With a nod to the past but sights firmly fixed on the future, head to the Big Easy’s world-renowned bar scene for a true taste of Southern-style hospitality
Built on a marsh six feet below sea level, between a river and a lake, it is something of a miracle that New Orleans exists in and of itself.
That New Orleans continues to thrive despite the precipitous nature of its geography is testament to the grit of its inhabitants and must in some way be responsible for The Big Easy’s historical tendency to go against the grain.
It is, after all, known as the most un-American of American cities, for its melting pot of cultures, architecture, cooking and cocktails.
‘New Orleans: So Far Behind We’re Ahead’ read local bumper stickers and souvenir tees, and why wouldn’t they be proud of their past?
The city’s legendary jazz and Prohibition-era heritage is what has cultured its world-renowned bar scene, and the city will once again host the international drinks industry at its annual celebration at Tales of the Cocktail in July.
It may not be the birthplace of the cocktail (spirits historian David Wondrich insists that England was adding bitters to booze a century earlier) but New Orleans has been the cocktail capital of the world since 1800.
A heady list of concoctions were invented here, from the Sazerac – generally considered to be the first official cocktail – to the Ramos Gin Fizz, popularized by New Orleans’ Governor Huey P Long, who brought one of his bartenders with him on a trip to New York to teach staff at The New Yorker hotel how to mix his favorite tipple.
If you’re visiting during Mardi Gras in February or the Jazz & Heritage festival in April, you’ll want to sidestep the gimmicky Hand Grenades and tooth-dissolvingly sweet Hurricanes served along the tourist traps on Bourbon Street (if you really must order a Hurricane, make sure it’s at Erin Rose).
Yes, New Orleans might have one foot in the past but its very best cocktail bars are leading the way in terms of mixology.
Somewhat paradoxically, cocktails evolved out of medicinal tinctures and home remedies to aid your health. Cure, an upmarket joint in Freret, delves back into that mindset, spiking drinks with reviving ingredients such as génépi flower, traditionally used to make a herbal liqueur that’s popular in the Alps.
Its imaginative concoctions and gothic-loft interior have won it accolades that include being heralded as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars. As in Europe, this is the sort of place where you really ought to order a few nibbles with your beverage; just as well really, as it would be hard to turn down Pimento Cheese Toasties and Crawfish Stuffed Peppers.
By the same team, and equally well worth your dollar, is Cane & Table. Here it’s all about rum, so you’d be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into Old Havana.
It describes its style as ‘prototiki’, but don’t be put off by the pretentious nametag – essentially its draws inspiration from sources that influenced the tiki bars of the 1930s, such as Ernest Hemingway’s writing. Expect lots of big tropical flavors with a tongue-in-cheek twist. Order the daily punch, which is usually rooted in historical recipes.
Another tiki-style newcomer is Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29. It’s run by Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, who has spent over two decades unearthing ‘lost’ exotic drinks.
If you’re in a big group (at least eight) you must order the Plantocracy Punch. I won’t tell you what’s in it, just know that it’s the same concoction that the West Indians employed to get their guests ‘curiously’ sauced. You will most definitely feel like you are on holiday here.
‘Have fun’ reads the motto at Pat O’Brien’s, and you really can’t fail to have a good time here. While it’s not the most refined bar in town – all the glassware is emblazoned with its logo – it makes the cut for its raucous live music, good-time Charlie attitude and unbeatable chartreuse sour.
This is a bar for real New Orleanians: “Even though millions of people visit Pat O’s every year, locals are the reason the doors stay open,” says Shelly Waguespack, who has led the bar into the 21st century.
For something truly classic it’s hard to beat The Blue Room at The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which once played home to lively supper clubs. Everyone from Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles to Ella Fitzgerald has played here, and to this day it retains the original stage arrangement from 1933, when it opened on New Year’s Eve.
While you’re at the hotel, make time for a swift one in The Roosevelt’s Sazerac Bar, which first opened when Prohibition was repealed. It’s the best place to sample New Orleans’ official drink which gives the bar its name: a mixture of Sazerac Rye, Peychaud’s Bitters, sugar and Herbsaint, a liqueur that was produced to replace absinthe in the 1930s.
If you do find yourself on Bourbon Street – which you undoubtedly will – you’ll be in safe hands at Arnaud’s French 75 bar. Drink industry expert Giuseppe Gallo, who owns Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, says: “Arnaud 75 is one of my favorite spots for a drink and to indulge in head bartender Chris Hannah’s truly southern style of hospitality.”
The only libation you should really order at Arnaud’s is the French 75. Invented here in the 1800s, it mixes Cognac, fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup and Champagne (Arnaud’s uses Moët) to refined effect.
Back in its heyday it was a gentlemen-only bar but, today, everybody’s welcome. Whatever you do, prop yourself up on the bar – it was custom-built for a Gulf Coast restaurant in the 19th century.
One thing you can be sure of, no matter where you choose to wet your whistle, your tipple will come with a huge dollop of Southern hospitality.
Book your stay at The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel. More information at therooseveltneworleans.com