Ode to the Cocktail
Pour history in a glass and experience the art of drink in New Orleans where cultural heritage does not limit itself to architecture and music, but also lends itself to the distinctive lore of the cocktail. In a city rich with hearty indulgence and fueled by celebration, it is no wonder that the American history of the cocktail begins here, in a secretive Old World city, where the first cocktail is said to have been invented. New Orleans is also home to the Museum of the American Cocktail and hosts the annual Tales of the Cocktail, a culinary festival dedicated to all things “cocktail.”
Mixologists of the 18th century were not just bartenders, they were chefs, shaking things up behind the bar and concocting more than just thirst-quenchers, but also mastering quintessential quaffs that today define some of the great cocktails of New Orleans. Although its definition has changed over the years, a cocktail was originally defined as a mixture of distilled spirits, sugars, and bitters. The anatomy of alcoholic beverages dates back to Greek alchemists in ancient Alexandria, and from those ruins of early distillery flows a prominent future of inebriation and inspiration.
Said to be America’s first “branded” cocktail, the Sazerac was fashioned by a Creole apothecary in the late 1830s when Antoine Peychaud mixed a dash of his secret bitters with brandy and absinthe, serving it in eggcups or coquetiers, thereby creating an early version of the cocktail. The Sazerac is the city’s official cocktail, its layers of warmth effused with spice and honey, and within a single sip, one can feel the glowing burn of rye, the bite of bitters, and the sweetness of sugar creating a symphony of complex flavors.
In the same fashion as drinking a Manhattan when in New York, when in New Orleans, drink the Vieux Carré Cocktail. Created in the 1930s by bartender Walter Bergeron, the Vieux Carré contains American whiskey, Italian vermouth, French cognac, and Creole bitters, ingredients that represent the multicultural composition of the Vieux Carré neighborhood – hence its honorable name. With a moniker based on its shapely glass, The Hurricane was born in a tavern owned by Pat O’Brien who overstocked on rum and in trying to rid himself of the unpopular potion, he poured passion fruit syrup, fresh lemon juice, and light and dark rum into a hurricane-lamp-shaped glass, ironically inventing a popular, potent drink paying homage to the precariously geographic position of New Orleans.
Named for Louis Philippe de Roffignac, who escaped the Paris guillotine to serve as mayor of New Orleans in the early 1800s, The Roffignac cocktail is a 19th century highball made from rye whiskey, raspberry syrup, club soda, and garnished with fresh strawberries. The Roffignac is a reminder of the mayor’s achievements in New Orleans such as organizing the first fire department and the first public education system, introducing street lighting to the city, and laying the first cobblestones in the French Quarter. To drink a Roffignac is to drink down a part of New Orleans history.
Whether it is the trade secret recipe of Tropical Isle’s Hand Grenade, the health tonic-turned-cocktail that tastes of lemonade called Pimm’s Cup, or the Ramos Gin Fizz that was a favorite drink of former Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, cocktails will always be a part of New Orleans culture. From the frothiness of a classic Milk Punch to the flaming coffee concoction of Café Brûlot used to disguise alcohol during Prohibition, each tasty tonic, each crusta or cocktail, each sweet quaffing is filled with folklore. Specialized drinks in New Orleans contain more than just alcohol; in New Orleans, cocktails contain a splash of culture.