Cocktail culture in New Orleans is more than a way of life — it’s basically medicinal. That’s right, medicinal. Since the invention of the cocktail, people in New Orleans never looked on it as anything sinful, bad, or evil. The first cocktails were created for their medicinal benefits. Alcohol has been a go-to drug for physicians and pharmacists for centuries, so it’s only natural that eventually they would begin to experiment with combinations of herbs and alcohol that could improve their patients’ health.
In the 1830s, Antoine Peychaud, a pharmacist, developed an infusion of Gentiana flowers and alcohol, similar to Angostura. He called his infusion “Peychaud’s Bitters,” and sold it as a patented/branded medicine, to cure anything from an upset stomach to the hiccups. Peychaud’s pharmacy on Royal Street did well, and he would entertain friends in the shop after closing time, switching from pharmacist to mixologist after work. He would mix his bitters with other drinks, such as absinthe and brandy. He continued to refine the proportions until a proper cocktail was born.
Peychaud’s cocktail is widely regarded as the first cocktail invented in America, but he did not give the drink its well-known name, the Sazerac. The name comes from “Sazerac de Forge et Fils” brandy. In the 1840s, a local coffee house, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, located in Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, picked up Peychaud’s bitters and his cocktail. The owner of the coffee house, Sewell Taylor, decided to use only Sazerac de Forge et Fils in the drink, so people began to ask for the “Sazerac Cocktail.” By 1850, Taylor saw more potential in importing the brandy than owning just one bar. He sold the coffee house to Thomas Handy, who moved the bar to Royal Street, changing its name to the Sazerac Coffee House.
Handy understood the popularity of Peychaud’s Bitters and the cocktail that featured them. He bought the rights to the bitters. Handy also switched the primary ingredient of the Sazerac from brandy to rye whiskey, mainly because of the phylloxera blight that hit French vineyards in the late 19th Century. Handy’s business expanded, and his company began to bottle the Sazerac, selling it as a pre-made drink. The recipe of the drink changed again around 1912 when absinthe was banned in the United States. The Sazerac Company switched the drink to various anise-flavored liquers, settling on Herbsaint in the 1930s.
While the Sazerac is a New Orleans invention, bartenders were mixing brandy with sugar and other additives since the early 1800s. Since day drinking is as old as the city itself, restaurants would mix brandy with whole milk and sugar, serving the Brandy Milk Punch with brunch, or as a light libation in the afternoon.
Absinthe was a common ingredient in New Orleans cocktails other than the Sazerac. New Orleanians of French descent imported absinthe to the city, as well as brandy throughout the 19th Century. In 1806, two merchants from Barcelona, Pedro Front and Francisco Juncadelia, constructed a building at 240 Bourbon Street to house their import/export business. Their business thrived, and locals would gather to buy imported supplies and groceries, as well as to drink brandy and absinthe. By 1815, the Lafitte brothers were reputed to be regulars at the “Absinthe House,” so much so that legend tells it that Jean Lafitte met with Andrew Jackson and W.C.C. Claiborne there, Jackson looking to recruit the gunners among Lafitte’s privateer crews. The import-export business was converted into a full-blown bar in the 1870s, and is now known as “Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House.”
Peychaud wasn’t the only New Orleanian who experimented with absinthe in cocktails. The bartenders at the Absinthe House, looking to liven up straight pours of the anise-flavored liquor, began to mix it with mint, sugar, and soda water, and the Absinthe Frappe was born. Absinthe has a chequered history, owing to the efforts of various late 19th Century temperance movements. Liquors similar to absinthe remained popular in New Orleans, and when the formal ban on absinthe in the U.S. was lifted in 2007, a number of French and Swiss brands re-appeared on store shelves and behind local bars. One of New Orleans’ contributions to the national trend of small batch and artisan distilleries is Atelier Vie, makers of Toulouse Red and Toulouse Green absinthes, as well as their award-winning Euphrosine Gin #9.
New Orleans is known for more than brandy-based and rye-based drinks. During Prohibition in the 1920s, Benson Harrison “Pat” O’Brien operated a lucrative bootlegging operation on the Gulf Coast. He opened up a speakeasy on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets in the Quarter, as a retail outlet. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the speakeasy became a legal bar, and business boomed. O’Brien took on a partner, Charlie Cantrell, and the bar never looked back. In 1942, they moved the bar from the corner to its present location in the 700 block of St. Peter, between Bourbon and Royal Streets. About the same time, O’Brien created what became the bar’s signature drink. While O’Brien didn’t argue that his cocktail was “medicinal,” it certainly helped boost the spirits of many workers in New Orleans who made PT Boats, landing craft, and seaplanes in factories around the lakefront.
The World War II years saw a shortage of whiskey coming into the United States from Scotland and Ireland. With Great Britain at war, it wasn’t practical to ship Scotch to America. When the U.S. entered the war, the distilleries making bourbon whiskey were re-purporsed to help the war effort. O’Brien spotted this trend, and created a cocktail based on rum, which was in good supply, coming up from Cuba and the islands. After tinkering around with different combinations of lemon juice and passion fruit juice, O’Brien hit a particularly tasty combination for the drink’s base, and the Hurricane was born. The Hurricane is a popular rite of passage for locals and visitors alike.
The last two years have seen a trend in restaurants and bars towards craft cocktails, ranging from classics to new creations from imaginative mixologists. Some of these cocktails are variations of long-standing classics; for example, many restaurants and bars offer interesting takes on the French 75, the classic champagne-and-brandy cocktail created by Arnaud’s Restaurant. Some of the local mixologists use liquors not normally associated with New Orleans, such as tequila. Either way, they all contribute to a vibrant and exciting local cocktail scene.
If you’re coming to New Orleans in July, be sure to check out the Tales of the Cocktail event from July 16-20, held in the French Quarter.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).