New Orleans in the summer is a steamy proposition, but one that thousands of cocktail aficionados and spirits professionals willingly step up for when they converge upon the French Quarter for the annual Tales of the Cocktail gathering in July. Under constant threat of wilted linen and seersucker, the thirsty masses brave it all for a little spirituous education and fully sanctioned day drinking.
But even if you couldn’t make it this year, you can still intake the city’s history at some fine establishments this fall. We took two trips on the aptly named Carousel Bar (each go-around on the revolving bar is 14 minutes and 50 seconds) with New Orleans drinks historian and author of The French Quarter Drinking Companion, Elizabeth Pearce, to get the ideal itinerary.
Carousel Bar & Lounge
It always feels like bustle and commotion, carousing in the slowly rotating lobby bar of the historic Hotel Monteleone. At one time, this Forbes Travel Guide Recommended hotel in the Vieux Carre (another name for the French Quarter) was a hub for Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote — all famed drinkers. But no matter who happens to be posted up on the 25 barstools, there is something elegant and decadent about going around and around the stationary center bar, beneath a carousel canopy of painted cherubs and festival lights, looking out onto Royal Street. “No more than three revolutions,” Pearce advises, lest you should become glued to your seat and miss what the rest of the city has to offer.
The Drink: The Vieux Carré cocktail (whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth and Angostura aromatic bitters). It was created here by barman Walter Bergeron in 1938, even before the carousel was installed in 1949.
An appendage to the famous Creole restaurant Arnaud’s, the French 75 bar was a gentlemen’s-only area in 1918, when the eatery opened. Today, it’s a tiny slice of Belle Epoch France — intimate, seductive and smoky. “This place feels older than it is,” Pearce says. “It’s transportive: Edith Piaf is playing, the lighting is kind and it’s just off Bourbon Street. You turn off half a block and you’re in Paris.” Here, the bartender serves you whether you step up to the wood bar or sink into a cozy loveseat. On the menu, barman Chris Hannah’s original cocktails mingle with classics in a way that you almost can’t tell the difference.
The Drink: The French 75, naturally. Hannah makes them with cognac (instead of the traditional gin), and your drink comes with a little card explaining why.
A former grocery store with an affixed bar that eventually took precedence, Napoleon House looms like an apparition at Chartres and St. Louis streets. But the large French Colonial building clearly dates back to the time of Napoleon (hence, the name). In fact, then-New Orleans mayor Nicholas Girod built the home in 1814 as an intended refuge for Bonaparte, though the little emperor never left the island of Elba. Today, locals enjoy well-made cocktails, leisurely games of chess, hulking slabs of muffuletta and the opera music piped into the courtyard of the building owned since 1920 by the Impastato family. “New Orleans is all about the escape from the city stench and rabble,” Pearce says. “If you had any kind of money [back then], you built an oasis from the chaos.” Don’t mind the somewhat ramshackle look of the place, she adds. “Some call it ‘disrepair.’ We New Orleanians call it ‘patina.’”
The Drink: Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. The original owner is said to have despised drunkenness, so the signature cocktail here stars the low-alcohol gin-based liqueur.
If you’re willing to cross Canal Street, you’ll be handsomely rewarded at the second coming of this historic venue. The original Sazerac bar in the Quarter closed with the arrival of Prohibition, and reopened nearby when that “Noble Experiment” overstayed its welcome. Arguably America’s first cocktail, the Sazerac was invented in New Orleans in the mid- to late 1800s, and evolved over time from cognac and absinthe to rye whiskey and Herbsaint, which is how it’s still made today at The Roosevelt hotel landmark — with New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s Bitters, of course. Historically, women were not allowed in the bar except on Mardi Gras — that is, until the 1949 “Stormin’ of the Sazerac,” an event that turns 65 on September 26, and will be celebrated with a re-creation of that extraordinary moment.
The Drink: The official cocktail of New Orleans since 2008, the Sazerac is now made here with Sazerac brand rye whiskey by Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery.