My most cherished compliment was paid in a New Orleans bar on an ordinary Tuesday—if there is such a thing in this city. I was quietly considering how much I loved the taste of Herbsaint when a man three stools down asked if I was a local. Before I could reply, the bartender (an old friend) answered for me in the affirmative with, “She is as local as that Sazerac she’s drinking.” We shared a smile, with my elbows planted firmly on an oak bar some 130 years my senior.
The truth is, I am not, by strict definition, a local. However, I have been writing about cocktails for several years now, and no city pulls ink from my pen like New Orleans. I find refuge in her time-honored recipes, a nostalgic weakness in her history. For those reasons, New Orleans is in my soul … and in my glass.
What my friend was alluding to that lazy afternoon was my “spiritual” integration into the local cocktail culture. I have spent weeks in New Orleans bars, drinking in history amid the dusty floors and picked, peeling walls. To truly experience this city, you have to sip and savor her most classic cocktails, lounge idly and befriend her barkeeps.
Every time you imbibe in New Orleans, you digest something so old and legend-soaked that you realize it is not simply attributable to the bartender who poured the drink or the bar you are in, but to all of the characters and places that have influenced its evolution. According to legend, New Orleans is the birthplace of the cocktail. Fact or fable, this city is as shaped by the liquid in a cocktail glass as it is by the water in that big old river.
The cocktail’s creation is credited to a man named Antoine Amedee Peychaud, who, along with thousands of other French-speaking refugees, fled his Santo Domingo home and the violence of the Haitian slave revolt for New Orleans in 1793. These immigrants carried with them Caribbean spices and dances, sweet prayers and black magic. Peychaud, however, toted his family’s prized recipe for bitters. He eventually found work as a French Quarter pharmacist, and his Royal Street apothecary was soon dispensing his personal concoction of blended brandy and bitters served in an eggcup or coquetier.
The mixture fast became a popular remedy for all types of late 18th-century ailments and found a loyal local following. The tongue was numbed, the French was slurred and the term “cocktail” was born. From Pandora’s lifted lid came a mixology science experiment that no one could possibly attribute to one man henceforth.
Coffeehouses sprang to life in New Orleans during the early 1800s, advertising Sazeracs for a nickel. The venues were so often named after gemstones of the era that the mid 19th century became known as the “glittering decade of drinking.” Absinthe spoons beckoned with chartreuse winks in the twilight, and the party stretched on for both the wealthy and poor alike. New Orleans and all her bejeweled bars quickly gained international notoriety and the nickname “the little Paris of America.”
The 1912 edict against absinthe consumption in the U.S. was more of an annoyance in New Orleans than a law, as was the Prohibition movement during the 1920s. A concealed coffee cup, a dainty thimble nipped discretely, the citizens of the city continued to cultivate cocktails with the same vitality during the years of government-demanded sobriety. Absinthe never really left the city. If you knew which establishments to patronize, you could easily acquire a glass of fairly authentic absinthe via a bootleg bottle behind the bar—and still can. In 2007, absinthe became legal again stateside, thanks to the hard lobbying efforts of New Orleans native Ted Breaux, whose “Lucid” brand faithfully re-creates the original, drawing a whole new generation of absinthe enthusiasts to Bourbon Street’s historic Old Absinthe House.
Amble the streets of the Vieux Carré, and you can step inside some of the nation’s oldest bars, including one purported to be the oldest in America. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is said to have served pirated liquor as far back as 1772. Located toward the end of Bourbon, the bar still serves up authentic Pirate’s Punch made much like it was when its floors wore sawdust to soak up spills.
During the 1930s, the infamous Count Arnaud Cazenave was said to enjoy his half-and-half each day (half coffee, half bourbon) at his restaurant Arnaud’s. The police arrested him eventually, but he was later exonerated after an eloquent speech articulating the immense importance of serving alcohol with food. Meanwhile, over at Mr. O’Brien’s speakeasy, patrons whispered “storm’s a-brewin’” to gain access. When Prohibition was lifted, the spot became Pat O’Brien’s—still celebrated for its Hurricane cocktail.
The slang term “eye opener” is credited to the Big Easy’s own Owen Brennan, who at one time owned not only Brennan’s but also the Old Absinthe House. Brennan had a friendly rivalry going with neighboring restaurateur Antoine Alciatore, and when author Francis Parkinson Keyes published “Dinner at Antoine’s” in 1949, Brennan came back with “Breakfast at Brennan’s.” His now-legendary brunches made it officially and socially acceptable to drink liquor before 10 am.
Politicians have made deals over drinks for centuries, but in New Orleans the political circles influenced the actual cocktails. One of New Orleans' most beloved mayors, Joseph Roffignac (1820-1828), was immortalized by a signature cocktail bearing his name made with Cognac, Sazerac rye, grenadine and raspberry syrup. Notorious Louisiana governor Huey Long brought his favorite libation, the Ramos Gin Fizz, to international attention in 1935 while preparing for his ’36 election. He took his favorite bartender, Sam Guarino from the Roosevelt Hotel, with him to New York to ensure his cocktail would be properly mixed. Legend also claims that Long built Highway 61—which runs from Baton Rouge directly to the Roosevelt—as a straight shot to his favorite vice.
Today as much as yesterday, New Orleans’ drinking establishments propel the city’s extraordinary culture and character. They are the stages for the play in progress, the pages for stories yet written. There is no other city with more cocktail lore, and I for one think it’s fascinating. I’m not alone. In July 2012, Tales of the Cocktail, an annual festival celebrating cocktails and cuisine, drew more than 26,000 tipplers to the French Quarter.
Some of the city’s best bars require a trip outside of the Vieux Carré. These are the places off the tour guide’s beaten path where locals ponder life with the nearest stranger over a mojito or mint julep. I encourage “playing local” for a drink or two. Seeking out these hidden chalices of history and savoring the rich saga in each sip ensures a real New Orleans experience.
Take it from one who knows: What you can consume in this city is an experience no other place in the world can provide.
(This article originally appeared in the Where New Orleans Guestbook.)