The Roffignac’s tale

00:00 May 03, 2013
By: David Vicari
[Courtesy of Anne Berry]

A dashing French count, a mysterious German syrup, grapevine-eating insects and a long-shuttered New Orleans restaurant figure into the Roffignac cocktail. Though its origins are elusive, you can drink what seems to be a pretty accurate rendition at the Little Gem Saloon: your choice of Cognac or rye, raspberry syrup, and soda.

Whether you go with Cognac or rye whisky, authentically speaking, depends on whether you think that Count Louis Philippe (that's Mayor Joseph Roffignac to us, as he was New Orleans' mayor from 1820 to 1828) invented this highball.

If he did - and I've found no proof of it - then Cognac would be the logical choice, as he would have likely favored a French spirit. Roffignac died in 1846 at the French estate left to him by a rich aunt.

It would be another 20 years before phylloxera (bugs that literally sucked the life from grapevines) began to destroy European, and especially French, vineyards.

In the decades it took to recover, American bars and restaurants that couldn't get or afford the now-rare Cognac used rye instead, most famously in the Sazerac.

At the height of this Cognac shortage, in 1876, Maylié's restaurant opened at Poydras and Dryades and began serving what would be their signature cocktail, the Roffignac. Given the timing, it's very likely that Maylié's made them with rye whisky.

(In 1937's "Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em", Stanley Clisby Arthur also suggests that the cocktail originally called for whisky.)

If you're still debating, consider the raspberry syrup called for here: it's actually a raspberry-vinegar shrub. The confusion comes from chroniclers (Arthur among them) misspelling what should have been "himbeeressig", or German for raspberry vinegar syrup.

Though I love rye, it might be too sharp and spicy against this tangy fruit shrub, further sparked by the soda. Cognac adds a soft suppleness instead, threading in orange blossoms and sugar-glazed grapes. It may be the most authentic drink on a list already steeped in classic variations.

Little Gem Saloon, 445 S. Rampart, 267.4863. Catch live shows - jazz, blues, funk and more - almost daily (or nightly); during Jazz Fest, the bar is also serving a special rum punch.

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