Number Ten Symposium: New Orleans Cocktails

On Monday, February 11, 2019, at Number Ten, New Orleans cocktails were celebrated.

Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Jazz Town… New Orleans knows pleasure, and the number of terrific cocktails that have their origin in Delta City is impressive: Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, Vieux Carre, and de la Louisianne, to name only some of these great drinks, many carrying the notes of Peychaud’s Bitters and/or Absinthe.

The cocktails that were tasted were among many cocktails created in New Orleans, but there are quite a few other cocktails that are rightly in this category.  If you go back far enough, you’ll find the early recipes often used Cognac, but today—and, frankly, for most of the last century or more—Rye whiskey has taken Cognac’s place.  Most New Orleans cocktails use Peychaud’s Bitters, but another common element in New Orleans cocktail is Absinthe.

Peychaud’s Bitters

There are some cocktail historians—and, yes, there is such a job category!—who will place the origin of cocktails in New Orleans, and cite Sazarec as the ur-cocktail, and noting the coincidence of the French word for eggcup, coquetier, in which early New Orleans brandy cocktails were supposedly served.  Believe what you will, although I’m hard-pressed to phonetically transfer cocktail from coquetier, nor does the idea of using eggcups to serve up the liquor and bitters potions seem that believable to me.  But who can ever really know, when it comes to questions of faith.

Peychaud’s Bitters, an essential ingredient for many New Orleans cocktails.

The early days of the Sazerac must by necessity follow the creation of Peychaud’s Bitters, which was created by Antoine Amedie (or Amédée?) Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary owner and the son of a Haitian immigrant, and purportedly based on his family’s recipe for bitters during the early 19th century. Records show that in the late 1830s, Peychaud began mixing his family’s eponymous tonic into brandy toddies for friends. Such a concoction was one of the earliest known “cocktails” in the term’s original sense—a combination of spirit, bitters, sugar, and water.

It certainly isn’t surprising that an apothecary (now, called pharmacist) would be selling bitters, as these products were offered for their medicinal properties, and Peychaud’s Bitters was touted as a palliative for any and all aliments one might ever experience, just like the original purpose of Angostura Bitters, another aromatic bitters, but that’s just about the only similarity, since the flavor profile is quite different, one from the other.

Like most bitters, the recipe for Peychaud’s Bitters remains secret, except, one might assume, to some of the production folks at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, where Peychaud’s Bitters is now made. Peychaud’s is a bright pinkish-red color and clear. The taste of this bitters is variously described, but typically these descriptions include licorice, saffron, citrus, peel, caramel, and flowers. By cocktail bitter standards, Peychaud’s Bitters it is only slightly bitter. The best-known and most widely used aromatic bitters is Angostura Bitters, which follows a quite different flavor profile that comes from such ingredients as gentian root, yielding what some describe as a sharp “woody” character and a much greater degree of “bitter” taste.

Peychaud’s Bitters is best known as the bitters in the Sazerac, and both the cocktail and the bitters are strongly linked to New Orleans, but over the years Peychaud’s Bitters has been quite versatile in the cocktail world, in part because it’s not as heavy as most aromatic bitters.  Still, if you hate anise (think licorice), Peychaud’s Bitters may put you off, but fortunately many who do claim to be licorice-adverse find that in the right balance of drink ingredients, Peychaud’s Bitters is, indeed, a great element.

Absinthe

Of course, for those who don’t care for anise, there will be the additional challenge of Absinthe, once a high-proof but inexpensive French liquor, and since its origin is French, no one should be surprised by its central appearance in New Orleans cocktails.  Absinthe has a strong anise flavor, and a strange reputation and history, including being declared an illegal potion for much of the 20th Century.

There are plenty of Americans who still think that Absinthe is an illegal substance, and if these Americans were living between 1912 through 2015, they would be right. France, by the way, banned Absinthe in 1915 and lifted the ban, along with the rest of the EU, in 1988.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder… of New Orleans cocktails. A little goes a long way, however.

Absinthe, also commonly referred to as “The Green Fairy,” shows up in a lot of stories, but probably is most strongly linked to the bohemian days of late-19th Century-early-20th Century Paris, and the times of the Moulin Rouge and Montmartre and the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, not to mention scandalous writers like Paul Verlaine.

Absinthe is distilled with the leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, known as grande wormwood, which contains the drink’s “special ingredient,” Thujone, which reputedly has mind-altering effects, although a flurry of scientific analysis reveals that the trace amounts of Thujone—which in high doses cause seizures in rodents—is actually so low in Absinthe liquor that it is considered “Thujone-free,” so think homeopathic.  Of course, the production of Absinthe in the 19th Century was unregulated, and it is possible that some batches may have held significant amounts of Thujone, although contemporary analysis of old samples have yet to find such high concentrations.

The real culprit for Absinthe’s reputation as bringer of hallucinations and madness is the alcohol strength—typically 60-70% alcohol by volume (ABV)—and its very low cost.  Drink enough of any and all kinds of alcohol and you’ll be seeing things (such as the floor, in close-up) and having odd thoughts.

Here are some interesting excerpts from the May 4, 2011 BBC article by Cordella Heblethwaithe:

Absinthe’s heyday was in the mid-to-late 1800s.

“Absinthe was the queen of the Parisian boulevards,” says Marie-Claude Delahaye, director and founder of the Museum of Absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Artists would hang out in the Parisian cafes to escape the chill of their studios, and a whole social scene developed around the drink, which was nicknamed la fee verte, meaning the green fairy.

Pablo Picasso painted absinthe drinkers.

 “It was cheap, it was an industrial alcohol, and it was very easy to buy,” says Jad Adams, author of Hideous Absinthe: History of the Devil in a Bottle…. “It was the drink of the poor, and if you were a poor artist, like Vincent Van Gogh, you were going to take the cheapest kind of alcohol you could.”

Back in the mid-19th Century France, liquors of all sorts were having good sales, mainly because wine was expensive and hard to get after the wine industry was decimated in previous years by the vine disease phylloxera.

While an important ingredient in the distillation of Absinthe may be wormwood, Absinthe is also flavored with anise and sweet fennel, which also has a licorice-like flavor. Although Absinthe can be sweet—especially when served in a traditional manner of dripping water into a glass of Absinthe through a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon—but the main reason people began to “trip” on Absinthe in the first place is because they loved drinking it, and in large quantities. Ouzo, Sambuca, and Pernod are examples of similarly anise-flavored liqueur, and Pernod, especially, was long-used as an Absinthe substitute during the long exile of the real thing.

Absinthe’s scandalous tale starts in the mid-1800s, with French troops using Absinthe to protect them from malaria in their African colonies, and when they returned home, they brought their taste for the anise-flavored spirit with them. Over the next twenty years, Absinthe became massively popular in France. It was served in bars, bistros, cabarets, and cafés, and it was drunk by everyone, from the wealthy bourgeoisie to the working-class, although by the early 20th Century, the French began to again favor wine, no doubt due to the wine industry’s recovery.

(Sources: Vinepair, April 21, 2015, https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/why-is-absinthe-legal-now-because-it-wasnt-really-illegal-in-the-first-place/; BBC News, May 1, 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13159863)

New Orleans Cocktails of Note

Peychaud’s Bitters and Absinthe are far more common in New Orleans cocktails, recipe for recipe, but there are other characteristics of the New Orleans cocktail too, including the history of brandy or Cognac as a base spirit.  The Sazerac, for instance, was originally with brandy as the liquor of choice, and only yielded to Rye whiskey after Rye became the dominant American liquor.  And why did whiskey dominate?  Think base ingredients: wine grapes were hard to cultivate in young America, while rye grain and corn were plentiful, also, there are taste similarities with brandy and whiskey both being aged in charred barrels.

The Sazerac is a lot like the Old-Fashioned cocktail, which is not surprising when one considers that cocktails started as simple recipes of base liquor, bitters, and sugar.  As additional ingredients such as aromatized wines like Vermouth became available, cocktails became more complex. But just because old-style cocktails are simple doesn’t mean that they are easy to make right, and just consider what some bars do to the Old-Fashioned, adding “fruit salad,” club soda, or viciously vigorous over-muddling, to name a few offenses.

Cocktails follow a small number of structures—aromatized wines like the Martini and Manhattan; sours, like the Sidecar or Whiskey Sour; and fizzes that add club soda to complex combinations of liquor, citrus, and sugar.  There should be little surprise to find New Orleans cocktails reflect such structures.

Sazerac

Sometime in the late 1830s, according to legend, the Sazerac was born at Antoine Amédée Peychaud’s pharmacy on Royal Street. It was then popularized at Sazerac Coffee House, a saloon on Exchange Place in the French Quarter. The drink and eventually its primary source were named for the brand of Cognac that favored the drink, Sazerac de Forge et Fils. The primary ingredient was switched to Rye whiskey in 1870 due to imbibers’ changing tastes. At some point, an absinthe dash/rinse was added.

  • 2 oz. Sazerac Rye
  • Absinthe mist
  • sugar cube
  • 3 drops Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 1 drop Angostura Bitters

Coat a chilled Old-Fashioned glass with Absinthe or a substitute such as Herbsaint or Pernod (although not quite as good!), by misting or by pouring out most of the small amount of Absinthe you’ve poured to coat the glass, leaving only a hint. Add sugar cube (I prefer the cube) or simple syrup and bitters; break up sugar cube using muddler, with a lemon twist over the cube. Add ice and whiskey, stir. Garnish with an expressed twist of lemon peel. Optional: 1 dash of Angostura bitters.  This is a storied cocktail but a difficult one to make since the Absinthe can overpower the drink if handled poorly. This is a glass-built cocktail, like the Old-Fashioned, but an alternative method is to build in a shaker, stir with ice, and strain.  Expressing the lemon twist over the drink is important.

Vieux Carre

In the mid-1930s, the Vieux Carre came into existence at the Hotel Monteleone, French Quarter, New Orleans. Monteleone head bartender Walter Bergeron is credited for this cocktail’s creation. Pronounced VOO ka-RAY, it translates from French to “Old Square” and is an old name for New Orleans’ French Quarter. What it is: Rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters.

  • ¾ oz. Ritenhouse BiB Rye
  • ¾ oz. Hine VSOP Cognac
  • ¾ oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • ⅛ oz. Benedictine
  • 1 dash Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters (optional)

Like the Sazarec, Vieux Carre is also built in an Old-Fashioned glass. While the Peychard’s Bitters give a hint of Absinthe-like flavor, much of the additional flavor comes from Benedictine liqueur and the unusual doubled base liquors of Rye and Brandy, with sweet vermouth adding smoothness. This is an unusual and excellent cocktail, but care in measurement—and especially for the distinct and flavorful Benedictine liqueur—is important. Garnish: Luxardo cherry.

Ramos Gin Fizz

In 1888, at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon, Gravier St., New Orleans, Henry C. Ramos started making his version of the Silver Fizz, which is a slightly simpler cocktail in that it only uses lemon juice and no orange water or orange bitters. Ramos popularized his version of the drink at his own bar on Gravier, The Stag, from 1907 on. Part of the popularity—besides being a delicious cocktail fizz, is the show: the story is that the shaker would be passed from bartender to bus boy to server and/or any other employees, getting shaken by each as the shaker made its way around the room.  The reason for doing this is that egg white requires vigorous shaking to emulsify, since both cold (from the ice) and alcohol tend to retard emulsification and so demands a whole lot of shaking for proper incorporation of the ingredients.  Number Ten uses a variation of dry shaking, with a mix wand, and only then adds ice and shakes briefly until cold.

  • 2 oz. Haymans Old Tom Gin
  • 1 oz. cream
  • ½-1 oz. egg white
  • 1 oz. simple syrup
  • ½ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz. lime juice
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • soda water

Combine all ingredients except the soda water, using an electric mixing wand, add ice, shake, strain into a Collins glass, topping with the soda water. You can use any style Gin, but I’m a big fan of Haymans Old Tom, an older style that is less dry and juniper-forward than London Dry Gin.

De La Louisiane

De La Louisiane, which goes by several other name variants (e.g., Cocktail à la Louisiane) showed up first in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1937 book, Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em.  Who first mixed this delicious Manhattan variant and when exactly remains obscure, however, but one may safely assume it was somebody at Restaurant de la Louisiane, New Orleans, where the invention of this drink is credited.  Tastes have changed over the years, as has the quality of liquor, and the recipe in Clisby Arthur’s book has equal portions of Rye, Sweet Vermouth, and Benedictine; this ratio set would be far to sweet for today’s taste. The Number Ten De la Louisiane doubles the amount of Rye whiskey, and with so much quality Rye now available, that is a good thing indeed.

  • 1½ oz. Pikesville Rye
  • ¾ oz. sweet vermouth
  • ¾ oz. Benedictine
  • Absinthe mist
  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
The de la Louisianne cocktails getting poured with good support. Thanks, Al, for lending the shoulder!

Combine all ingredients (except the Absinthe, which will mist the cocktail glass) in a shaker and stir with ice.  Strain into an Absinthe-misted cocktail glass, garnish with a dropped or sticked cherry, and float a final absinthe mist over the drink before serving. This is a strong and flavorful cocktail, built on the Manhattan form with New Orleans genes. This cocktail is another candidate for the Vodka stretch for those who are wary of too much flavor, although, well, why worry, when the flavor is so good!

De la Louisiane may be my favorite cocktail—it is right up there at the top, at the very least.  The cocktail has a smooth and full mouthfeel and a complex flavor balance which can easily be thrown off if you don’t measure carefully.  Both Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Benedictine are very flavorful, so a high-proof quality Rye works well. First sip may come across as a bit sweet for some, but the next swallows will seem perfectly balanced.

The Tasting

We sampled only the four cocktails noted above, but in larger amounts (~ one ounce), so that participants can get a good appreciation of each cocktail.  We had a full group, there was a lot of mixing going on, and the proceedings were lively.  And this tasting was scheduled for the day before Mardi Gras, so the stars were aligned, as it were.

Other New Orleans Cocktails of Interest

While Stanley Cisby Arthur’s book is mentioned earlier, (see it in its entirety here: https://euvs-vintage-cocktail-books.cld.bz/1938-Famous-New-Orleans-Drinks-and-how-to-mix-em-3rd-printing-by-Stanley-Clisby-Arthur/24), a better and shorter introduction to more New Orleans cocktails can be found online magazine Eater, in the February 17, 2015 article “12 Classic Cocktails Invented in New Orleans” (https://www.eater.com/2015/2/17/8053293/a-history-of-classic-cocktails-born-in-new-orleans ).  There are a couple of inclusions that are questionable regarding New Orleans as being the place of origin, and there are a couple of entries that are simply questionable as cocktails, but I’m happy to go easy on Big Easy.  Many of the cocktails listed below come from this article, others from different sources (e.g., Drinkboy.com). Cocktails are listed in rough chronological order of their appearance, from oldest to newest.

Brandy Crusta

Sometime in the 1850s, this cocktail showed up at Jewel of the South, the bar at the New Orleans City Exchange, Gravier Street, New Orleans, and Joseph Santini is credited.  Served up, this cocktail uses Cognac, Grand Marnier, maraschino liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, and Angostura Bitters, and is tradionally served with an orange twist garnish called a horsehead, which is a very big piece of peel that contributes its own flavor. Certainly a precursor to the Sidecar, Brandy Crusta may well be the first sour.  Today, Bourbon Crusta is better known, but the Crusta-type cocktail availability remains rare, mainly because getting it right is hard, probably because Maraschino liqueur can be easily over-poured and throw balance off.

Brandy Milk Punch

Although the drink is now heavily associated with New Orleans, milk punch recipes date back to the 17th century. By 1862, this drink appears in an early version of Jerry Thomas’ first ever bar guide and has become very much part of New Orleans culture and history. You can think of a milk punch as an eggless eggnog, lighter and surprisingly refreshing; this cocktail is more often offered on brunch menus. Ingredients: Cognac, whole milk, simple syrup, vanilla extract; ratios are fairly flexible.   It may not have been invented in New Orleans, but this drink is very popular in this city, and much less popular almost everywhere else.

Absinthe Frappé

In 1874, this fizz drink appeared at Aleix Coffee House, later called The Absinthe Room and now known as Old Absinthe House. The inventor was Cayetano Ferrer, head bartender of Aleix Coffee House, and later proprietor of the establishment, which he renamed.  If you think of this drink as a float (as in Root Beer Float), you’ll be close; this drink contains Absinthe, rich simple syrup, and soda water. Anisette is often cited as an optional ingredient, but there are many variants, including recipes that call for egg white (that’s the way I’d go) or muddled mint.

Café Brûlot

Sometime is the last decade of the 19th Century, at Antoine’s Restaurant, French Quarter, New Orleans, Jules Alciatore, the son of the restaurant’s founder Antoine Alciatore, created this New Orleans special, with Cognac, Grand Marnier or Cointreau, dark brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and strong New Orleans chicory coffee. This is not just a New Orleans cocktail, but a New Orleans show: A grand after-dinner flaming coffee drink prepared tableside with lots of ceremony and showmanship that uses a special brûlot set with a ladle for straining out the fruit peel and spices is used, some of them made from sterling silver. What is “brûlot”?  According to Wiktionary: brûlot m (plural brûlots) 1. (nautical) fire ship. 2. scathing report. 3. (regional) coffee served with alcohol or certain spices.

Roffignac

Also showing up—or at least becoming popular—in the last decade of the 19th Century, the Roffignac became the signature cocktail at the former Maylie’s restaurant, New Orleans. The specific inventor is no longer known, but the drink was named for Count Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac, who was mayor in the 1820s. This drink contains raspberry shrub, Cognac, simple syrup, and soda water; it is like a Brandy highball with raspberry shrub.

Hurricane

The Hurricane was created during the 1940s, at Pat O’Brien’s Bar, St. Peter St., French Quarter, New Orleans, and credited to Benson “Pat” O’Brien and Charlie Cantrell.  According to the creation story, post prohibition there was a glut of rum and Pat and Charlie’s liquor distributor would only sell them other booze if they agreed to take 50 cases of rum they didn’t want. So, they concocted a mixture that used a large amount of Dark Rum, with passion fruit syrup, fresh lemon juice or lime juice, and garnished with orange slice and a cherry. If you are wandering the streets of New Orleans today, this is the drink you are most likely to see in peoples’ hands, for better or for worse.

Arnaud’s Special Cocktail

Sometime within the 1940s-1950s, this drink appeared at Arnaud’s French 75, New Orleans. The inventor is lost, but the drink is basically a Rob Roy variant, with Scotch, Dubonnet Rouge, orange bitters.

FRENCH 75

While the French 75 was already a well-established cocktail post-First World War, Arnaud’s (see “Arnaud’s Special Cocktail,” above) named its bar after it.  And, of course, the New Orleans French 75 is a variant, using Cognac instead of the more typical Gin, with lemon juice, simple syrup, and champagne.

Bywater

Recently invented at Arnaud’s French 75, New Orleans, by bartender Chris Hannah, this drink is named for his favorite New Orleans neighborhood, Bywater. And like the Vieux Carré is to the Manhattan, the Bywater is to the Brooklyn, with Aged Rum, Green Chartreuse, Averna Amaro, and velvet falernum.

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