Drinking in History: Classic Cocktails and Modern Thirsts in the French Quarter

By: Ian McNulty

Sazerac courtesy of The Bombay Club

If a traditional French Quarter breakfast can end with a dessert, maybe it’s not so surprising that it can also begin with a cocktail.

Indeed, at Brennan’s Restaurant (417 Royal St., 504-525-9711), the lavish and almost canonized breakfast menu includes an entire page of cocktail recommendations that the landmark establishment introduces as “eye openers.” Many of these drink selections are as unique to New Orleans as the intricate egg dishes and flaming desserts that follow, with names like sazerac, Ramos gin fizz and milk punch.

Welcome to the rich and distinctive cocktail culture of New Orleans. The city that has a worldwide reputation for good times and hearty indulgence also has its own lore and history for the stuff that helps fuel its many celebrations – even if that celebration is nothing more than a courtyard breakfast.

classic new orleans cocktails
Bourbon Milk Punch by Patrick Truby

Milk Punched in the Morning

Milk punch is an instructive starting point. Made with milk, sugar, brandy and a little nutmeg, the drink is a creamy and sweet answer to the more common bloody Mary. It’s the sort of cocktail to enjoy while the sun is shining, and preferably when there are no responsibilities scheduled for the rest of the day. Many of the finer restaurants around the Quarter serve it well, and a surprising number of the smaller restaurants and cafes have a distinctive take on this morning favorite.

classic new orleans cocktails
Hurricane by Kevin Galens

Hurricane Warnings Nightly

New Orleanians live with a profound respect for the naturally-occurring hurricane – small wonder in a town largely below sea level – but visitors might sooner associate the city with the fruity hurricane cocktail. Certainly one of the most visible beverages in the French Quarter, this bright red, rum-based drink is the de facto emblem for the bar that created it, Pat O’Brien’s (718 St. Peter St., 504-525-4823), and has been widely copied around town. Highly potent, the drink has been known to supercharge a night on the town and brighten up even the most overcast day in the Quarter.

The story of the drink’s origin holds that, due to difficulties importing Scotch during World War II, liquor salesmen forced bar owners to buy up to 50 cases of their much more abundant rum in order to secure a single case of good whiskey. The barmen at Pat O’Brien’s soon came up with an alluring recipe to clear through their bulging surplus of rum. When they decided to serve it up in a tall, jaunty glass shaped like a hurricane lamp, the hurricane cocktail was born. Today, even the glass itself is a souvenir of New Orleans, and servers at Pat O’Brien’s will helpfully box yours to go when you’re finished.

classic new orleans cocktails
Sazerac by Krista

Sazerac, the Quintessential Cocktail

The origins of the sazerac are quite a bit murkier, with some sources proclaiming it as the very first cocktail and more than a few local bon vivants naming it as New Orleans’ quintessential cocktail. A combination of rye whiskey, bitters, sugar, lemon peel and an absinthe substitute (such as Pernod or Herbsaint), the cocktail is rich and complex, an elegant sipping drink to be sure, and is typically served in the finer Creole restaurants and classic barrooms.

A cocktail this intricate deserves careful preparation and proper presentation, which happily are two of the hallmarks of the The Bombay Club (831 Conti St., 504-586-0972), located in the Prince Conti Hotel. Fittingly, the Sazerac Bar (130 Roosevelt Way 504-648-1200) in The Roosevelt Hotel, just on the other side of Canal Street from the Quarter, also serves a commanding version of its namesake drink.

classic new orleans cocktails
Ramos Gin Fizz by Edsel Little

Drinking a Flower

The same bar lays claim to being the birthplace of the Ramos gin fizz, named for the hotel bartender Henry Ramos who is said to have invented it in 1888. This unique concoction mixes gin, lemon and lime juices, orange flower water, egg white, powdered sugar and milk, and has a taste that has been described as “drinking a flower.” In the French Quarter proper, the Carousel Piano Bar and Lounge (214 Royal St., 504-523-3341) in the Hotel Monteleone is an appropriately elegant setting to sample one with its slowly revolving bar and plush appointments.

classic new orleans cocktails
Tropical Isle by Quinn Dombrowski

Bombs Away

Far, far on the other end of the spectrum is the Hand Grenade, truly a Bourbon Street original that proves not all of the city’s distinctive drinks are rooted in the past. The drink is prepared and served at the two French Quarter outposts of the Tropical Isle (435 Bourbon St., 504-525-1689, 600 Bourbon St., 504-529-1702, 610 Bourbon St., 504-529-1702, and 721 Bourbon St., 504-529-4109), but, since it is often taken to go, its memorable neon-colored, hand grenade-shaped containers can be seen swinging from the happy hands of visitors all over the Vieux Carre. The drink even has its own mascot, a character dressed in an inflatable grenade costume, who bounces around Bourbon Street encouraging consumption. If he ever encounters a true hurricane on his travels, it will surely be an historic encounter for New Orleans mixology.

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