reopens in New Orleans
, a July festival that celebrates the art of sophisticated sipping, depicts a glass tumbler adrift in a life ring with the slogan "Save the Sazerac." The life ring is a sly reference to Katrina, of course, and the devastation that followed. But the image also suggests more: that many historic drinks such as the Sazerac, a classic New Orleans cocktail woven into the city fabric more than even Pat O'Brien's Hurricane, are edging toward oblivion.The good news: Many in New Orleans are taking steps to preserve the city's richly spirited history. While a few of the more hallowed New Orleans bars remain shuttered after Katrina, including the Library at the Ritz Carlton and the Sazerac Bar at the New Orleans Fairmont, others are now overflowing, serving up the past by the glass to eager visitors. The French Quarter is open for business, the city wants tourists to know, and the business of the city is, in large part, tippling.
It's not a huge surprise that cocktails are helping New Orleans get back on its feet. The cocktail is among the most enduring American inventions. In the two centuries of its existence, the cocktail has survived unspeakably bad liquor, the killjoys of Prohibition, the tiki drink craze and the rise of the daiquiri served from an ice cream dispenser. (Whether the classic martini survives invasive species such as the appletini remains to be seen.) It takes more than a few feet of water to dilute a good drink out of existence.
New Orleans is generally regarded as one of the cities where the cocktail matured, along with New York, Louisville and San Francisco.
"New Orleans is the home of genteel drinking," says cocktail guru and historian Dale DeGroff. "I mean, there's the Brandy Crusta, the Ramos Fizz, the Hurricane and the Sazerac," all of which took root here.
An entertaining way to get your historic bearings is to sign up for the Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour. (Attesting to the city's unquenchable thirst, the tour resumed operations just two months after Katrina.) Billed as "the only walking tour through the French Quarter's most infamous bars and restaurants," the tour lasts between two and three hours, depending on the quantity of history one samples. ( see Link for specific times )
"It's a history tour, not a pub crawl," says Joe Gendusa, who researched and often leads the tour. Getting loopy isn't the point.
Rather, it's to see the Quarter's vibrant history through the distorting facets of a cocktail glass. (You must be at least 21 years old to take this tour.)
Among the historic destinations on the tour is Napoleon House, an appealingly threadbare spot that began life as an early-19th-century mansion, evolved into a late-19th-century grocery store and ended up as a 20th-century tavern and restaurant.
Legend says the elegant building with dormers and cupola was built by supporters of the Emperor Napoleon, who intended for him to retire here after that regrettable incident at Waterloo. "Unfortunately, he never came," Mr. Gendusa says. (That may be because the building was constructed after Napoleon's death, putting a small crimp in the legend.)
We step inside. It's dusky, with old framed prints on peeling walls and classical music wafting through. (The owners decreed decades ago that only classical music be played here, and that ruling has been upheld by later generations.) "It was built in the Spanish style for a French emperor, and for the last hundred years it's been owned by an Italian family. The drink of the house is British – a Pimm's Cup," says Mr. Gendusa. He shrugs at the mix-and-match history. "That's New Orleans."
Around the corner, we slip into the Pirates Alley Café, a dim affair with the pleasantly downscale feeling of an upscale opium den. Most of us order a Green Fairy, the classic absinthe drink. This potent liquor, traditionally infused with wormwood, has been illegal in the United States since 1914, and the bar here uses a modified (legal) version called Absente.
The cocktail involves a small ritual. First, a cube of sugar is set atop a slotted spoon over the mouth of the glass, then doused with liquor. This is then set aflame. After a few moments of caramelizing, the mini inferno is dumped into the glass and mixed with cold water. The result is a pale green, licorice-flavored drink that offers strikingly fine company on a humid, hazy afternoon.
A few blocks away at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, the whole affair is constructed atop an old carousel, and drinkers slowly revolve as they sip. What they sip is often the house specialty, the Vieux Carre, a complex, slightly medicinal mix of rye, brandy, vermouth, Benedictine and two types of bitters. Among the regular bar-sitters of days past was playwright Tennessee Williams, who occupied a suite upstairs and spent more than a few evenings doing slow laps around the bar.
Everyone on the tour gets a free drink at Tujague's (pronounced TWO-jacks), the last tour stop and the first stand-up bar in the city when it opened in 1856. In the interest of drinking efficiency, Tujague's installed a long, tall bar backed by an elaborate mirror shipped from Paris. Our tour group, in the interest of historical accuracy, placed its elbows on the bar and enjoyed a whiskey punch.
Those whose curiosity about cocktails is unslaked by a short walking tour should strive to visit during Tales of the Cocktail ( see link for current times ), which runs Wednesday through July 23. This is the fourth annual symposium on the art and history of mixed drinks and is a sort of vastly compressed graduate school for tipplers.
I attended last year, and among the highlights was a panel discussing cocktail bitters. It lasted three hours and left me only wanting to know more.
More than 700 people attended the event's main cocktail hour, where a number of cocktail writers are on hand to serve signature drinks and sign their books. Hundreds of others attended workshops and lectures held over four days at hotels, bars and restaurants around the French Quarter, the central business district and beyond.
Of course, you can always research New Orleans cocktails on your own. Arnaud's French 75, just off Bourbon Street, is the ideal bar to study the Sazerac (SAZZ-er-rack), that classic New Orleans cocktail once prepared with a touch of absinthe (now usually made with Pernod), rye, sugar and bitters.
Tradition runs deep in a Sazerac. In fact, a cocktail was once always defined as a mixed drink containing spirits, sugar and bitters. Some claim that the word "cocktail" originated in the French Quarter – a mangled version of coquetier, or "egg cup," in which an enterprising pharmacist named Antoine Peychaud first mixed brandy and bitters. This theory, like the Napoleon House legend, sadly runs aground on the shoals of chronology. The first published use of the word cocktail dates to 1806, when the cocktail-mixing pharmacist was but 3 years old.
Arnaud's bar is an oasis of bourbon-colored wood and formally dressed waiters, and is presided over by a bust of Winston Churchill.
Bartender Chris Hannah, on duty the night I visited, is a serious student of the cocktail and is happy to work with clients to craft the perfectly personalized drink. After you enjoy that slowly sipped first drink, inquire if the Mardi Gras museum upstairs is open and, if so, spend a few minutes gawking at the astounding artifacts.
This little museum is a door left ajar on a shrouded culture, which, come to think of it, you could say about almost all of the classic New Orleans bars. Get there before that history ends up being decanted down the drain.
Wayne Curtis is a freelance writer and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails (Crown, $24).
THE SPIRITS OF NEW ORLEANS
The Sazerac is one of America's proto-cocktails, a blend of whiskey, sugar, Peychaud's bitters and a hint of licorice. (It once was flavored with absinthe, but now more commonly with Herbsaint or Pernod.) The wonderfully atmospheric Sazerac Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, awash with the feel of a 1940s ocean-liner lounge, has been closed since Katrina but plans to reopen in the fall.
This creamy drink is in the same family as the mimosa and Bloody Mary: a cocktail that can be consumed before lunch without raising eyebrows. Made with cream and brandy (sometimes bourbon), and flavored with vanilla, nutmeg and a bit of sugar, the milk punch harkens to the primordial beginnings of mixed drinks. It even merited a write-up in the first published bar guide, which dates to 1862.
A variation of the Hurricane first appeared in the early 20th century, made with cognac, absinthe and vodka. The version we know today, containing pineapple and other juices, surfaced at the 1939 World's Fair. But it was Pat O'Brien's famous New Orleans bar and restaurant that made the Hurricane the drink celebrity it is today.
Brimming with flavors that can't be coaxed apart, the Hurricane is served in a crested glass resembling the globe of a hurricane lamp. Plastic knockoffs of the original glass, often filled with a pale imitation of the original drink, are a mainstay of the French Quarter.
2 rock glasses with ice, chilled
1 sugar cube
2-3 dashes Peychaud's bitters splash of simple syrup or water
2-3 ounces Sazerac rye whiskey
1 teaspoon Herbsaint liqueur (substituted for absinthe)
1 lemon peel
Empty one chilled glass and put in sugar and Peychaud's bitters in the bottom with a splash of simple syrup.
Crush the sugar using a muddler or the back of a spoon, blending it with the Peychaud's bitters and simple syrup. Add the ice from the other glass, then add Sazerac rye whiskey and stir.
In the second glass, splash in a teaspoon of Herbsaint and, holding the glass horizontally, roll the glass to coat the inside of the glass. Discard the excess. Strain the contents of the first glass into the second glass and twist a thin lemon peel over the glass to extract the essential oils.
1 ounce Bacardi Dark Rum
1 ounce Bacardi Light Rum
½ ounce Galliano ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce Fee Brother's passion fruit syrup
1½ ounces orange juice
1½ ounces pineapple juice
Dash of Fee Brother's bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a Hurricane glass filled with ice. Garnish with fresh tropical fruit.
WHEN YOU GO
Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour , Gray Line Lighthouse, Toulouse Street and Mississippi River. Departs daily at 4 p.m. Cost: $24. Reservations: 1-800-535-7786.
Napoleon House , 500 Chartres St., 504-524-9752
Arnaud's French 75 , 813 Rue Bienville, 1-866-230-8892
Tujague's , 823 Decatur St.,504-525-8676.
Pirates Alley Café , 622 Pirates Alley
Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone , 214 Royal St., 504-523-3341
Tales of the Cocktail , Venues in French Quarter and nearby. See link for schedule and reservations or call 1-800-299-0404. Most seminars are $25 each; other events range from free to $45. Discount packages are offered for multiple events.
The Museum of the American Cocktail
By WAYNE CURTIS / Special Contributor to The D M News
The Museum of the American Cocktail - Top
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