New Orleans cocktails - a history of classics

 

There are three reason why I’ve chosen this moment to write about the ‘big easy’ and the drinks that come from there; firstly it’s that time of year when bartenders start thinking about Tales of the Cocktail, secondly I’ve just opened a New Orleans inspired bar in London (NOLA) with a couple of business partners, and lastly I’ve been lucky enough to be nominated for ‘best cocktail author’ at TotC this year, which all means that New Orleans is on my mind a lot at the moment. Writing the menu for NOLA, I knew right away that I wanted to have a page of New Orleans classic cocktails, and I wanted our team to have some knowledge about their origins, so my research began.

OK, so enough with the shameless self promotion! New Orleans is an amazing city, with a unique culture that spans back generations. In terms of cocktail heritage there can surely be few cities other than New York, London and Paris that have such a long and rich history. In other words there’s a lot to write about New Orleans when it comes to cocktails!

I’ve chosen the drinks that appear on my menu at NOLA, the Sazerac, Hurricane, Ramos Gin Fizz, Grasshopper, Vieux Carre, La Louisiane and French 75 (not strictly a New Orleans drink, but strongly associated with the city). They’re all drinks that I love for different reasons, and all very different in style, but somehow they reflect the fact that New Orleans has had a vibrant cocktail scene through the generations, and in every era there has been at least one drink that has become a classic cocktail known around the world… quite a feat!

SAZERAC

One of the earliest drinks that can legitimately claim to be a true cocktail (the definition of a cocktail is spirit, sugar, bitters and water), the Sazerac can trace it’s history back to the early 1850s. It seems that the Merchant Coffee House, changed its name to Sazerac House around 1850 and started serving Sazerac cocktails, a preparation of Cognac, locally produced bitters and sugar, stirred down with ice. The bitters in question were the now ubiquitous Peychauds bitters, prepared by Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a local druggist (pharmacist) just down the road from Sazerac House.

Why the name Sazerac you ask? Well the drink was originally prepared with the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand of Cognac, a product imported by the previous owner of The Merchant Coffee House. The Sazerac House changed hands several times and in 1870 Thomas Handy took over ownership; at around this time the Cognac industry was hit with phylloxera, a disease that wiped out the vines used to produce the grapes for Cognac. Thomas Handy decided the best solution to the problem was to continue making the Sazerac, but use Rye Whiskey as the base ingredient instead of Cognac. To this day Rye is more commonly used, although many bars offer the choice of Cognac, Rye or half-and-half, and in 2008 the Sazerac became the official cocktail of New Orleans.

Despite the long association with Peychauds bitters, I prefer mine prepared with Bitter Truth Creole Bitters, and I’d advise going light on the sugar as it’s easier to add sweetness to a drink than to dry it out!

NOLA SAZERAC

50ml Bulleit Rye/Remy Martin VSOP cognac (or 25ml of each)

5ml gomme

4 or 5 dashes Bitter Truth Creole Bitters

Chill a rocks glass down with crushed ice while preparing the drink. In a mixing glass stir the Cognac/Rye, gomme and bitters with plenty of cubed ice until chilled and diluted to taste. Empty the rocks glass of crushed ice and rinse with absinthe. Pour your cocktail into the prepared glass and finish off with the expressed oils of a lemon twist, which should always be discarded and never allowed into the drink!

RAMOS GIN FIZZ

While the Sazerac may be the official cocktail of New Orleans, the Ramos Gin Fizz might just be the best loved and most distinctly unique to New Orleans. In 1888 at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street, Henry C Ramos invented the New Orleans Fizz, a drink later renamed in his honour. His concoction was an instant success, and combining Gin, lemon and lime juices, gomme, orange flower water, egg white and cream, made for a drink that needed some serious shaking to achieve the desired consistency. In fact the drink took so much shaking that in the era before prohibition up to 20 bartenders would work together in teams to shake the drink for the required 12 minutes! By the 1930s though a recipe was suggested using a mixture of crushed and cubed ice in the shaker to make the production a little faster, and while this method works well, it still needs a hell of a hard long shake to get the desired results.

The Ramos Gin Fizz was further popularised by the Roosevelt Hotel and Governor Huey Long, who loved the drink so much that he once flew Sam Guarino, a bartender at the Roosevelt, up to New York to train the staff of the New Yorker Hotel how to correctly prepare one, so he could get a Ramos the way he wanted it when he visited.

This isn’t a drink you’ll see on a lot of cocktail menus outside of New Orleans as to make it well a bartender needs to dedicate a lot of time to shaking it. That being said, at NOLA I felt we couldn’t get away from having this great classic on the list, and so my bartenders are getting a daily work out from all the shaking we do!

RAMOS GIN FIZZ (NEW ORLEANS FIZZ)

50ml Gin (I like beefeater for this, but any solid, juniper led gin can work)

20ml lemon juice

10ml lime juice

15ml gomme

50ml half-and-half (half cream, half whole milk)

1 egg white

3 dashes Bitter Truth orange flower water

Add all ingredients to a shaker with a few cubes of ice and a scoop of crushed ice. Shake at a steady pace until your arms get tired, then hand it to a friend, or your bar back to shake until his arms are tired too. When he hands it back give it a last hard fast shake with all of your might. Strain into a highball or Catalina glass and top with a small splash of soda. You know you’ve got it right when the straw stands up in the middle of the drink easily!

FRENCH 75

This is the only drink on the list that isn’t a New Orleans invention, but has become an institution in the city. The origins of the drink are still slightly fuzzy, but the first written mention of the drink comes from Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, in 1919. Unfortunately the drink listed as a French 75 in that particular volume bares little resemblance to the drink we know today.

The problem with the French 75 is that it’s a different drink depending on who you ask about it. To many it is Gin and lemon shaken with sugar and ice, then strained into a champagne flute (or saucer) and topped with champagne. To others it is served in a Collins glass, with cubed ice, but essentially made the same way. Take a trip to New Orleans however and you find the gin replaced with cognac and the drink is often served long and over ice.

To my mind the best recipe is still the gin one served in a flute, but to be fair to the traditions of New Orleans, the cognac based version still works mighty well indeed. At our bar we offer it both ways, but never, ever on the rocks as to me this ruins the drink and leaves it over diluted and watered down. Either way you like it it's one of the few great champagne cocktails ever created in my opinion.

FRENCH 75 (NEW ORLEANS STYLE)

50ml Cognac (a VS or VSOP works fine here)

20ml lemon juice

10ml gomme

Champagne top

Shake the cognac, lemon and gomme with cubed ice and strain into a chilled flute. Top with champagne and garnish with a long lemon twist.

GRASSHOPPER

 The Grasshopper is possibly my favourite New Orleans cocktail, and a true guilty pleasure if ever there was one! Created in 1928 by Philibert Guichet of Tujaque’s for a cocktail competition held in New York, this is one of the few classics that can clearly be traced to Prohibition, an era when cocktail competitions should have been a thing of the past. The drink placed second in the competition, but has survived to this day as a classic cocktail, so in the end maybe it was the winner after all.

On paper it sounds sickly sweet and rich, but in fact it is an absolute pleasure to drink. The classic recipe calls for equal parts crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream, but at NOLA we’ve tweaked it just a little to create what we feel is a less sickly and more quaffable version of the classic. So far it has proven to be one of our top sellers, especially amongst bartenders, many of whom come in after their shift and make this their first drink of the night.

GRASSHOPPER (NOLA STYLE)

30ml Briotet crème de menthe

30ml Briotet crème de cacao

50ml half and half (half cream, half whole milk)

Shake all ingredients hard with cubed ice and fine strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with two small mint leaves.

(COCKTAIL DE) LA LOUISIANE

The Louisiane was the house cocktail of the once famed restaurant of the same name in New Orleans, and while the exact date that it was created is unrecorded it was certainly being made by the early 1930s and almost certainly predates that. Some people find this cocktail to be very sweet, due to the healthy measure of Benedictine called for in the recipe, but the aftertaste especially is a flavour sensation well worth experiencing.

Originally made with equal parts Rye Whiskey, Benedictine and sweet vermouth, and heavy on the bitters, a slight adjustment to the ratios yields a much more balanced cocktail in my opinion. That being said I still highly recommend trying the original recipe at least once so you know how the drink was intended to be served, and if you like it that way then stick to the original. Personally I like to lower the amount of Benedictine so that I can enjoy more than one without overloading my sweet tooth!

The reaction to this cocktail is always surprising. Most people take their first sip and instantly think it's too sweet, and the bartender must have done something wrong. A few seconds later you see their faciel expression change as they appreciate the aftertaste, and by the second and third sip their in love with the drink.

LA LOUISIANE (NOLA SPEC)

30ml Bulleit Rye

30ml sweet vermouth

15ml Benedictine

2 dashes Bitter Truth Creole bitters

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients with cubed ice and strain into a chilled coupe. I leave this one ungarnished although a small lemon twist doesn’t hurt it one little bit.

VIEUX CARRE

Another classic from a similar era to the La Louisiane, the Vieux Carre can be traced to the Hotel Monteleone, where a bartender by the name of Walter Bergon first made it in the 1930s. The name means ‘old square’ and refers to the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the Monteleone is situated.

The Vieux Carre is still a house signature cocktail at the Monteleone, and sipping one while sat at the slowly rotating (yes, it’s the bar that spins, not the room!) carousel bar is a must if you’re in town. It’s a complex cocktail, but when made correctly it’s one of my favourite drinks. Our house version at NOLA is served as a sharing drink for two, called the Deja Vieux (see what we did there?!) and is served chilled in a small carafe, so the customers can top up their drinks as they please.

DEJA VIEUX (VIEUX CARRE FOR TWO)

50ml rye whiskey

50ml cognac

50ml sweet vermouth

10ml Benedictine

2 dashes Bitter Truth Creole bitters

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients with cubed ice and strain into a small carafe, placed in crushed ice to keep it chilled. Serve the carafe and two small rocks glasses filled with cubed ice, or two small antique cocktail glasses. Two small dishes with cherries and lemon twists on the side for the customer to use as required are a nice touch and make the drink a bit more interactive.

HURRICANE

This iconic drink has become a mainstay of revellers visiting New Orleans to party, and more than any other drink mentioned here, has probably suffered in quality and reputation unfairly over the years. Created in the 1940s at Pat O’Brien’s bar, it was originally intended simply to be a way of using up excess rum. Back in the 40s suppliers in New Orleans had too much rum, but the fashion was for drinking whisky, so they made bars order a certain number of cases of rum in order to ‘qualify’ for ordering whisky. Faced with more rum than he knew what to do with, Pat O’Brien whipped up a long refreshing drink that was heavy on rum, (containing white, golden and overproof rums), masked by fresh fruit flavours and served long over crushed ice in a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. He had no idea he was creating the drink that would last through the decades and for which he would become famous.

These days the Hurricane has suffered being made with a commercial ‘hurricane mix’ and has become a watered down version of the origin. It’s ancestor, when made correctly is a sublime and refreshing drink that packs a punch, but delivers on flavour. The only variable when making it is the passion fruit, and depending on which product you use you may have to adjust the sweetness. At NOLA we not only offer the classic Hurricane, but also several twists on it, including a Nuclear Hurricane and a Hurricane Sandy. A percentage of the sales of all our Hurricanes goes to charity in New Orleans.

HURRICANE

30ml Havana Club 3yo

30ml Havana Club Especial

30ml lime juice

20ml passionfruit puree (we use Funkin)

10ml gomme

15ml Wray & Nephew (floated on top)

Combine the first 5 ingredients in a Hurricane glass and ¾ fill with crushed ice. Churn and top with more crushed ice to create a dome on the top of the glass. Float the Wray & Nephew overproof rum on top, and garnish with an orange wedge and a cocktail umbrella over extended so it looks like it has been hit by a hurricane!

New Orleans has a long history when it comes to cocktails, and is currently going through another cocktail revival. There are some great bartenders working in bars across the city, and I have no doubt that this generation are capable of creating another future classic New Orleans cocktail to add to the history books.

 

Comments

Sazerac

Hi Dan, recently read a piece in the latest Imbibe which suggested the cognac was actually replaced by rye to appease the American taste buds, and that phylloxera actually had nothing to do with the swapping of spirits. Apparently further evidence of this was the fact brandy stock in the sazerac coffee house was still fairly healthy even when cognac became available in the US again. Apparently they’d never become close to running dry?
Wondered if you’d heard this theory before and if you could shed any more light on it? Phylloxera has always been the story I’ve told but this threw me slightly!
 Thanks

Love your bar

I am from NOLA and worked at at both Pat O’Briens and La Louisiane in the 80s. Great bar. Its got the vibe. I truly appreciated all the Dr John played; 1st concert I ever attended just after his 1st big hit Right Place, Wrong Time. Your Hurricane is better than Pat O’s; their’s used to be mixed with an electric boat motor (no joke). But sorry, I’ve never heard of the La Louisiane Cocktail, and I worked the bar there with Bill Lambert, a La Lou vetern. Finally, I agree with the absinthe rinse, but note that when absinthe, the real one, was made illegal in NO we use Herbsaint.

good article, but where is

good article, but where is the absinthe in your sazerac?

absinthe rinse

Hey Anonymous,

if you read the description of how to make the drink. you’ll see that I recommend rinsing the chilled glass with absinthe…. I wouldn’t dream of missing out the absinthe but in my opinion it should be a rinse, not in the drink.

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