Exploring New Orleans' French Quarter, One Classic Cocktail at a Time
The room is spinning. I gaze suspiciously at the Vieux Carré cocktail in front of me, wondering just how strong it actually is. And then I realize it's not the room that's spinning --- it's me or, rather, the bar at which I am sitting.
I'm at the legendary Carousel Bar in New Orleans' historic Hotel Monteleone, in the heart of the French Quarter. Above me hangs the canopy of an old-fashioned carousel, all lit up. Equally festive are the patrons perched at the bar, which revolves around bow-tied bartenders shaking up cocktails classic and new.
The Carousel Bar is at the center of cocktail culture in a city that really knows how to have a good time. It hosts the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival and is surrounded by famous (and infamous) bars and restaurants that have created some of the greatest drinks of all time. On a recent visit, I decided to try as many of these made-in-NOLA classic cocktails as I could.
As the locals say, "laissez les bon temps roulez," and in the French Quarter the good times get rolling at breakfast. I stop in at Brennan's for an eye-opener, taking part in a tradition that dates to 1946, when the restaurant opened. It's a bit too early to risk potential immolation with the Café Brûlot -- a flaming concoction of coffee, brandy and spices that was invented at nearby Antoine's back in the 1890s -- so I opt for the Brandy Milk Punch instead. It's one of Brennan's own creations, and it seems like a much more benign wake-me-up. The waiter warns me: have too many, and the day is over before it's begun.
Over at The Court of Two Sisters, a centuries-old courtyard building that is famous for its legendary jazz brunch, I sample a Bayou Bash. It's a sweet, fruity, punch-like concoction of Southern Comfort, fruit juices and a red wine float that won the first Tales of the Cocktail competition more than a decade ago.
Next up should be New Orleans' famous Hurricane, a fruity rum punch that's made (and consumed) in enormous batches at the party-hardy Pat O'Brien's and, well, pretty much everywhere you go. But it's not technically a cocktail -- that requires some sort of herbal component -- and, besides, I want to see what New Orleans has to offer beyond its ubiquitous drink, so I decide to head to The Old Absinthe House instead.
Right away, I fall in love with this quirky tavern, which has been playing host to one of the French Quarter's liveliest social scenes for nearly 200 years. Back in 1874, when it was just a coffeehouse, its bartender created a drink called an Absinthe Frappé (absinthe, sugar, water and shaved ice). It became so popular that the bar was renamed for it. In 1912, the herbal spirit was banned for allegedly making people crazy. (It didn't.) It took nearly a century for the ban to be lifted. As I sip the icy, anise-flavored cocktail, I'm pretty darn pleased it was.
The absinthe is worlds apart from the next famous NOLA drink I try: a creamy, mint-chocolaty Grasshopper. This mix of crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream was first shaken up back in the 1940s or '50s at the charmingly worn around the edges Tujague's Restaurant. The Grasshopper became hugely popular, then sometime in the 1970s or '80s fell dramatically out of fashion. When the bartender pours the rich drink into a champagne flute, I expect to hate it; instead, I kind of love it.
I love the also made-in-NOLA Ramos Gin Fizz even more. It's a mix of gin, egg white, cream, citrus and orange flower water, shaken 2 to 12 minutes to achieve an epic frothiness, then toped with soda. Before Prohibition, Henry C. Ramos' bar, The Stag, hired teams of 35 shaker boys to keep up with demand. Sadly, no shaker boys are at work when I stop in at the lively Creole-style Mr. B's Bistro for a fizz, but the drink is still perfectly luscious.
If there is a must-have drink in New Orleans, it's the city's official cocktail: the Sazerac. Invented by apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud in the 1830s, it is believed by many to be the original cocktail. (Three decades earlier, in 1806, The Balance and Columbian Repository defined a cocktail, designating it a "bittered sling," i.e., spirits, sugar, water and some sort of herbal component.) Still, the Sazerac is a fine drink -- whiskey or cognac, sugar, absinthe rinse and Peychaud's bitters -- and Arnaud's French 75, an ornate and popular former "gentlemen-only" space, is a fine place to enjoy it.
What could be a better finish for a day of cocktailing NOLA-style than the classic Vieux Carré? The name means "Old Square," which is what the French Quarter was originally called. The drink (cognac, whisky, sweet vermouth, Benedictine and both Peychaud's and Angostura bitters) was invented in the 1930s by the Hotel Monteleone's great barman, Walter Bergeron, and has recently made a comeback after having been lost for decades.
As I settle in at the spinning Carousel Bar, the bartender smiles and asks, "Another, miss?" Why, don't mind if I do.
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