Drinks in Jazz Time

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2005

A couple of thousand mixologists, bar scribes, and cocktail aficionados converged in New Orleans to let the good times spirits roll from bottle to glass to table.

There are food towns and resort towns, scenic towns and gambling towns. New Orleans may be a little bit of each, but above all else, The Big Easy is a cocktail town. Whether enjoying a matutinal Sazerac at Tujague's stand-up bar, an invigorating Ramos Gin Fizz at brunch, or a last-call Hurricane sloshed in a to-go cup, every drink in this city is steeped in history. And even the viscous August air failed to deter the attendees at the 2004 Southern Comfort's Tales of the Cocktail, a three day congregation of the country's leading drinks writers, mixologists, and cocktail aficionados in a celebration of the sophisticated side of drinking in this perpetually waterlogged drink-besotted city.

With the event in its second year, the opening cocktail party at the iconic Hotel Monteleone brought together 20 authors and mixologists, including Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail; Dianna Seay, author of 173 Pre-Prohibition Cocktails: Potations So Good They Scandalized a President; and David Wondrich, author of Esquire Drinks: An Opinionated & Irreverent Guide to Drinking. The authors exercised coordination, signing books with one hand and stirring drinks with the other, as they plied their wares to a receptive audience of over 600 people.

The walk-around event was free and open to the public, thanks to the sponsorship of Hotel Monteleone and Southern Comfort, which was invented here along with a hit parade of New Orleans cocktail classics: Sazerac, Cocktail à la Louisiane, Absinthe Frappé, Ramos Gin Fizz, Jean Laffite Cocktail, Vieux Carré, et al.

Like a flash mob, the cocktail crowd quickly dispersed on foot: virtually everyone had an 8 p.m. dinner reservation for one of the 12 simultaneous Spirited Dinners--fine dining affairs where local chefs worked with the attending cocktail gurus to create paired menus. Dinners ranged from $55 to $100. "The restaurants really love this because August is traditionally a slow time of year, so it brings a welcome crowd. And they're all historic restaurants, so the chefs are genuinely excited about the flavors and history of the cocktails," says Rogers, rattling off the participating first families of New Orleans dining, like Antoine's, Arnaud's, Brennan's, Broussard's, Galatoire's, and Muriel's.

Randy Buck, executive chef of The Hunt Room in the Hotel Monteleone, simply handed off his menu and was delighted with the accompanying cocktails chosen by Thomas Connors, author of Meet Me in the Bar: Classic Drinks from America's Historic Hotels. For an entrée of tenderloin of beef Rockefeller with Herbsaint scented spinach, he lifted the Vieux Carré cocktail, an original of the hotel's revolving Carousel Bar. "The whiskey and Cognac stand up well to the beef," observed Buck, "and the Herbsaint spinach makes it come together sort of like a Sazerac." For dessert, a Champagne cocktail with kumquats and Tuaca, a cordial with vanilla and caramel flavors from Mittie Hellmich's Paradise on Ice: 50 Fabulous Tropical Cocktails, made a beautiful complement to Buck's pecan tuile napoleon layered with vanilla custard, poached apples, and berries.

Wondrich, who collaborated with John DeMers (The Top 100 New Orleans Recipes of All Time) to pair drinks with the menu of chef Tommy DiGiovanni of Arnaud's, says, "Wine has a wide variety of flavors, but not as wide as cocktails. I have about 20,000 options." Confronted with lobster bisque, Wondrich seized on the notion of Sherry and proffered the Tuxedo, noting "the lean and mellow combination of gin, Sherry, and bitters plays against the richness of the bisque." He chose the Rose cocktail, a 1920s combination of vermouth and kirschwasser, to accompany pan-fried medallions of veal with jumbo lump crab. "The Rose is a very delicate drink, kind of calm, a little bit mysterious, a little nutty in taste, so it brought a kind of Creole elegance to the veal," says Wondrich.

Observing the intent interest from the trade at the inaugural event, Tales of the Cocktail added several free seminars for industry pros in 2004, including DeGroff's seminar on the history of the cocktail and its evolution from the 19th century to the present, held in the Library Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans. With attendance topping 2,000 in 2004, Tales of the Cocktail is expanding dramatically once again for its third annual session, scheduled for August 18 to 21, 2005. In addition to the cocktail hour and Spirited Dinners, a Mix It Up event will be added, with a section of the street marked off for historic displays and shopping. And among the expanded industry seminars will be one on starting a cocktail consultation business. The celebration will also include the participation of The Museum of the American Cocktail on the second floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (see "Reigning Pours," Food Arts, December 2004).

Of course, other cities have their own cocktail history worth celebrating. But as early as 1937, in his oft reprinted Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em, Stanley Clisby Arthur observed, "The quality of mixed drinks as served in New Orleans has always appealed to the sophisticated taste, but the drinks and their histories are forever linked with the past of this pleasure-loving city out of which has come so much that is beautiful and gay, and so much that is worth preserving."

A Sip of New Orleans

"Jeffery Lindenmuth"

Tuxedo

  • 2 oz. gin
  • 1 oz. dry (fino) Sherry
  • 1 dash Fee Bros. West Indian Orange Bitters
  • Lemon peel, sliced thin

Combine gin, Sherry, and bitters with cracked ice; stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass; twist lemon peel over the top.

Rose

  • 2 oz. dry vermouth
  • 1 oz. kirschwasser
  • 1 teaspoon raspberry syrup

Combine ingredients with cracked ice; stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

Vieux Carré

  • 1/2 oz. Cognac
  • 1/2 oz. rye whiskey
  • 1/2 oz. dry vermouth
  • Dash Benedictine
  • Dash each Peychaud and Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients; shake with ice. Strain into Old Fashioned glass.

Kumquat Tuaca Champagne Cocktail

  • 1 oz. Tuaca liqueur
  • 4 to 5 oz. Champagne
  • 1 to 2 kumquats, halved
  • vanilla bean
  • carved kumquat flower

Pour Tuaca and Champagne into flute; squeeze kumquat halves into the glass. Garnish with vanilla bean and kumquat flower.