A Lesson in Couture Cocktails in New Orleans

by  Jill K. Robinson | May 23, 2013
New Orleans French Quarter
New Orleans French Quarter / f11photo/iStock

With New Orleans' party-hearty spirit, it comes as a surprise to some that the cocktail wasn't invented in the city where the good times roll 24/7. Even so, cocktails were perfected in the Crescent City – home to some of the most beloved beverages in the country.

To start your cocktail tour of New Orleans, witness the evidence of liquid inventiveness at the Museum of the American Cocktail. The cocktail shrine has a treasure of libation learning, especially for the Sazerac – the Official Cocktail of the City of New Orleans.

The blend of rye whiskey, bitters (Peychaud's Bitters is the New Orleans-made brand of choice) and a hint of absinthe (or Herbsaint pastis) is said to have originated with a brandy-based drink made by Antoine Amadie Peychaud in the early part of the 19th century. The Creole apothecary first made the beverage in his shop in the French Quarter, and legend says that the cup in which he used to serve it (a coquetier) was what coined the term "cocktail." Never mind that the term, having been first used in print in 1803, predates this event. It's a good story, nonetheless.

Take your scholarly appetite to the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. This bar was once in a different location, and called the Sazerac Coffee House – which is how the drink got its name. If there's any bar in the world that does it right, it's here, so watch your bartender concoct yours and then sit back and enjoy.

For the next history lesson, head to the French Quarter's Hotel Monteleone and grab a seat at the Carousel Bar, built from parts of an old carousel, where the bar stools revolve around the circular bar. Unless you've had too much to drink, it's slow enough that you won't get dizzy. The bar's signature cocktail is the Vieux Carré, invented in 1938 by the man who was then the head bartender, Walter Bergeron. The name of the drink comes from the French name for the French Quarter, but don't pronounce it as you would in French class. Here, you say "VOO ka-RAY."

Born at Antoine's Restaurant in the 1890s, the Café Brûlot Diabolique is an ideal after-dinner drink. Made tableside at the restaurant, the concoction starts with cascading flaming brandy down a twist of clove-studded orange rind into spiced coffee. It's certainly showy, but with substance, much like the layered cocktails that resemble magic tricks more than bartending. Take a taste, and you'll find out why drinking and dining go hand in hand in New Orleans.

Let's wind up the New Orleans cocktail class with one important lesson about a well-known (and much-imbibed) Crescent City drink – the Hurricane. Especially popular at the legendary Pat O'Brien's Bar in the French Quarter, this potent blend of rum and artificially colored fruit punch is far from its origins in the 1940s. The beverage was originally created with passion fruit syrup, fresh lemon juice, and rum. It's incredibly sweet and stealthy. You can't taste the rum, and before you know it, you're hammered. While Pat O'Brien's is worth a visit if it's your first time to New Orleans, give this drink a wide berth and focus on quality.

What are some of your favorite cocktail spots in the Big Easy?

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