Nah. Blame the peculiarities of the Third Coast on our strange cocktails
A lot of people in other parts of this big country have an opinion about life along the Third Coast. Peculiar is a word that comes up regularly.
In polite company, they say it must be something in the water. Well, they’re wrong.
Oh sure, taken together, the food, the accents, the driving, the weather and the attitude make it impossible to deny that this part of the world is quite a few steps over the property line of peculiar. What people are wrong about is thinking it’s the water. Have they seen our cocktails?
Consider the Sazerac or the Hurricane or the Crusta, the frozen margarita and the refreshing Ranch Water. These aren’t imports.
Cocktails in these parts are kind of an imbiber’s version of the famed Louisiana dish gumbo, a conglomeration of cultures, environs and tastes all coming together to explode into something just not found in other regions.
And even in this region there are regions. New Orleans is in a class of its own in the history of sipping civilization. Outside of that city, another family of cocktails fill the happy hour cups, drifting from Cajun country into Texas where influences from cowboys and Mexico form a blend.
“In general, I would say that the New Orleans and the Gulf Coast cocktail scenes are two different worlds, albeit with some overlap,” said Dylan O’Donnell, also known as, coincidentally, Doctor Gumbo, owner of Doctor Gumbo Tours in New Orleans. His tours focus on New Orleans cocktails and the city’s cocktail history.
“For New Orleans, think bartender in a white tuxedo, Louis Armstrong echoing gently from the speakers,” O’Donnell said. “For Gulf Coast, think feet in the sand and Jimmy Buffett on the jukebox.”
Such are the peculiarities of a region that hands out a Texas Paloma made with tequila, fresh ruby red grapefruit juice and simple syrup at one bar and, at another, a Vieux Carré, a potent 1930s-era cocktail gumbo made with brandy and liqueur from France, Italian vermouth, Kentucky bourbon and Caribbean bitters. It’s why, after several Vieux Carrés, people can speak in tongues.
“Gulf Coast cocktails tend be rum-forward, given the historical relationship with pirates, sugarcane plantations and the Caribbean,” O’Donnell said. “Throughout the Gulf Coast, you’ll find the propensity to offer large, gaudy plastic cups full of sickly sweet yet seriously boozy concoctions, often with thematic designs or catchy names. This has been the case here long before Vegas picked up the trend. In this vein, NOLA and the Gulf Coast find common ground in drinks like the Hurricane, the Hand Grenade and the Fish Bowl.”
With its connection both to the Gulf of Mexico and to the Mississippi River, New Orleans had from earliest times a plethora of choices for filling its bar shelves. There has long been rye from Canada, bourbons from the mid-South, all kinds of exotic liquors and liqueurs from Europe and rums coming from the islands of the Caribbean and the coastal countries of South America. The results, even if the creations were supposedly for medicinal purposes, put New Orleans alongside New York and Paris for being the birthplace of drinks now called classics.
“New Orleans’ classic cocktails are definitely in a league of their own,” O’Donnell said. “From the Sazerac to the Vieux Carré, what you’ll find is a complex approach to multiple spirits, especially brandy and whiskey, and the use of aromatic cocktail bitters such as angostura and New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s. The Sazerac cocktail, in particular, can be ordered with rye whiskey, or cognac, or both. The former spirit a nod to the American influence post-Louisiana Purchase, the latter a nod to her French colonial roots.”
As early as 1852, the city was making a cocktail name for itself. That was the year Joseph Santina opened the Jewel of the South, and along with it, began serving his own invention, the Brandy Crusta. Made with brandy, maraschino liqueur, Cointreau and lemon juice, it gets its name from the lightly sugared rim of the glass in which it’s served.
Today, there’s a gastro pub in the French Quarter called Jewel of the South, but it isn’t the same one where the Crusta was born. Just the same, the bar scene in it has received accolades far and wide.
“The bartending scene in New Orleans is so full of energy, creativity and talent,” O’Donnell said. “All over the city you’ll find barkeeps riffing on all the great classics like the Sazerac, the Old Fashioned, the Negroni and beyond. But if I had to pick one, I’d say that anything Chris Hannah is serving at Jewel of the South is a classic in the making. Even if it’s not on the menu, check out his Bywater cocktail.”
One of the world’s most famous gin concoctions, right next to the gin and tonic, made its debut in a bar inside New Orleans’ Meyer’s Table D’Hotel International in 1888. It was created by bartender Henry C. Ramos and was unique not just because it was made with gin, but because of its signature frothy egg whites in which the gin was mixed.
The Ramos Gin Fizz got additional fame when it became a favorite of the legendary Gov. Huey P. Long. When visiting New York, Long took his own bartender to provide him the drink, both sharing it with guests and then declaring it his gift to the Big Apple. Talk was he had the Airline Highway constructed from the capitol in Baton Rouge to New Orleans so he could get to the Sazerac Bar, where Ramos was then working, and have his Gin Fizz 40 minutes faster. Ramos later sold his rights to the drink to the Roosevelt Hotel, where it can be had today.
For the historic parts of Doctor Gumbo’s tours, O’Donnell has a favorite, though lesser known cocktail to tout.
“Honestly, the Roffignac is the sleeper hit of my Cocktail History Tour,” he said. “No one has ever heard of it, including the locals who come along. To be honest, I had never heard of it while growing up in New Orleans, but it is a solid crowd pleaser, and I think it would be very successful on a larger scale. It has everything you want: it’s refreshing, strong, sweet and sour.”
Another word would be peculiar.
The Roffignac was named after Count Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac, a French-born aristocrat who managed to escape the ravages of the French Revolution — with his head — and settle in New Orleans. He became mayor in 1820, the last New Orleans mayor to have been born in France, and during his two terms, extended the levees, paved Royal and Orleans streets, added gas lighting to parts of downtown, established the city’s first fire department and began what would become a public school system.
Just why the drink was named after him is not clear. It first appeared in the late 1800s, nearly 40 years after the former mayor died at his estate back in France. The drink’s debut was at a Royal Street bar called Mannissiers, which remained open until 1914. It then became the house specialty of a Creole restaurant called Maylie’s, which continued serving it until closing up in 1986 after 110 years in business. Unlike Mayor Roffignac, Mannissiers and Maylie’s, now all part of history, the cocktail lives on.
Texas has made its own mark on cocktail classics. One would need look no further than the frozen margarita, a drink one Dallas restaurant owner was able to mass produce after a late-night stop in front of a Slurpee machine. The three-ingredient Ranch Water, made with tequila, Topo Chico and lime juice over ice, found its way out of West Texas to statewide adoration.
Of course, if more people experienced the wonders of this region’s cocktail scene, it might come to pass they won’t find everyone here quite as peculiar.
But they still shouldn’t drink the water.
This classic New Orleans cocktail recipe comes from Dylan O’Donnell, also known as Doctor Gumbo, owner of Doctor Gumbo Tours in New Orleans. Named after Louis Roffignac, mayor of New Orleans from 1820-28, the cocktail has been around since the late 1800s. O’Donnell describes it as “the sleeper hit of my Cocktail History Tour. No one has ever heard of it.”
1.5 ounces cognac
.75 ounce raspberry liqueur
.25 ounce apple cider vinegar
Build in a highball glass full of ice. Start with cognac, then raspberry liqueur, apple cider vinegar. Fill rest of glass with soda water. Serve with straw (or other stirring device). Garnish with raspberries.