Note: The American Historical Association convenes in New Orleans January 3-6, and 5,000 historians are coming to town to, well... do whatever it is that historians do when they convene. Bitch about Franklin Pierce? I don't know. Of course, what they should be doing is employing all their senses to better understand the city's past, and that includes the sense of taste. So, here's a handy check list of places to sample history by the glass.
Little known fact: New Orleans sits on a volcano.
Yes, well, it’s special sort of volcano — no fumaroles or magma. Rather, it sits precariously on a shifting and molten bed of latent antiquity, and any disturbance on the surface invariably opens cracks that result in dramatic eruptions.
Like Hurricane Katrina, which caused centuries of simmering racial and economic imbalance to spew forth. Or the annual earthquake known as Mardi Gras, which causes eruptions of Zulus and fine, feathery Indians, which ooze down city streets like an implacable lava flow (a very slow lava flow in the case of the Zulu floats.)
Some of the city’s older and better bars are the equivalent of volcanic vents: minor outlets through which the past incessantly steams to the surface. New Orleans has long loved stiff drink and cocktails (as a port, it thrived at the intersection of Mississippi River whiskey, French cognac, New England ice, and bitters from the West Indies), and that love has only grown more tenacious over time. The city has been hit repeatedly by yellow fever outbreaks since it was first founded, but, thankfully, it avoided the lite beer and white wine spritzer epidemics. Dig down an inch or two anywhere, and you’l find nineteenth century drinks that failed to fall out of favor.
Too much work? Well, fine. Here’s a start:
Sazerac Bar, Hotel Roosevelt
What to order: Sazerac
The original “cocktail” (born ca. 1803) was a simple, stirred drink: bitters, sugar, and spirits. The Sazerac is essentially a pimped-out version dating to the latter half of the 19th century, tricked out with an absinthe rinse. It’s traditionally made with rye, sugar, and Peychaud’s bitters (a venerable New Orleans brand), with a hint of lemon and licorice. (Cognac was the original spirit, but whiskey displaced it when cognac supplies dwindled following the ruination of French grapes by a Texan aphid in the late 19th century.)
Serviceable Sazeracs can be ordered in most bars around the city — it’s the “official cocktail” of New Orleans, as decreed by the state legislature in 2008 — but the elegant steamship-moderne interior of the Sazerac Bar (dating to 1949) is a fine place to enjoy one. 123 Baronne St.
The Napoleon House
What to order: Pimm’s Cup
The Napoleon House is how people who’ve never been to New Orleans imagine the city: vaguely continental, with spalling walls graced with faded portraits of Napoleon amid strains of classical music. This restaurant and bar, housed in a Creole-inflected building dating to 1814, is famous for its Pimm’s Cup (which dates to 1840), and is made with a British gin-based liqueur, lemonade, and 7-Up, then garnished with a cucumber slice. It’s a tall and refreshing drink, perfect for summer weather but not wholly hostile to winter, either. 500 Chartres St.
What to order: Bonal Gentiane Quinine Cobbler
This new bar (opened in 2011) sits across a small courtyard from the lobby of a boutique hotel in a late-modern former YMCA building. The building doesn't offer much in the way of a classic New Orleans past, but the cocktail menu overflows with it.
Bellocq (named after a noted local photographer of prostitutes) specializes in classic drinks slightly updated for modern tastes. As such, the cocktail menu abounds with obscure 19th century classic tipples, like the crusta, julep, and, chiefly, the cobbler. The cobbler was born of ice — New Orleans was a major importer of New England ice starting in the early 19th century, and much of that chilly goodness got crushed and conscripted for these delicious drinks.
Cobblers are essentially a mix of spirits and a little sugar served over pebbled ice in a julep cup, then handsomely adorned with fresh fruit for both taste and aroma. The Bonal cobbler is a fine modern adaptation of one of these classics, and a perfect example of how the past may be profitably recruited to improve the present. 936 St. Charles Ave. (Lee Circle)
What to order: Vieux Carre Cocktail
The Vieux Carre cocktail was created in 1938 by bartender Walter Bergeron at the Hotel Monteleone lounge (then called the Swan Room). He was looking for an alternative to the always popular Sazerac, which was then a trademarked name exclusive to a single bar. Bergeon’s cocktail also had a boozy, classic profile, but was a bit more layered and Gordian in its complexity. It’s made now (as then) with rye, cognac, Benedictine, vermouth, and two types of bitters.
And, no, it’s not you: the main bar was built on the chassis of an antique merry go round in 1949, and patrons revolve fully every fifteen minutes. The bar also claims a long literary heritage: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote all got into their cups here. 214 Royal St.
Arnaud’s French 75
What to order: French 75
The French 75 cocktail is named after the French 75mm field gun (1897 model), and is traditionally made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne. Except at Arnaud’s, which has been serving Creole fare since 1918. Here, it’s made with cognac. Bartender Chris Hannah argues that, well, of course, the French would have used cognac, not gin from the much-loathed British. With cognac, it’s an elegant and sophisticated sip, and a fine drink for all seasons. For a cold-weather-only drink, order a Winter Waltz, a hearty, allspice-inflected applejack and cognac cocktail Hannah invented. It's on the way to becoming a classic that future historians will document; sip it here first.
The restaurant bar, which can be entered directly from Bienville St., has the feel of a Parisian hotel bar, with lots of wood and quarter-sized white tiles on the floor. Fair warning: it’s cigar friendly, and on some nights the fog hangs thick. 813 Bienville St.
What to order: Grasshopper
Yes, the Grasshopper. It was invented in the 1930s by the then-owner of Tujaques for a cocktail competition in New York. It caught on. And then disappeared — and not without reason. It’s made of creme de menthe, creme de cacao, brandy, and cream. Inexplicably, the drink seems to be creeping back into fashion. (I blame ironic Brooklyn hipsters, even in the absence of any evidence.)
Still, why not try one in its place of birth? This elegant, classic bar is worth checking out for its distinguished pedigree alone. It first opened in 1856 (it’s been in its current location since 1914), and the impressive backbar, shipped from Paris, dates from the mid-19th century. Note the absence of barstools — this has always been a workingman’s riverfront bar. You stand at the bar, knock back a drink or two, you go back to work. 823 Decatur St.
Looking for more to do (drink, eat, see, hear) while in town? Download the New Orleans Explorer's Guide, an iPhone app I wrote featuring more than 150 suggestions (with photos and interactive maps) for getting the most out of a New Orleans visit. Buy here: www.NOLAexplorer.com.