New Orleans is a cocktail town. Sure, we love our beer and wine…but here: cocktail is king. I’d even argue that, along with New York and London, New Orleans is the most important city in the world for the origin and development of the cocktail. In fact, the “cocktail” is an early 19th century cosmopolitan phenomenon, and New Orleans was always one of the largest cities in North America throughout that time frame.
Choosing only 5 cocktails to highlight, when the city is responsible for such a myriad offering of potent concoctions, is a difficult task. No sickly-sweet Hurricanes or Hand Grenades served in neon beakers are mentioned, this city is much more complex in her consumption than many would expect. So, without further ado, let’s present the 5 must-try cocktails when visiting the Crescent City:
The first printed definition of the word cocktail itself came in 1806, courtesy of Hudson’s Federalist newspaper The Balance and Columbian Repository, as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” And the Sazerac is just that: a potent mix of whiskey, sugar, water and New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s bitters. Originally an 1830s Cognac-based drink, the modern Sazerac is typically prepared with rye whiskey, and as of 2008 has been the Official Cocktail of New Orleans as declared by the Louisiana Legislature. Notes of lemon, anise and spice should be evident…and then a sip of this proper drink should convey the strength of the whiskey, the complexity of the bitters, and the subtle sweetness of the sugar mixture. This cocktail is not for those who favor sweet drinks, or drinks diluted to death with store-bought mixers. The Sazerac is for fans of the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, or for those who just plain like whiskey. And to state the obvious: do not order this drink on Bourbon Street. Order it in a restaurant, or proper bar. If your bartender is wearing a tie, that’s a good sign. One of my favorite places for a Sazerac is SoBou Restaurant, where they present a mix of rye whiskey and brandy, local cane syrup which adds notes of molasses, and both Peychaud’s and Regan’s No. 9 Orange bitters.
The Brandy Crusta
In 1862 the Father of Mixology, Jerry Thomas, did something no one before him had done: he wrote a book about how to make drinks. Cocktails, punches, slings, toddies and more. Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide featured over 200 recipes he had developed or collected by 1862, yet he only mentions one bartender (other than himself) in the book: New Orleans’ legend Joseph Santini, a native of Italy. Santini owned and presided over one of the cities swankiest outposts, The Jewel of the South. It was here that he developed the Brandy Crusta, an 1830s drink that would father a wide variety of others, including the Sidecar and the Margarita. It is a beautiful amalgam of brandy, orange liqueur, fresh lemon juice and bitters, served in a sugar-rimmed glass topped with a large lemon peel. Here’s the thing: this is an obscure drink, even in New Orleans. Luckily, however, two of the city’s top bartenders recently teamed up to open a brand-new Jewel of the South bar and restaurant, prominently showcasing the Brandy Crusta.
Another obscure 19th Century beverage from New Orleans, and named for the French Count and city Mayor of the 1820s, Joseph de Roffignac. Many claim this potable to be the “Father of the American Highball”, as a highball is technically a spirit-based drink with a carbonated beverage, such as tonic or soda water. Here we have brandy or cognac as the base, with soda water and a himbeeressig, or raspberry vinegar syrup. The drink is deceptively boozy, but has nice balance of sweetness from the raspberry, and sour coming from the vinegar. Rounding it all out is the soda water, making it light and stimulating. For a delicious Roffignac, head over to the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. While you’re there, you may want to also order a Vieux Carré cocktail, as it was invented there back in 1938. Think of a Manhattan, but amped up New Orleans style.
Ramos Gin Fizz
This drink from the mind of New Orleans bartender Henry Ramos debuted in 1888, and it’s been a hit ever since. This is a complex, time-consuming drink, so a word to the wise: don’t order this at a crowded bar with the bartenders in the weeds unless you immediately want to lose favor with them. The ingredients? Fresh lemon juice, lime juice, orange flower water, dry gin, egg white, powdered sugar and milk. Our favorite spot is the Bourbon “O” Jazz Bar in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. They employ shaker machines to save time and produce the luxurious frothiness the drink is known for.
The only drink from the 20th Century to make the list, and the only drink that could substitute for a dessert. A now world-famous cocktail, the Grasshopper first appeared in 1919 at Tujague’s Restaurant. Head there still to enjoy this combination of Creme de Menthe, Creme de Cacao, brandy and heavy cream. The resulting flavor: what melted mint chocolate chip ice cream would taste like if it had booze in it.
If you want to make it easy on yourself, take advantage of Doctor Gumbo Tours where you can always book the Cocktail History Tour (daily 5pm) to visit 4 different venues, sample up to 6 different cocktails, and learn all of the fascinating history behind them. As stated earlier, it’s hard to choose just 5, so here are the Honorable Mentions and where to sip them:
- Vieux Carré – Carousel Bar (Hotel Monteleone)
- Hurricane – Tiki Tolteca
- La Louisiane – 21st Amendment
- French 75 – French 75 Bar (Arnaud’s Restaurant)
- Absinthe Frappé – Belle Epoque
- Pimms Cup – Napoleon House
- Classic Daiquiri – Cane & Table
- Mint Julep – Revel Café & Bar