In the delta of the Mississippi lies the home of a few classic cocktails – the Sazerac, Vieux Carré, Ramos Gin Fizz and the Hurricane. The establishments of yesteryear were ornately adorned with fancy chandeliers, brass rails, fine-wood bars and aptly dressed bar men and women. Over the course of the 20th century, though, the public’s taste became simpler and bland, opting for whiskey and sodas, beers and shots in lieu of finely made drinks.
A decade ago, the French Quarter had turned into a frat party, especially during Mardi Gras. Then came the Renaissance of the early 21st century. The revival of cocktail culture brewed a storm of new bars and creativity is rising throughout the Big Easy. I’ve had the privilege of sitting at some of these places, and they are a must when you visit New Orleans:
Located well outside the bustle of the Quarter in the Uptown neighborhood, Cure offers a laundry list of libations and potations that are made well and demand attention. This bar echoes back to the era of drinking and eating well. They focus on products that are not heavily marketed, so there’s a great opportunity to get outside your comfort zone and experience a new flavor. They have a set of House Rules, an idea that I’m not too fond of, but they do it right and without pretension. I absolutely love the opening sentences and couldn’t agree more with them: “Traditionally cocktail bars have been bastions of civility and sophistication. Different from saloons where the point was to become inebriated rapidly and economically, the cocktail bar was a place where ladies and gentlemen went to socialize in a productive and cultured way.” THIS is the new New Orleans drinking culture. They have set a standard that was much needed and execute very well. You do not want to leave NOLA without a visit here.
I came across this bar by sheer luck. I haven’t heard a peep from anyone about this gem located in the International House just a few blocks outside the Quarter, and I can’t understand why. For the love of God, get here. I was absolutely blown away at the amount of creativity behind this bar. It looks as if the mastermind behind this program was once a chef, or at least went to culinary school. The amount of herbs, spices, fresh produce, and care they use to create cocktails is something I haven’t seen, well, ever in New Orleans. Being a culinary school attendee myself and my affinity with unique flavor combinations, I was in complete heaven. The gem of the night at this bar was the Johnny & June – a blend of gin and scotch with a plum cardamom essence and kumquat. The fruit and spice elevated the botanicals in the gin and the maltiness of the scotch blended well with the citrus of the kumquat. If there ever were such thing as a mouth orgasm, this would be a stimulator. I’m going to say it. This is the best bar in New Orleans for creative cocktails.
This cocktail bar is the most inviting one in all of New Orleans. It reminds me of the atmosphere at Sanctuaria [where Seiter is the bar manager] - low key with awesome drinks and a chill setting. The warmness of the exposed brick and the fact the bartenders are dressed in T-shirts and jeans just reminded me of home. The fresh produce and herbs that adorn the bar top are signs that they take their drinks serious. Their liquor selection is small, but well stocked with quality spirits. Imagine gathering at a friend’s house on the Southside of St. Louis for a cocktail party in one of those old brick houses. That is Tonique. Again, a must-go-to bar. FYI: I love the Corpse Reviver #2 cocktail (gin, Lillet blanc, lemon juice, Cointreau, absinthe), and they make a damn fine one.
These two bars are old ones. They’ve been around for decades. The cocktail programs have been revamped over the past few years and they are killing it old school-style. Both bars are eclectic, the bartenders dress in white blazers (how they stay so clean is beyond me), and the drinks are worth every penny. When you walk into these shrines, you will be taken back in time. They are splendid sights and are second to none when it comes to putting you in the mood for a cocktail, which is exactly what I did. I had a Southern Gentleman at the Sazerac Bar – wonderful blend of bourbon, lemon juice, fresh blackberries, mint, and sugar. It’s a refreshing libation utilizing fresh berries and mint with my favorite spirit – whiskey. Hey, if it’s brown, I’m down. If I had more time, I would have gulped multiples of these. They’re quite addicting.
Unfortunately for me, the two times I made it to French 75 were during events. I wanted to sit at the bar and chat with the staff, but their available time and mine just didn’t jive. However, the drinks served at the events were stellar. The one I recall from the Imbibe Magazine Happy Hour consisted of Four Roses bourbon, Campari, grenadine, mint, lemon juice and Tiziano Prosecco. Head barman, Chris Hannah, created it and for the life of me I can’t remember what it was called. My apologies, Chris.
Chris Hannah, the head barman at French 75, is a must-meet person. Professionalism, booze expert, and fun are a few adjectives that first come to mind when I describe this gent to people. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Chris a few times, both at his bar and at outside events. I can’t think of a finer individual I want to meet up with when I travel to New Orleans. Plus he makes a damn fine drink. This year, though, with it being the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail, he was a little busy. I went to two events at French 75 and he had time to say hello and get a drink order. Organized chaos is what happened and his staff executed the nights like a world-class symphony. Poetry in motion and the drinks didn’t suffer. On a quieter night, go say hello and tell him I said the same.
731 St. Peter Street
OK. This is not a cocktail bar, but one I frequent every time I go to New Orleans. I was introduced to this dive a few years ago by one of my buddies from Milwaukee, Mathias Simonas. Every Tales, we try to meet up for at least a beer and a shot there. My heart belongs to this bar. They have three televisions, one of which has the movie Boondock Saints playing on repeat. The jukebox is loaded with many awesome bar songs that many sing along to. And the ladies who run the bar there (Jenny K, Traci, Jamie, Alicia and Stephanie) always make sure we have a good time and then some. (Thank you, Jenny, for this year). Budweiser and Jameson, friends and songs, stories and fables all unfold at this place. Go say hello to my favorite group of gals in all of New Orleans. Then get a shot of Jameson and tell them I said, “tag.” They’ll understand.
Matt Seiter is a co-founder of the United States Bartenders’ Guild’s St. Louis chapter, a member of the national board for the USBG’s MA program and a continuing educator for all desiring knowledge of the craft of mixology. He is a member of Drink Lab and is the creator of the Sanctuaria Cocktail Club. He also pens our monthly What We're Drinking column.