Many say cocktails were invented in New Orleans, with the birth of the Sazerac in the early 1800s. The original recipe, created by Creole apothocary owner Antoine Peychaud, included Antonine’s French brandy Sazerac-de-Forge et fils cognac. While the recipe for the drink has been tweaked over the years — mainly due to a phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century that destroyed European vineyards — New Orleans’ passion for quality libations can still be seen today through its numerous craft cocktail bars, speakeasies and farm-to-bar venues.
The truth is, while the rest of the country was experiencing a shift in the cocktail culture during the 70s and began focusing on quickly made drinks with cheap ingredients, New Orleans stayed true to its roots. Locals in this city expect quality when it comes to food and drink, and that’s something that will probably never change.
As an avid craft cocktail drinker, I made a trip to visit the city for myself to explore some of the top New Orleans cocktail bars. Finding these kinds of establishments isn’t too difficult, as the standard for quality and service in New Orleans is so high that even the corner stores offer delicious meals and drinks. And while the iconic Bourbon Street does house a few venues offering carefully prepared drinks made with quality ingredients, you can assume any place with loud MCs coaxing girls to eat a pie from between a stranger’s legs or drunk tourists chucking beads at any girl who will lift her top is more focused on quantity over quality.
Classic Cocktails In An Old ‘Gentlemen Only’ Club At French 75
813 Bienville Street, French Quarter
I begin my exploration of New Orleans craft cocktail culture by stepping back in time at the historical French 75. Originally opened in 1918 as a gentleman’s-only club, today French 75 is open to both men and women, with a focus on quality drinks and cigars. That being said, the decor of the sophisticated French Quarter establishment will still make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the old school bars of the early 18th century, with monkey lamps, dark varnished woods, a vintage bar, low tables and settees and tiled floors. The establishment is named after the classic French 75 cocktail, which they make with Courvoisier VS, sugar, lemon juice, Moet and Chandon for a drink combing the light, uplifting bubbles of Champagne and the rich flavors and warmth of brandy. If that’s not your thing, you can tell the bartender what types of spirits and flavors you enjoy to have something prepared specifically for you. Additionally, French 75 features an impressive drink menu, with some options including the “Lillet Cobbler” with Lillet, Creme de Mure and lime juice; “The Baroness” featuring Boobles gin, Aperol, Ruby Red grapefruit juice, Rhubarb Cordial and Orange Bitters; and “La Louisiane” with rye whiskey, vermouth, Benedictine, Herbsaint, Angostura and Peychaud Bitters.
Rare Spirits And Bourbon History At Bourbon House
144 Bourbon Street, French Quarter
Not only is Bourbon House an ambient place to enjoy fresh seafood and farm-to-table dishes (try their oysters topped with local caviar!) while people watching on Bourbon Street, it’s also home to some of New Orleans’ finest handcrafted cocktails. First of all, bourbon-lovers will enjoy their extensive bourbon list, which features over 100 bourbons and many small batch and limited production labels like Michter’s Single Barrel 10 year, High West Son of Bourye, Parker’s 6th Edition, Hirsch Small Batch and Woodford Double, to name a few. For a personalized experience, tell your server what kinds of flavors you enjoy for a fitting recommendation, or sample a flight to find your favorite.
It’s interesting to note that bourbon plays an important part in New Orleans’ history. While Kentucky is where bourbon originated, it was New Orleans that helped develop the spirits’ aging process. In the 1820s, bourbon was in high demand in New Orleans, with about 2.5 million gallons being shipped over from Kentucky. Although the liquid started out clear, after the five month journey between the two cities it turned red due to a barrel charring, inspiring the delicious aging process that gives us today’s delicious Kentucky Bourbons.
Along with their bourbons, this Dickie Brennan establishment serves up craft cocktail creations like the “Streetcar,” featuring Gentleman Jack Bourbon, Cassis, blueberry compote, lime, and vanilla sweet water; the “Blood Orangeita” made with Dos Lunas Silver Tequila, Solerno Blood Orange, lemon and lime; and their “Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch” made with milk, bourbon, vanilla extract, simple syrup, vanilla ice cream and nutmeg which provides a creamy dessert drink with a kick.
Medicinal Handcrafted Cocktails At Cure
4905 Freret Street, Uptown
Reminiscent of a time when cocktails grew from home remedies, Cure offers a sophisticated venue for cultured discussion and quality drinks. The dimly lit renovated firehouse features a impressive bar shelved with quality spirits, as well as round tables illuminated by candlelight. And thanks to Cure’s no smoking policy, patrons can truly taste and experience their cocktails. Just to show you how much pride Cure takes in its drinks, bartenders names are listed next to each menu item (which also helps the establishment’s clientele of cocktail connoisseurs follow their favorite mixologists). Sample my personal favorite, their “White Witch,” crafted with Cocchi Americano, Barsol Primero Pisco, Strega and Witch Bitters; the “Ms. Camille” featuring Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Marolo “Milla” Chamomile Liqueur, sparkling wine, honey and lemon; or an “Escana Cao” featuring Rare Wine Charleston Sercial Madeira, Germain Robin Craft Method American Brandy, Peychaud’s Bitters and orange peel. This is also the type of place where bartenders like to try new things, so don’t be shy about asking for them to put a unique spin on New Orleans-invented cocktails like the Vieux Carré, Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz. And while most bars will leave you with a hangover, Cure is the perfect place to remedy your headache with housemade bitters-focused drinks and medicinal libations.
Live Jazz And Farm-To-Bar Cocktails At Three Muses
536 Frenchmen Street, Marigny
For those who want to experience New Orleans like a local, head to the Marigny neighborhood and explore the bars, restaurants and clubs on Frenchmen Street. After asking numerous locals what their all-time favorite bar was, an overwhelming amount of people responded with “The Three Muses.” Along with providing patrons the chance to experience local music culture through live jazz performances each night, they serve handcrafted cocktails with a farm-to-bar focus. In fact, many of their cocktail ingredients are housemade, for example, their ginger beer, cherry cola, bitters, olive brine and fruit juices. In a contemporary country atmosphere sip a “Luisas Husky Revenge” made with Zaya rum, housemade ginger beer and basil-lemongrass bitters; “Suspiciously Absinthe” with Toulouse Red Absinthe, housemade grapefruit-dill bitters and hibiscus grapefruit soda; or a “Tequila Tiff” concocted with Avion Reposado with Agave Nectar, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and soda. Their spin on the classic “Sazerac” is also a great option, featuring house-infused vanilla Sazerac rye whiskey, Cointreau and housemade orange-fennel seed bitters. Leave pretension at the door, as this place is all about quality drinks, delicious tapas, great music and having fun.
Turning Through History At The Carousel Bar & Lounge
214 Royal Street, French Quarter
While close to Bourbon Street, Royal Street — one of the oldest streets in New Orleans — is a completely different world, full of local charm with art galleries, farm-to-table eateries, antique shops, boutiques and quality bars. One of these bars is Carousel Bar & Lounge, located in the stately Hotel Monteleone. Featuring the city’s only revolving bar, the carousel — which thankfully does not feature ponies or dragons — has been a local favorite since 1949, making it an important part of the French Quarter’s history. The establishment also plays an important part in New Orleans’ cocktail history as it was the birthplace of the the “Goody” and the “Vieux Carre” cocktails. The room itself immerses patrons in old world France with antique mirrors, glass chandeliers, hand-painted chairs and French limestone floors. The bar prides itself on offering entertaining live performances as well as an extensive menu of specialty cocktails and martinis. Sample the “Vieux Carre,” made with Hennessy Cognac, Benedictine, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters; the “Olympain” featuring Pierre Ferrand Amber, Creole Shrubb, fresh squeeze orange juice and Orange Bitters; or the “Southern Comfortini” with Southern Comfort, black raspberry liqueur, Peach Schnapps and fresh pineapple juice.
Handcrafted Cocktails At An Unassuming Neighborhood Haunt At Bar Tonique
820 N Rampart Street, French Quarter
Located on the outskirts of the French Quarter near Treme, Bar Tonique is unlike the other classic cocktail bars in New Orleans. Instead of featuring a dimly-lit room or slightly-pretentious atmosphere, Bar Tonique can almost be considered a dive bar — but not quite. Although its atmosphere is more “neighborhood hangout” than “sophisticated speakeasy,” the bar still serves cocktails made using high-quality product, careful measurements and a well-balanced story. Friendly mixologists love chatting with patrons about the drinks, so feel free to ask questions and learn more about the New Orleans’ craft cocktail culture. And while most quality cocktail bars refrain from happy hour specials, Bar Tonique features a different craft cocktail each day served at $5. Where else in New Orleans can you get a cocktail for under $10 that isn’t drank from a solo cup or yardstick? Some of top drink choices to sample at Bar Tonique include the “Rampart,” featuring Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Aperol Apertivo, Averna Amaro, Fee Bros. Whiskey-Barrel Aged Bitters and lemon peel; the “Hot Whiskey Skin” made with Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey, sugar, hot water and clove-pierced lemon peel; and the “Blanche Dubois” crafted with Death’s Door Gin, Senior Curacao, house-made orgeat, strawberries, lemon juice and spearmint.
New Orleans’ Newest Craft Cocktail Addition: Kingfish
337 Chartres Street, French Quarter
Opened in Spring 2013, Kingfish is one of New Orleans’ newest additions to the craft cocktail scene. The venue features an ambiance reminiscent of a venue you might find in Brooklyn, with rough around the edges decor, like exposed brick, wood beams, and long dangling bulbs, made to look chic. Kingfish’s head bartender is Chris McMillian, whose extensive experience includes tending bar at establishments like the Richelieu Bar inside Arnaud’s Restaurant, the Ritz Carlton’s Library Lounge and Bar UnCommon, and is known for his ability to make cocktail making into an art form, which is what he’s now doing for Kingfish. McMillian is also the co-founder of New Orleans’ Museum of the American Cocktail, so you know that while the establishment may be new, the staff is not. Some cocktails not to miss at this hot venue include the “Doctor’s Orders” made with bourbon, creme de cocao and Benedictine; the “Milano Torino” made with Campari and Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth; and the “Cable Car” crafted with spiced rum, lemon, dry curacao and cinnamon.
True Supper Club Culture At Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy
1535 Basin Street, Treme
Don’t expect to find a website or eye-catching exterior with a big sign to let you know you’ve arrived; at Kermit Ruffin’s speakeasy in Treme — a neighborhood known for its African-American and Creole roots and as being the birthplace of jazz music — patrons can enjoy a daily rotating dinner menu and classic cocktails. This is all while listening to the smooth sounds of local trumpeter bandleader Kermit Ruffins and his band (they play on Sunday and Monday nights at 6pm, although the venue is open daily at 12pm). The ambiance is simple and casual, with strong yet well-balanced drinks for a traditional classic cocktail experience.
Essential Travel Information
New Orleans is a fairly walkable city, even when you’re exploring neighborhoods outside of the French Quarter. That being said taxis are relatively affordable (United Cab: 504-522-9771), while the streetcar is just $1.25 each way or $3 for a day pass and features four different lines: St. Charles, Canal Street, the Riverfront and Loyola Street. Each originates from the downtown area and takes you to different parts of the city.
Where to Stay:
After staying here myself, I highly recommend the newly renovated Staybridge Suites New Orleans French Quarter Downtown. Room categories include studio suites, one bedroom suites and two bedroom suites, all with full kitchens, plush bedding, flat-screen television and well-lit workspaces. Moreover, it’s only a 15-minute walk from Bourbon Street, allowing you to experience the iconic attraction while still being far enough way that sleep isn’t impossible (Bourbon Street is loud at all times of night). Located in New Orleans’ Central Business District, it’s only a few blocks from the French Quarter, Superdome, New Orleans Arena, WW11 Museum, Aquarium, restaurants, shopping, Harrah’s Casino and the convention center. When you’re not out exploring, they also offer a range of complimentary amenities like an expansive daily breakfast buffet; dinner, wine, beer and soda social reception on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 5:30pm to 7:30pm; Wi-Fi; business center access; a fitness center; laundry facilities; local calls; and an outdoor pool.
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