Vicki Arkoff takes a historic drinking tour of the 200-year-old bars in New Orleans, Louisiana, that invented the world’s first “coquetiers.”
When most people think of New Orleans, they think of jazz. But to culinary historians and happy-hour devotees, it’s clear that New Orleans made a much more important contribution to the world: the invention of the cocktail.
The Sazerac was America’s first cocktail, and its history is a classic folk tale: one part truth and one gossip, with a dash of cloudy memories. In the early 1800’s, pre-Civil War, Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a Creole druggist working in the French Quarter, mixed medicinal elixirs for patients complaining of everything from consumption to “ladies issues” to, well, sobriety. He called the enjoyable concoctions “Sazeracs,” named for the Sazerac cognac added to bitters made by Peychaud himself. He measured the narcotic ingredients in an eye cup called a “coquetier.” Pronounced “ko-k-tay,” some linguists believe the word to be the origin of the word “cocktail.” Look at an antique double-ended egg cup and a standard bartender jigger and what do you see? They’re nearly identical — hence the credit that history bestows on Peychaud as the genuine father of the cocktail. The building where Peychaud’s drug store was located is still standing at 437 Royal Street, so raise a ToGo cup toast to the man when you’re in the neighborhood. Then raise another at the Sazerac Bar in the grand Roosevelt New Orleans (newly restored by Waldorf Astoria Hotels), which has been serving the most authentic Sazeracs recipes since 1893 when it was the Grunewald Hotel.
In 2008, the 190-year-old Sazerac became New Orleans’ official cocktail, which must contain Herbsaint, Sazerac Rye whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and Peychaud’s Bitters (still manufactured in the South from the doc’s original recipe) to be considered the real deal. Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt New Orleans: 123 Baronne St., one block south of the French Quarter.
While you’re there, you might as well also have a Ramos Gin Fizz, another genuine New Orleans recipe that you’ll have a hard time finding done right elsewhere. It was invented in 1888 by gentleman barkeep Henry C. Ramos at his Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street, which was sadly closed by Prohibition. It later became the house drink at the art deco Sazerac Bar where Depression-era Louisiana Governor Huey Long resided and drank Ramos Gin Fizzes nearly every day. Once, on a government trip, Long stayed at a New York City hotel that had the nerve to claim it was the home of the Ramos Gin Fizz. After one terrible sip, Long phoned NoLa’s Sazerac Bar with orders “to send your best gin fizzer on to New York by plane so he could teach these New York sophisticates how and what to drink.” See for yourself with the newsreel footage of the event at the Museum of the American Cocktail, 1 Poydras Street, Riverwalk Marketplace, Suite 169.
The Absinthe Frappe was first concocted at the French Quarter’s famed Old Absinthe House bar in 1874 by Cayetano Ferrer, who served it to such illustrious lushes as Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and General Robert E. Lee, to name just a few. The potent licorice-flavored drink – a mixture of Absinthe, Anisette and soda water — was a hit with musicians and artists, but was outlawed in 1912 when it was proven that Absinthe’s narcotic main ingredient — wormwood extract – had a few side effects: hallucinations, delirium, insanity, and death. A safer recipe has since been tweaked, so I went to try my first sip in its original setting, where The Absinthe Frappe has been poured for nearly 200 years. Old Absinthe House, 240 Bourbon St.
If you’re game to explore French Quarter bars with other cocktail fiends, I highly recommend the “Scandalous Cocktail Hour Tour” for adults-only lead by Historic New Orleans Tours. Their truly fascinating guides lead small groups on foot, stumbling from historic bar to bar where you can sample cocktails while listening to historic accounts of Pat O’Brien’s, Jean Lafitte Blacksmith Shop, the Carousel Bar, and others, plus genuinely juicy stories about the city’s shocking past. Brothels! Mafia! Burlesque! Oh my!
Stay tuned for part two of the cocktail tour of New Orleans by Holiday Goddess Vicki Arkoff.