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Cocktail Culture: New Orleans's New Classics

by Kelsy Chauvin
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Feb 17, 2015

In a city virtually built on spirits, New Orleans cocktail culture stirs up plenty of memorable concoctions. Some, like Pat O'Brien's world-famous rum-based Hurricane, may be punchy and sweet and served in a giant souvenir cup. Others are more refined, like the "official cocktail of New Orleans," the Sazerac, a cognac-based drink that's been poured since the 1850s.

No matter your locale, budget or predilections, the Big Easy is undoubtedly one of the cocktail capitals of the world - and the French Quarter is its epicenter. Here's a taste of what's on the menus, from the old school to the new classics.

Cane & Table
The "cane" here is a reference to the almighty sugar cane, from which rum is born. Cane & Table, new to the Quarter in 2013, has made the Caribbean's favorite spirit its staple. The bar stocks more than 30 rums, and a good dozen more "rhums"-a variation made directly from sugar cane (not a byproduct of molasses, as regular rums are) in French-speaking islands like Martinique.

Cane & Table is a spacious outpost just a stone's throw from the French Market, with a quiet courtyard and handsome bartenders equipped with more cocktail knowledge than many of us will ever learn in a lifetime. These mixologists hate being called mixologists, and yet what they do behind the bar can seem like bona-fide science experiments custom-crafted to dazzle your tastebuds.

They may school you on any number of intoxicating ingredients dotting the menu, such as house-made "shrubs," which are fortified fruit or herb juices. Or they may limit you to only one Zombie, a $32 concoction of liquors that add up to more than 500 proof, all in one glass. "This drink is not for the meek," says bartender Braeden. "Luckily no one's ever asked for a second one."

But then, meek drinkers don't last long in New Orleans.

Cane & Table
1113 Decatur Street

Napoleon House

Few U.S. establishments can claim the longevity of the Napoleon House, established 1797. Even fewer can claim that their proprietor invited a condemned emperor (that would be Napoleon) to spend his exile there. Both are the case with this famous French Quarter bar. But what many Napoleon House patrons prefer far more than the house lore is the house cocktail: the Pimm's Cup.

Though it was invented in England, the Pimm's Cup is this bar's signature drink. Long ago bartenders made it their own, varying its original recipe of Pimm's No. 1, lemonade and cucumber garnish to include a carbonated splash of ginger ale or 7-Up. The souvenir cup is optional.

Here you can pull up a stool at the well-worn bar and properly absorb two centuries of character, while watching the bow-tied bartenders mix and shake drinks as they chat up thirsty guests. History coats the walls in the form of faded portraits and splotchy paint, and tourists line up for not just the Pimm's Cup, but homemade gumbo and muffaletta sandwiches (another New Orleans classic) served inside or in the shady courtyard.

Napoleon House
500 Chartres Street

Bombay Club

Some people like their cocktails up, so they head to an upscale place like the Bombay Club Restaurant and Martini Bistro. Located within the Prince Conti Hotel, this long-running piano bar has all the trappings of an old-boy's club, complete with nightly jazz but minus the stuffy attitude. Think cushy diamond-tufted seating, perfectly chilled glasses, a dress code that discourages shorts and jeans and bartenders who've built entire careers from their martini shakers.

Speaking of martinis, here's the place to try one. For $12, pick your favorite top-shelf gin or vodka, name your preferred variation - be it extra-dry, dirty, or with a twist-and let your chilled concoction go straight to your head. But the menu hardly stops at martinis, and this being the Bombay club, gin is key to many signature cocktails. For example, the Vesper proportions a smooth blend of gin, vodka and Lillet, while the classic Aviation combines gin, maraschino liqueur, and crème de violet.

The Bombay Club closed for a few weeks this summer for renovations, but reopens with refurbished-classic style in November 2014.

Bombay Club
830 Conti Street

French 75

Being housed inside Arnaud's, one of the French Quarter's most famous restaurants, is not the only reason for the French 75 Bar's fanfare. The modestly sized lounge also whips up simply elegant cocktails in a throwback setting, right down to the ashtrays that welcome cigar smoking. The dark mahogany and antique mirrors add to the yesteryear vibe while vintage French music and animal-print seating send romance adrift.

Behind the bar, meet genteel bartenders clad in white jackets, masterfully mixing potions as they regale you with mini history lessons of liqueurs and other libations. The namesake French 75 cocktail comes as an effervescent medley of either brandy or gin with Champagne and lemon juice; but it originated as a cognac drink so potent it was "like being hit with a French 75mm rifle." Oh the things we learn at the edge of an enchanting bar!

Don't miss the trapped-in-time Mardi Gras costume museum upstairs to round out your retro French Quarter trip and see how fabulous carnival queens used to dress.

French 75
813 Rue Bienville

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction and LGBT interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.


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