With little argument, New York can probably lay claim to inventing more popular modern cocktails than any other city in the Western Hemisphere, with Paris and London perhaps not far behind.
But if you’re looking for the exotic and the unique, New Orleans is your place.
Over the past two centuries, the Big Easy has given birth to dozens of drinks, many occupying places of honor on the family tree of mixology. Like their city of origin, New Orleans cocktails tend to be flamboyant, occasionally even lavish, but always reflecting the celebratory spirit of the Crescent City.
Unfortunately, the drinks that most casual tourists associate with New Orleans, especially around Mardi Gras time, are excessive to the extreme. The Hurricane is a tooth-curlingly sweet bright red rum punch often consumed from giant plastic cups by goggle-eyed visitors to the French Quarter. And the Hand Grenade is a fluorescent green gin-vodka-rum-melon liqueur brain bomb whose name and catchphrase (“New Orleans’ Most Powerful Drink”) are both registered trademarks and tell you all you need to know.
For those whose goal is having fun while still remaining conscious, the iconic NOLA cocktail is the Sazerac, a complex blend of three liquors and two bitters that’s served neat and is as sophisticated as the Hand Grenade is vulgar. First consumed sometime in the late 1800s, the drink’s inventor isn’t precisely known although its nomenclature is clear: Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac, imported from France, which formed the foundation of the eponymous cocktail.
Cognac shortages soon forced bartenders to improvise, substituting the then-abundant rye whiskey. Today most recipes call for a mix of the two spirits plus a third that’s absolutely essential: absinthe, which is used sparingly to rinse the glass and gives the cocktail an anise aroma without greatly affecting the flavor. The inclusion of a sugar cube has prompted some to classify the Sazerac as a relative of the Old-Fashioned, but they are at best second cousins.
An even more distant relative is the Vieux Carré (“old square,” another term for the French Quarter), which was created by bartender Walter Bergerson at the Monteleone Hotel during the 1930s. Like the Sazerac, it calls for both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters and both rye and cognac. Omit the absinthe and sugar cube, add sweet vermouth and a touch of Benedictine or Yellow Chartreuse, serve on the rocks (preferably one large cube), and the result is a multi-faceted cocktail that seems to transform into something new with every sip.
If I had a choice between ordering a Sazerac or a Vieux Carré, the latter would win—not every time, but maybe 75 percent.
If you insist on a Big Easy libation that includes a dash of the theatrical without inducing a coma, the Ramos Gin Fizz will serve you well. First appearing around the same time as the Sazerac, this one actually bears the name of its inventor—or, at least, the bar-owner who employed him or her. As David Wondrich recounts in Imbibe!, Carl Ramos’ New Orleans saloon, the Imperial Cabinet, became a tourist favorite largely thanks to its take on a gin sour that included both cream and egg whites, which were shaken dramatically with ice for as long as 15 minutes before serving.
The recipe also calls for orange flower (or orange blossom) water, which is one of the few cocktail ingredients I suggest you purchase rather than making yourself—although you can do so if you insist.
The Ramos Gin Fizz reminded Chef Sin of an adult Orange Julius: frothy, tart, and incredibly addicting. And because its ABV (alcohol by volume) is relatively low, you can enjoy another one long after your Hand Grenade-loving friends have passed out.
Adapted from Liquor.com
Absinthe, to rinse
1 sugar cube
1/2 teaspoon cold water
1 1/4 ounces rye whiskey
1 1/4 ounces cognac
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon peel to twist and/or garnish
Rinse a chilled rocks glass with absinthe, discarding any excess, and set aside.
In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar cube, water, and the Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. Add the rye and cognac, fill with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Strain into the prepared glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink’s surface to express the peel’s oils, then garnish with the peel or discard.
Adapted from Spirited: Cocktails from Around the World by Adrienne Stillman
1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Bénédictine or Yellow Chartreuse
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Orange twist for garnish
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over one large ice cube. Garnish with orange twist.
Ramos Gin Fizz
Adapted from The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff
1 1/2 ounces gin (preferably Old Tom)
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 1/4 ounces simple syrup
2 ounces milk
1 egg white
2 drops orange-flower water
5 ounces seltzer
Shake all ingredients except the seltzer with ice, vigorously and at length. Strain into a highball glass. Top with seltzer and stir gently.