Tricentennial Tipples: 300 Years of New Orleans Cocktails

10:44 July 10, 2018
By: Kathy Bradshaw

Three hundred years ago, when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, discovered New Orleans and decided to make it the capital of the French colony of Louisiane, we’re pretty sure that he and his countrymen must have toasted the new settlement with a celebratory drink or two. Then, when they all realized that this new land was prone to flooding, hurricanes, yellow fever, and drainage problems, they most likely comforted themselves with another drink or two. And, when New Orleans suffered from political corruption, fires, racial conflict, and crime, it’s likely that many local citizens probably drank to forget. Or drank to deal with it. Or just drank. 

We all know that, historically, much of what New Orleans is known for is somehow connected to the boozy stuff. The invention of jazz music? It mainly developed in Storyville bars. The Saints? Around 18,000 drinks served in the Superdome every game. Our many culinary delicacies? They taste even better with a cocktail. Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, festivals? Duh.  

But what is it that New Orleanians have been drinking since the beginning of time, and why? Here is a look at 300 years of cocktails in New Orleans.

The Good Ol’ Boys Were Drinking Whiskey and Rye

New Orleans is credited with the invention of America’s first cocktail. They say that back in 1838, a man named Antoine Amedie Peychaud owned a little apothecary on Royal Street. He was best-known for creating a special cure-all bitters from a Haitian family recipe. When customers came to see him with a variety of ailments, he would offer them his famous bitters as an antidote, often mixing it with a bit of his favorite Cognac (Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand) and a splash of absinthe. This became the very first cocktail, known as a Sazerac, and was just the beginning of a long trend of New Orleans-originated cocktails to come. The Cognac in the drink was soon replaced by cheaper and more accessible American rye whiskey, just as the ailing patients drinking the elixir were soon replaced by thirsty patrons and cocktail connoisseurs of all sorts. Allegedly, as cocktails became more sophisticated and complicated, many folks harkened back to the early days of the classic simplicity of drinks such as the Sazerac. Therefore, they began nostalgically requesting “Old Fashioned” cocktails, and so the drink by that name also came into being. 

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

In 2008, the Sazerac was named New Orleans’s official cocktail. It is made with rye whiskey, bitters, a spritz of absinthe (often Herbsaint) on the glass, and a lemon peel garnish. Peychaud’s Bitters is still a popular cocktail ingredient today, and the Sazerac can still help cure whatever ails you.

Shake It Up

You know that “how dare you?” sort of look you got when you asked your mom for a pony as a kid, or that you still get whenever you ask Joe in Accounting to lend you 20 bucks or your boss for a day off? Well, try not to be offended when you get that same sort of death-wish glare from the bartender when you order a Ramos Gin Fizz (pictured left) at most places. There’s a very good reason for that.  

Originally called a New Orleans Fizz, the Ramos Gin Fizz was created by Henry C. Ramos at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street back in 1888. With a flavor just like liquid key lime pie, the cocktail tastes similar to what it might be like to sip Florida itself. It contains gin, heavy cream, lemon juice, lime juice, orange flower water, simple syrup, egg whites, and a splash of club soda. Yet this extensive list of ingredients is not the least of what makes this cocktail so labor-intensive, complicated, and bartender-infuriating. It’s what happens after the ingredients are painstakingly dumped one-by-one into the cocktail shaker, and the overall time involved in its preparation. In order to get the cocktail to take on the proper consistency—which involves the egg white foaming up into a sort of meringue—it must be shaken for a minimum of two minutes, and, back in Ramos’s day, for as many as 12 minutes. In fact, the Imperial kept 20 bartenders on staff at any given time (32 during Mardi Gras of 1915) who were employed exclusively as professional Ramos Gin Fizz mixers and shakers. 

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

This sort of consistent, long-term shaking is painful, exhausting, and time-consuming. While in some bars, the brawn and brute upper body strength of these bartenders has been replaced by mechanical shaking machines (some places even resort to using commercial paint-mixers for the drink), more bars still rely on the manual labor (and patience) of their mixologists. 

Bartenders refer to this drink as everything from “the Achilles heel of bartending” to “a bartender’s worst nightmare,” and one bartender said of making it, point blank, “It’s a bitch!” But it’s not even so much the arm workout required as it is the time investment. When you’re working a busy bar with a lot of drinks to make quickly and people waiting for you to do so, and you need to drop everything for 10 minutes to make someone a cursed Ramos Gin Fizz, “it really interrupts your flow and throws you off your game,” this same bartender explained.     

Former Louisiana governor Huey P. Long loved his Gin Fizzes so much, he brought a New Orleans bartender up to the New Yorker Hotel with him to instruct folks there how to make a proper one, so that Huey could enjoy his favorite cocktail during his frequent visits to New York City. In 1935, the Roosevelt Hotel (called the Hotel Grunewald at the time) trademarked the Ramos Gin Fizz, and their Sazerac Bar still shakes up many of these cocktails daily. But at $18 a drink, your bar tab might have you a little shaken up as well. 

Burnin’ for You

Popularized at Antoine’s Restaurant during Prohibition, Café Brulot (pictured below) was allegedly first endorsed as a cover for the hooch hidden within it. It was meant to front as an ordinary, kid-friendly, virgin coffee drink, all the while being secretly spiked. Nowadays, there’s no question about what you’re getting if you order a Café Brulot, and not only are you anticipating it to come with a little brandy kick, but also with a live show. Flambéed tableside before your awe-struck eyes, the cocktail is made with Cognac or brandy, cinnamon, cloves, orange and lemon peels, and some nice, dark coffee. Its preparation involves, in short, a metal bowl of liquid fire being ladled over a flaming orange peel.

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

There seem to be two very distinct theories as to the origins of the famous Café Brulot cocktail of Antoine’s fame, and both trace back to New Orleans. One version of the tale directly credits Jules Alciatore, the son of the original Antoine who was the restaurant’s founder, with coming up with the drink in the 1890s. Another legend claims that the Brulot originator was really the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. While gallivanting around on his pirate ships during various pirating missions, Lafitte would supposedly gather the necessary ingredients for the drink, including Caribbean spices and scurvy-fighting citrus. Back on dry land, he would then flambée the drink for a crowd of onlookers, who were so preoccupied with the fiery spectacle before them that they would fall easy victim to pickpocketing—a source of revenue that was right up Lafitte’s alley. Pirate’s Alley, that is, where this all is rumored to have occurred. They even say that Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau weighed in on the cocktail recipe, insisting that Lafitte add cloves to the orange peel, because, she said, when the flames caused these cloves to glow, it was really “the eyes to the spirit world watching.” Whether a Voodoo cocktail or a Prohibition fake-out, this is one cocktail whose fame will never burn out. 

Green, Green, 40 Shades of Green

Tujague’s is the second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans, after Antoine’s, and is responsible for the inception of the fourth-oldest cocktail on our list. The Grasshopper dates at least as far back as 1919 and was developed by the owner of Tujague’s at the time, Philibert Guichet. Guichet was participating in a cocktail competition in New York City when he decided to combine green crème de methe, white crème de cacao, and cream, and name the Astroturf-green, minty concoction after the insect of the same color. Though his Grasshopper only won him the second-place ribbon, Guichet found quite an audience for it when he brought it back home to New Orleans. 

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

The drink has the complexion of Kermit the Frog with the flavor and consistency of a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake, a really creamy mouthwash, or a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone after about three minutes in the New Orleans heat. Extending far beyond the cocktail realm, the Grasshopper has also become a common variety of cookie and other dessert.

It is one of those drinks often associated with flapper girls of the Roaring Twenties and the high-society upper crust of the 1940s and 1950s (or the little old ladies nostalgic for that period), but like certain trends of those decades, Grasshoppers have a way of frequently coming back into style. Today, Tujague’s still sells hundreds of the cocktails weekly, both to those who enjoy its cool, retro vibe, and those who want a sip of history.

She Cried More, More, More

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

In 1938, William Bergeron, the head bartender of the 360-degree, spinning Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, put a new spin on an old cocktail, and came up with the Vieux Carré. A New Orleans version of the Old Fashioned, the cocktail is composed of several ingredients, which are meant to represent some of the many cultures that have helped make New Orleans great. Just like the city itself, the drink has a mix of French (Cognac and Benedictine), Italian (sweet vermouth), American (rye whiskey), African (Angostura Bitters), and Creole (Peychaud’s Bitters) influences.

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

Then, in the 1940s, Pat O’Brien, founder of the famous bar he named after himself, came up with the Hurricane cocktail. As it was during World War II, many things were rationed, and this included whiskey. Rum, however—for some strange reason—was readily available. In fact, rum was so plentiful that it became a bargaining chip. Liquor salesmen would only sell a single case of whiskey to those bar- and restaurant-owners desperate enough to purchase 50 cases of rum as part of the same deal. Mr. O’Brien had to find a way to use up his sudden and overwhelming stash of rum, so he mixed it with fruit juices and grenadine, poured it into a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp, and sold it to thirsty soldiers. They liked the drink so much, no one even missed the whiskey, and the Hurricane (in both its forms) has become an integral part of New Orleans history.   

New Orleans Tricentennial Series: Cocktails of New Orleans

It wasn’t until the '80s that the Hand Grenade came around, but this cocktail has been blowing up the Bourbon Street bar scene ever since. The potent neon-green drink was created during the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition as the signature cocktail of the newly established Tropical Isle bar, and is only available today at one of the Tropical Isle locations or the Funky Pirate bar, all Bourbon Street establishments. The exact contents of the Hand Grenade are a carefully guarded secret, but the folks at Tropical Isle do own up to the fact that it has a “wonderful melon flavor” with “lots of liqueurs and other secret ingredients.” The drink has become emblematic of the French Quarter. You can’t miss its iconic green plastic, hand-grenade-shaped “yard glass,” walking up and down the street in the grasp of drunken Bourbon Street revelers, or discarded in the gutters afterwards. From its easy-drinking taste to its high-alcohol punch, the Hand Grenade is the bomb.

These few cocktails are really just the tip of the ice sphere. There are so many other drinks that were developed in New Orleans, or that were brought here from elsewhere, but adopted as our own, such as the Brandy Milk Punch, the French 75, and the Pimm’s Cup. And we really shouldn’t overlook our affection for tasty frozen concoctions, either.

The cocktail scene here continues to develop and transform. There are new drinks continuously popping up on cocktail menus everywhere. Someone is always experimenting with new techniques and ingredients, inventing original cocktails, or bringing back the old—shrubs, tinctures, bitters, Pop Rocks, dry ice, edible flowers, flashing lights, candy straws. While we embrace the classics, we also want to drink what’s modern and trendy as well and, especially, what’s never been done before. 

In New Orleans, we have a very vivid cocktail history, but the future also looks bright. And very boozy. 

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