A historic look at classic New Orleans cocktails and how to make them at home, thanks to local pros.
by Charles Upchurch | illustrations by Laura Frankstone
There’s a reason New Orleans is home to the Museum of the American Cocktail (now known as the Southern Food & Beverage Museum). Most agree the Big Easy is its rightful birthplace and remains the nexus of appreciation and reverence for the cocktail’s utility. By the time they’ve learned the catechism, most natives in the Garden District and Metarie can whip up a brandy milk punch to make mère and père proud.
But you needn’t be within a bead’s throw of Bourbon Street to enjoy some NOLA-style reverie. After all, the Le Moyne brothers, sent by Louis XIV in 1698 to defend his claim on the Louisiana territory, had not yet reached the site of the settlement of New Orleans when they decided to drop anchor and kick up their heels. On March 3, 1699, a Tuesday, they beached it on a little delta island, named it Pointe du Mardi Gras, and went bananas for a few days. The founding of New Orleans, eventually scouted out 60 miles upriver, had to wait.
Feb. 12 is Fat Tuesday this year. In honor of Pierre and Jean-Baptiste, let’s let the good times roll right where we are. I’ve enlisted some well-informed locals to recommend four authentic New Orleans cocktails to put a little Mardis Gras esprit in your go-cup.
The Hurricane, despite being maligned as an overly sweet tourist concoction, has fueled the perpetual party at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter since the ’40s. Here’s how Peter Carlin, bartender at the Big Easy on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, stirs it up: Over ice in a tall glass, mix equal parts light rum, Myers dark rum and Cruzan coconut rum, a dash of DeKuyper crème de almond, and a splash of grenadine. Finish with OJ and pineapple juice, and garnish with an orange slice and a cherry.
The Vieux Carré, translating as “old square” and referring to the French Quarter itself, originated in 1938 at the Monteleone Hotel’s iconic Carousel Bar. It imbues sturdy American rye with the old-world flavors of brandy and Benedictine. At Battistella’s, a New Orleans-inspired restaurant and bar in Raleigh’s City Market, bartender Jenna Cyr keeps this cocktail a classic: Over ice combine one ounce Jim Beam Rye, one ounce Christian Brothers VSOP Cognac, one half-ounce Dolin sweet vermouth, one half-ounce B&B (or Benedictine), and liberal dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. Garnish with a lemon twist.
The Ramos Gin Fizz, a frothy confection now mainly associated with brunch (or perhaps, on Fat Tuesday, breakfast), was all the rage in New Orleans for decades and stands as one of its most distinctive cocktail legacies. First created in 1888 by Henry Ramos at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon, the original recipe called for 12 minutes of shaking, requiring as many as 20 bartenders on duty to do just that. Colleen Speaks, owner of Raleigh’s PoshNosh Catering and Hummingbird, lived in New Orleans for 10 years and needs fewer than three minutes for her version: Combine in a mixing cup one shot of good, dry gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, heavy cream, and orange blossom water. Shake for 30 seconds, add ice, shake for two minutes, strain into a tumbler, stir in a spritz of club soda, and garnish with a lime or orange peel.
The bread and butter of any Delta barman’s repertoire, the Sazerac, is widely recognized as the world’s first cocktail. In 1838 Antoine Peychaud mixed the toddy – featuring Sazerac brandy and his namesake bitters – in a double-ended egg cup or coquetier, from which the term “cocktail” evolved. By the 1870s, as absinthe was introduced to the recipe and American rye replaced brandy, the Sazerac cocktail had set New Orleans abuzz. At Battistella’s, it is made with the same care and authenticity as Chef Brian Battistella’s Creole gumbo: Fill a rocks glass with ice to chill; in a second glass, muddle sugar and Peychaud’s bitters; add rye and ice, stir to chill; empty ice from rocks glass, rinse with absinthe, strain in contents from second glass; twist lemon peel over drink, and garnish.
Now, about that brandy milk punch…