most N’awlinians will likely call for a “VOO car-AY,” skipping the chewy French-accented “yuh” in the middle of the Vieux. Got it? Good.
And that’s where the controversy begins and ends with this cocktail. The Vieux Carré was created in 1938 by the head bartender at the Hotel Monteleone, Walter Bergeron. Nowadays most new cocktails are riffs on existing cocktail formulas, and it seems likely that even as early as the 1930s the Vieux Carré was a nod to a Manhattan, which by 1938 had been around for a handful of decades. Some part of every ingredient of a traditional Manhattan —rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters—is swapped out for a component reflective of Crescent City culture: Cognac, Bénédictine, and Peychaud’s bitters. The result is a lightly haunted Manhattan, or a softer Sazerac. Andrea Heming, of aforementioned Angeline, also credits its versatility, “It’s the perfect blend of sweet, bitter, and strong,” she maintains. “I can make that cocktail for a variety of customers with different preferences, and it never fails to impress.”
Traditionally, Manhattan variations are named for neighborhoods, and the Vieux Carré may have very well been one of the frontrunners on this score.
Where to have one: Since it’s possible to go to the source, even if the original bar is no longer, visit the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone.
The Hurricane is a bit of a young interloper by classic cocktail standards, developed around the early 1940s, missing the official mark by half a decade or so. But one glance down Bourbon Street on any given night to the crowds with ubiquitous plastic glassware in hand is proof enough of its importance vis a vis staying power.
As cocktail folklore goes, it has a scrappy, can-do story going for it, reminding us of the ongoing ability of New Orleans to roll with the punches. It also reminds us that despite the oftentimes genteel and urbane culture of New Orleans, it is in fact a port city in the tropics. Post-Prohibition, eponymous tavern owner Pat O’Brien was faced with unloading a mess of unpopular rum that he was pressured into buying from his distributor in order to get access to the whiskies that more people sought at the time. In order to offload it, he created a sweet, boozy daiquiri variation with passion fruit nectar and grenadine, and in an inspired PR move that has never met its equal, put the drink in a lamp-shaped glass and gave it away to sailors.
While sweet, ultra-proof libations aren’t necessarily show-off moves for ambitious bartenders, the Hurricane still holds a special place. “The Hurricane celebrates our tropical heritage,” says Reeves. “Making (these) cocktails is always a pleasure as they remind me that New Orleans is unique and magical.”
Where to have one: obviously, Pat O’Briens, but get one to go and take a walk to truly bask in the magical atmosphere. Singing like a drunken sailor? Optional.
A Little More New Orleans
Header image courtesy of Unsplash.