New Orleans: Cocktail Capitol of the USA
It’s an endless dispute…where the first cocktail was mixed can be debated for a lifetime. The Museum of the
American Cocktail acknowledges right away in one of its exhibits that the word cocktail was first used in an 1806 Hudson, NY newspaper article. Now with the historical quibbling out of the way, you can move on to the fun stuff…getting to the bottom of how cocktails originated over time and how they’re still evolving. And what better place to do this than in New Orleans, the heart and soul of cocktail innovation!
Founded by renowned mixologists, along with food and drink writers, the Museum of the American Cocktail opened its first exhibit in 2005 at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. After weathering Hurricane Katrina, the museum has finally found a permanent home in the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at Riverwalk Marketplace. Exhibits are a conglomeration of rare spirits, recipe books, Prohibition-era literature and music, vintage cocktail shakers, glassware, tools, and relics of ’50s bachelor-pad paraphernalia. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch an onsite tasting.
New Orleans’ Cultural Influence
But far more importantly, you’ll come away from this place understanding what makes New Orleans fertile ground for cocktail creation. New Orleans reached prominence as the largest metropolis in the antebellum South and had the highest death rate of any American city. Slave brutality was out in the open yet a considerable population of free blacks enjoyed tolerance. Being a ruff and tumble port town in a hurricane zone for centuries, New Orleans experienced extreme decadence, disease and racial strife coupled with ecstatic festivities and intermingling cultures including French, Spanish, and Caribbean. Life was historically short and filled with suffering, so it’s not hard to see how the carnivalesque atmosphere here springs from wanting live life to the fullest
Cocktail Legends are Born
With sugar cane a local commodity and French cultural influences strong, New Orleans was fertile ground for seeking
out the next best concoction. Through ritualistic preparation and cleverly disguised hard hitting liquor, cocktails began as medicine. One example, Antoine Peychaud, an apothecary in the French Quarter during the 1830s, sold his own homemade bitters. Soon he realized that these bitters tasted better mixed with sugar, cognac, and water. He measured out this concoction with an egg cup (“coquetier”). The original Sazerac, a house specialty served at the Sazerac Coffeehouse (now the Roosevelt Hotel) used only Sazerac-brand cognac. The resulting recipe is exacting:
- Chill a small rocks glass filled with ice, then empty the ice into a second glass. In the first glass, add 1 cube of sugar, 1 teaspoon of water, and 2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters.
- Muddle together until sugar dissolves (alternatively, use simple syrup instead of a sugar cube and water).
- Add 3 ounces rye whiskey and stir.
- Pour mixture into the ice-filled glass.
- Pour a teaspoon of absinthe into the empty glass, and twirl it around well to coat the inside of the glass, then pour out any absinthe that remains in the bottom.
- Strain the main mixture out of the ice-filled glass into the absinthe-coated glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.