I must have tried every single combination of liquor, juice, and bitters by now. After years of imbibing the best (and worst) cocktails that the greater New Orleans area and its bartenders have to offer, I know every possible flavor combination that you can throw in a glass and serve up to a thirsty adult. When I’m shopping around for something that truly excites the palate, my taste buds are always drawn to something more decadent, something smoky. I like my drinks like I like my wintertime fires: dazzling, dangerous, and delicious.
Fortunately for a smoke-lover like me, I can find a plethora of smoky cocktails around town any day of the year. Here’s a fair warning to anyone wanting to try something like the drinks mentioned here: these drinks are not for the casual drinker and not for the faint of heart. They will light a fire in your belly that you may find impossible to ever put out with anything else.
Prominently displayed on a corner of the Freret Street cultural corridor, Cure (4905 Freret St.) is like that old-fashioned neighborhood apothecary that used strong herbal liquors to fix whatever was ailing you. They’ve got a well-rounded menu of specialty libations, but it’s the El Topo that salves my soul. The tiki-inspired drink includes citrus and mint notes that are supported by a dark, smoky mezcal. Ace Hotel’s picturesque rooftop bar Alto (600 Carondelet St.) also uses mezcal in its smoked cocktail, Fuego. This drink may be too hot for you to handle since it also has some tequila, ancho chili, and cacao. If your mouth catches fire, there’s a whole pool nearby to put out the flames.
Bourbon also makes a great base for a smoked cocktail. Because the liquor must be aged in new charred white oak barrels, it is inherently woody and rich. You get a side of smooth jazz with your cocktail at the Davenport Lounge (921 Canal St.) in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel; the Bourbon St. Embers gives off a sensuous burn with burnt orange-infused Knob Creek Bourbon, vermouth, and vanilla syrup. Toups South (1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.) infuses the bourbon in the Toups’ Manhattan with spicy Tabasco wood chips. You’re going to have to travel through a winding passageway in the Warehouse District to find CellarDoor (916 Lafayette St.) and their devilish Rosemary’s Baby. This bourbon concoction is made a little sweeter with agave syrup and rosemary, but loses its innocence with a dash of Hellfire Bitters. The swampy and sophisticated restaurant Sac-a-Lait (1051 Annunciation St.) really knows how to make a great bourbon cocktail. You can sip the smoke with the Cypress Sunset: serrano-infused Buffalo Trace Bourbon (pictured above) with black pepper and coriander syrup. Their Old Fashioned is anything but: A Buffalo Trace base with double-strength demerara, Angostura bitters, and an orange peel that’s been touched by a real flame make this traditional cocktail stick out. Not to be outdone, the wildly popular restaurant Compère Lapin (535 Tchoupitoulas St.) makes a Louisville Slugger with bourbon, apple brandy, earthy chicory, and a touch of heavenly smoked vanilla.
Speaking of brandy, the rich, flavorful spirit is used prominently and amazingly in Sac-a-Lait’s Vida Gada. You won’t even need to eat dinner there once you’ve gotten a mouthful of these incredible tastes. For this drink, the restaurant infuses Copper & Kings brandy with bell pepper and mixes it with tobacco-infused syrup, lime, cabernet wine, chocolate bitters, Angostura bitters, and lemon verbena. All of this is brightened up with the addition of spicy and bubbly ginger beer. Compère Lapin turned to brandy as well for the Taylor Bird Sazerac. They mix cognac with rich rye whiskey and barrel-aged bitters. The cuisine and cocktails at the southeast Asian-inspired restaurant Maypop (611 O'Keefe Ave.) also take notes from southeast Louisiana. The Sazerak de Roi is a play on the traditional drink with Sazerac Rye Whiskey, Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac, absinthe, and delectable Peychaud’s barrel-aged bitters. Barrel Proof (1201 Magazine St.) mixes cognac with a dash of lemon that is oddly complemented by the heat and savoriness of ancho chilies.
Loa (221 Camp St.) bar in the International House Hotel likes to conjure up as many ancient spirits as they serve, and you’ll be completely intoxicated by the hot and heavy Don’t Overlook Alice drink. This little lady is a voodoo brew of Apple-Bay laurel leaf liqueur, white pepper, and sugar, which is kissed with sparkling wine for a refreshing twist. Last and certainly not least, your mezcal sour cocktail at Cane & Table (1113 Decatur St.) called the Todo Bien is an unparalleled mix of flavors, featuring passionfruit, a little spice, and smoked salt. You should also wrap your brave lips around their Sweeter Reaper (pictured above). This drink includes French vermouth, rum in a spicy pineapple juice, lime, and hot South Carolina reaper chilies.
If you think that you can handle the smoky flavor of these cocktails, you can truly call yourself a hedonist—you have a desire to imbibe fire itself.