As TGE’s resident cocktailier, my exile to NOLA was a chance to rediscover the classic New Orleans cocktails. Here, we touch on New Orleans’ way of living (and drinking); the experience its classic cocktails offer; and exclusive, historic recipes for a true taste of New Orleans culture at home. 

New Orleans and the Now

After quitting corporate law in 2015, I fled to New Orleans for a while.

It’s on my podium of favourite cities alongside New York and, of course, Paris. But those two are already upheld as our most vibrant and beautiful, respectively. Their status is the fruit of a broad consensus across cultures. Little old New Orleans, on the other hand, takes some understanding.

The unique allure of New Orleans is its ability to anchor you in the present. Whether experienced at its most idyllic or its most brutal, the city roots you in the Now like nowhere else.

Part of this ability is a consequence of its precarious existence. Living in the moment comes naturally when you’re at the mercy of hurricanes, corruption, water, gun crime (in places) and flying bugs that look fresh out of the Luftwaffe.

Another explanation is the climate. Sweltering in the summer months (my favourite) with apocalyptic downpours in the wet season, living in NOLA means pacing yourself according to what’s possible each day.

But above all, the city keeps you in the present thanks to its special ability to execute very pleasurable experiences, very well – and with authenticity, to boot. You submit yourself entirely to the city’s delights because New Orleans feels immediate and real.

Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.
John Goodman, LA Times

And an important part of what New Orleans does so excellently is drink! The classic New Orleans cocktails aren’t just unique and delicious – they’re a cultural reminder to savour the present moment.

Classic New Orleans Cocktails vs Modern Cocktails

New Orleans is the spiritual home of the cocktail, after all. It’s also the home of Tales Of The Cocktail, the world’s premier cocktail gathering. Liquor is central to social engagement, fueling NOLA’s creative spirit, celebrations, gastronomy and resilience in times of adversity. The video that heads this page captures the cultural backdrop very well and brings back fond memories of my time there – check it out.

But the classic New Orleans cocktails are very different to today’s. In contemporary drinks, alcohol is usually masked by easy flavours our palates and brains already recognise. There’s nothing particularly new to discover in the experience they provide. A peach bellini tastes like peach candy. A margarita tastes like oranges on crack. A piña colada tastes like pineapple and cream. They’re not bad drinks – sometimes they’re all we crave. But they’re limited.

The classic New Orleans cocktails, on the other hand, give us a flavour experience that goes beyond the sum of their ingredients. They’re grounded in unique tastes that can’t be found anywhere outside of the drinks themselves – so they take our palates to a different place. That’s why they’re important for us to know and celebrate.

Take green Chartreuse, for example – a common ingredient for tweaking the classic New Orleans cocktails. It’s made up of 130 (yes) plant extracts, carefully created by monks in France. Imagine mixing that with a whiskey from a particular part of America, with its own particular mash bill and time in barrel. Those two things, together, create a flavour experience you’ll never find in anything else. There’s no easy flavour for our brains to tie it to, either. This abstract quality of the classic New Orleans cocktails combines with a simultaneous sense of immediacy, thanks to the trademark coldness and punch they carry.

When ingredients of such amazing specificity are combined in this way, it’s pretty magical. It makes us pause, and ruminate, and talk. It makes us appreciate the journey through taste and history that classic New Orleans cocktails offer us. And, for me at least: it reminds me that I am here, right now, and that this is a great thing.

The Original Recipes

While living in New Orleans, I spent several weekends mining the city’s bartenders for the history and original recipes behind these classic cocktails. (As of 2016, some of my favourite bartenders are the illustrious Chris McMillian at Revel – pictured to the left, Justin Gehrmann at Kingfish, Chris Hannah at Arnaud’s, the guys at Cure and Coy Bryant at Bacchanal). I even corroborated these recipes with historical records I was pointed to by the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Exactly the kind of crazy, passion-fueled pursuit The Great Everything exists for.

So here’s the fruit of my labour: the original recipes and background to the classic New Orleans cocktails. Each recipe also includes an optional TGE twist, for those home cocktailiers looking for inspiration.
[Note: all recipes make one serving, except for the café brûlot which makes four. Optimal glassware varies – see images.]

Click through the tabs below and laissez les bon temps rouler, as they say in NOLA!

Background

The world’s original cocktail and the official cocktail of New Orleans, as decreed by the Louisiana legislature. Despite its simple appearance, it might just be the hardest of the classic New Orleans cocktails to pull off perfectly – but what a beaut’ when you do. (In London, the best is found at Dukes Bar.)

The creation of the Sazerac has been attributed to Antoine Peychaud – a Creole apothecary who fled (like me) to New Orleans from (not like me) Haiti and settled in the French Quarter in the early 19th Century. He was known to administer a proprietary mix of aromatic bitters from an old family recipe to treat various ailments. According to popular myth, he served his drink in the large end of an egg cup called a coquetier in French, which my dear Americans mispronounced and turned into the word cocktail.

Recipe

Fill your drinking glass with ice. In a second (pre-chilled) glass, drop one cube of sugar and just enough water to saturate the sugar. Muddle the sugar with a bar spoon until no sugar particles remain – this takes patience and practice. Add 3-5 drops of Peychaud’s bitters. Then add 1 shot of premium rye whiskey (we recommend Sazerac 12 year old, or try Old Templeton if you’re familiar with bourbon but looking for a bridge into the world of rye). If you’re after a rounder flavour with less spice, you can also substitute the rye for premium cognac – this was the original recipe, before a cognac shortage in France forced New Orleans barmen to switch. Next, add 4 ice cubes and stir for 30 seconds. No shaking.

Take your drinking glass (currently just filled with ice), toss out the ice and add 5 drops of absinthe. Swirl the absinthe slowly around the entire inside walls of the glass, so that every side is coated with it. Then pour out the absinthe (you can even put it back into the bottle if you like) – enough of it will have coated the glass to impart flavour and perfume. Fill this drinking glass with the contents of your mixing glass, cut a slice of lemon peel, twist over the glass (ensuring the oil is extracted), wipe the peel along the rim of the glass and then either drop into the drink or discard.

TGE Twist
Serve this in a champagne flute instead and top it up with sparkling wine (I’d go for a cava). If you do, you’ll turn this king of drinks into a drink of kings.
And if you want to discuss making gourmet Sazerac jello, for use in a trifle… we can do that too. Day or night. Any time. Drop us a line.
For a neat touch, you can also puncture the lemon peel with a few cloves (just push them through and they’ll stay in place) – the visual effect is pretty neat and the flavour addition, delicate.
The Great Everything Classic New Orleans Cocktails - Fr75

Background

So, this may or may not have been invented in New Orleans. More likely, it was created at Harry’s American Bar in Paris around 1925 – you can still order a soixante-quinze (75) in France today. But New Orleans gives the honour to Arnaud Cazeneuve anyway. He was a French immigrant to NOLA who arrived around that time. It was widely adopted by New Orleanians and is now closely associated with the city thanks to the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s, in the French Quarter.

This drink is a lip-smacking delight for those seeking a reviving sip of the stars amid a heady New Orleans summer. More somberly, it was also the drink of choice for French army officers during the Great War. I suppose there are worse ways to say good-bye to this world.

Recipe

In a mixer, add 1.5 shots of dry gin (I’d recommend Silent Pool for this if you can get hold of it – good herbal notes), between ½ and 1 shot of simple syrup (water mixed with diluted sugar – cheap to buy or easy to make yourself) and ¾ of a shot of fresh lemon juice. Shake briskly for 10 seconds. Next, take a (chilled) champagne flute and fill it with your mix. Top up the remaining 1/3 of the glass with champagne – the original way. (I’d avoid the temptation to use Prosecco, because of its fruit overload, lack of toasty notes/body and disappointing effervescence.) Beware: the sugar in your base mix will cause the champagne to bubble rigorously, so pour slowly! Finish with a long spiral of lemon peel, dropped into the glass.

TGE Twist
Replace champagne with pink champagne and and replace the lemon juice with fresh ginger juice or ginger liqueur, and rhubarb bitters.
The Great Everything Classic New Orleans Cocktails - VC

Background

Created in the 1930s by Walter Bergeron at the Hotel Monteleone, apparently in homage to the Vieux Carré  (the French Quarter of New Orleans) – the most pictured area of New Orleans. The Vieux Carré is to the Old Fashioned what Rhone Valley wines are to Rioja: people tend to gravitate towards it after a while, in search of more interesting flavours.

Recipe

In a (chilled) mixing glass, drop in a ½ teaspoon of bénédictine (another herbal liqueur hailing from 19th century France) that acts as a green-tasting sweetener. Add a couple of dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, and the same again in Angostura bitters. Add 1/3 of a shot each of rye whiskey, cognac and sweet (i.e. red) vermouth. (North-west Italy and southern/western France are the traditional kings of vermouth – Italy’s is generally sweeter, France’s dryer. I use either Antic Formula Carpano or La Quintinye Royal for sweet.)

Add four good cubes of ice and leave to chill for 3-4 minutes, stirring at the end. Pour into a (chilled) drinking glass and twist a slice of lemon peel over the mixture.

TGE Twist
Substitute the cognac for calvados, the heart-warming apple brandy from Normandy and add a cinnamon stick and creole bitters (not Angostura). In summer, just tweak the original by adding a pineapple slice.

Background

The love child of a Sazerac and a Vieux Carré, this classic has never quite gone mainstream outside of NOLA. Yet it combines all of the City’s heritages, with America (rye), France (absinthe, Benedictine and vermouth) and Creole (Peychaud’s bitters) cultures all represented. Originally created at the now defunct La Louisiane restaurant, probably before the Vieux Carré from the nearbly Hotel Monteleone, it disappeared from cocktail lists when the restaurant went out of business.

It has since been lovingly restored by a new generation of bartenders intent on preserving classic New Orleans cocktails.

Recipe

Nice and easy, this one, because of the equal parts. 1/3 shot each of rye, Benedictine and sweet vermouth into a chilled mixing glass. Add 3-4 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and the same again in absinthe. Add a couple of big blocks of ice leave to chill for a few minutes, then stir for 30 seconds. Strain and serve into a chilled drinking glass, with a maraschino cherry or two dropped into the bottom.

TGE Twist
Instead of a 1/3 shot of bénédictine, try green Chartreuse – one of the most fascinating and complex liquors out there. Then float a star anise on the top and add a couple of cloves, which will sink to the bottom… et voilà!

Background

This isn’t an easy one to nail, but get it right and it’s like drinking a flower straight out of Eden (I was there). Truly delicious as a brunch-time treat. It originated in the 1880s at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon, right across from Place St Charles. The Ramos brothers were there until the 1920s and in the 1915 Mardi Gras, the cocktail was so popular they had to hire 32 shaker boys to continuously prepare it. They took it in turns shaking each drink for 12 minutes…

Recipe

In a chilled mixing glass (make sure there’s no ice in there, though), add 1.5 shots of dry gin, the juices of ½ a lemon and ½ a lime, 1 shot of simple syrup (or 1 diluted sugar cube), 3 drops of orange blossom water, 2 drops of vanilla essence, 1½ shots of whole fat milk or single cream (or a mix of both) and an egg white. Give it a very vigorous dry shake (i.e. no ice should be added yet) for 2 whole minutes, or as long as you need for the ingredients to emulsify – which they won’t if you’ve made the mistake of icing your drink already.

When it’s nice and frothy, add a scoop of smashed iced (if you can – otherwise, use ice cubes) and shake again for another 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled drinking glass (no ice). Top up with sparkling water, which should increase the liquid by no more than 20%. Mix that in with a bar spoon and you should have a beautiful, meringue-like head to the drink. It’s a real showpiece.

TGE Twist
Substitute the gin for one of the many brilliant rhum agricoles of France’s Caribbean islands – preferably a white one, for this cocktail. [Where mass-produced rums are hefty and a little one-dimensional, rhum agricole prizes freshness and complexity. Despite its novelty to US and UK drinkers, in France and the Caribbean it’s often considered the purest expression of rum. Made from fresh sugarcane that’s ground into fresh juice, the best are both delicate and vibrant, in contrast to the clunky big-brand rums made from molasses.]

Alternatively, if you’re after a more discrete twist, just add Pisco bitters and a bit of grated nutmeg, and swap the sugar swapped out for honey. Lastly, try substituting the milk/cream for delicious macadamia nut milk.

Background

This is the simple, original way to prepare an absinthe drink – as advocated by New Orleanians and their French cousins since the beginning of time.

Absinthe is widely misunderstood by drinkers in the UK, but elsewhere in Europe it’s been a mainstay for centuries and in the US, the definition of the spirit has been expanded since it was legalised in 2007, leading to many creative new takes on it. When used carefully, it makes for a delightful refreshment centered around flavours of anise, wormwood and fennel. One should be enough, though…

Recipe

In a chilled mixing glass, pour 1 shot of premium absinthe, 1 teaspoon of sugar syrup and 1 shot of sparkling water. Add ice and shake for 20 seconds. Strain into a drinking glass, filled with cracked ice. Garnish with a mint leaf.

TGE Twist
You can really build out this cocktail, by adding ½ shots of dry vermouth and gin, as well as a selection of bitters of your choosing (I like Teapot bitters bitters for this one, and add stewed rhubarb to the base mix).
If you’re after something simpler, just add egg white before shaking. It’ll elevate the drink with added body and the airy, slightly sweet body of the egg white will have the same lightening effect as adding frothed milk to a coffee.

Background

This is one of the lesser known but no less classic New Orleans cocktails. Tasting of liquid fruit cake with an earthy, adult kick, it takes its name from the French word brûlot – which (in old French) means both very seasoned and incendiary. Put differently: welcome to spiced fire coffee.

Recipe (4 servings)

This is the one recipe in this post where the original recipe warrants slight simplification, as the original method would be far too time-consuming and equipment-heavy for most of us to replicate. The outcome, I find, is no less delicious.

In a heatproof pan, ½ cup of cognac, ¼ cup of curacao, 8 cloves, 4 cinnamon sticks, the peel of half an orange (cut thin) and 1 small slice of lemon peel. Bring to a simmer and, as soon as you get there, set the liquid alight with a match. Swirl the liquid around the pan until the flames extinguish, then stir in 4 tablespoons of brown sugar and 3 cups of good quality black coffee – ideally, coffee from central and South America would be best, as it (generally) tends to be fuller bodied, with citrus and chocolate notes. Strain into coffee cups and savour.

TGE Twist
I’ve experimented by adding St Rény honey liqueur and a spoonful of garam masala to this one – an upgraded treat for the most devoted gourmands.

Background

In the 1850s and 60s, many new cocktail categories were being invented, particularly sours – with their trademark inclusion of citrus. The Brandy Crusta, one of the forgotten classic New Orleans cocktails, was one of the first attempts to decipher how spirits, citrus and sweeteners should be combined. Created by Joseph Santini in New Orleans’ old Jewel Of The South bar, it’s the granddaddy of the more modern Sidecar cocktail.

As it’s essentially just a brandy complemented by an array of seasonings, it’s important to use a good quality VSOP cognac. It was impossible to find consensus on how to make this the original way, so this is my best effort at reconciling 3 slightly different recipes.

Recipe

In a mixing glass containing 3-4 ice cubes, add 1 shot of cognac, ⅕ shot of curacao, 2 dashes of maraschino liqueur, ⅕ shot of fresh lemon juice and 2 dashes of Boker’s bitters (use Angostura or Bittercube Bolivar if that’s all you have). Leave to chill further for a minute.

In that time, take a chilled drinking glass, wipe the rim with lemon juice and then coat the rim with sugar. Then, line the glass with a wide-cut swirl of lemon peel, which should stretch round the entire inside of the glass and look substantially chunkier than your average lemon-peel-in-cocktail appearance. Strain the cocktail into the glass.

TGE Twist
None – but do try a Sidecar!

New Orleans cocktail books & more

For more on classic New Orleans cocktails and other drinks, including pieces on special wines and spirits, tune in to The Great Everything Radio in the sidebar. There, Patrick and (occasionally) I share culture and philosophy in bitesize podcasts, which you can also ‘call in’ on and contribute to if you’d like. In New Orleans, you’d call this bonus content a lagniappe – a little extra something, for free! The catch is that only the last 24 hours’ content is accessible. You snooze, you lose. 

If you’ve had enough of us but are keen to experiment with some of the other classic New Orleans cocktails, we have two Great book recommendations for you – by buying either of these through the links below, you’ll also be supporting The Great Everything in the process:

First, Famous New Orleans Drinks & How To Mix ‘Em is a short but absolute classic work by Stanley Clisby Arthur, first published in 1937. This is a fundamental resource for any budding bartender or home cocktail enthusiast.

Second, for a more leisurely, modern layout, we highly recommend New Orleans Classic Cocktails, in which Kit Wohl compiles 60+ luscious beverage recipes, both traditional and eccentric, from the city’s contemporary establishments.

 

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