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Cocktail Culture

Cocktail Showdown: New Orleans vs. Oakland

This week the Saints take on the Oakland Raiders, and the city’s bartenders outclass Oakland’s Mai Tai with New Orleans’ official Sazerac cocktail.

Don’t you need a drink? I’m not talking about the election, the remote (but extant!) chances of a Saints wild-card spot, or the rapidly approaching Thanksgiving – Christmas – New Year’s – Martin Luther King Day holiday juggernaut. I just mean in general, wouldn’t a drink be nice right about now?

A refreshing New Orleans sazerac
A sazerac in its national habitat. (Photo courtesy infrogmation via Wikimedia commons)

Oakland, the Saints’ first and marginally less offensive opponent in the upcoming Battle of the Bay series, was famously described by Gertrude Stein (or Oscar Wilde, or H. L. Mencken, or one of those people who gets quoted all the time) as having “no there there.” Having been to Oakland, I don’t understand it. Oakland is a lot of things but it is, for better or for worse, there.

One of the more appealing aspects of Oakland’s unquestioned thereness is the classic Mai Tai cocktail, invented in Oakland in 1944. The Mai Tai was one of the first and most recognizable aspects of the tiki craze, the pseudo-island-themed food-and-décor movement that inexplicably swept America in the 1950s. Think about it: the same men who spent the forties in brutal island-hopping warfare against Japan spent the fifties having impromptu luaus and wearing tissue-paper leis… because when they were in the real South Pacific they had so much fun?  While the Mai Tai is, unquestionably, delicious, I feel compelled to argue that it isn’t distinctive. Wikipedia features 11 different Mai Tai recipes, one of which features the magnificently exotic-sounding “velvet falernum” but all of which follow the standard algebra of rum + sweet stuff + WaCkY NaMe = Friday night. You know, like a zombie. Or a hurricane. Or any of a thousand vaguely island- or coastal-themed drinks.

Now, New Orleans’ official cocktail is certainly distinctive. The principal ingredients are bitters, rye whiskey, and “absinthe if you have it, anisette if you don’t.” Let that sink in. Whiskey, bitters, and something that makes you hallucinate, you know, if you’ve got some in the cabinet left over from Memorial Day.

To make a Sazerac at home, all you need is this guide. (And, you know, the ingredients.) But if you want one made for you, there are plenty of great places to get one in the city. As always, I recommend the Columns Hotel, a bar so nearly perfect that I’m in talks with them to have my ashes kept there when the sad day comes. Drinkers can also enjoy a Sazerac at Bar Tonique, a relaxed but classy place on Rampart Street, on the edge of the French Quarter, across the street from Louis Armstrong Park. (They also have bacon Bloody Marys, which is a strong recommendation.) If you find yourself thirsty in the Warehouse District, bop over to Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar. It’s named after Adelaide Brennan (yes, those Brennans), and serves Sazerac Rye and Peychaud’s bitters in creative cocktails. If the urge strikes you further uptown, drop by the approachably elegant Bouligny Tavern, where you can sip a drink while listening to Lena Horne on vinyl. Then of course there is the aptly named Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Or, you know. You have the recipe, you can just make one yourself and drink it in the bathtub. Your call.

For a thorough guide to making your own sazerac,  check out this Go NOLA TV episode.

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