A Whirlwind Trip To The ‘Spiritual Home’ of the Cocktail

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This story was published in Bartender Magazine’s October issue.
By David Spanton

I have just returned from Tales of the Cocktail and a cocktail icon, New Orleans. In just a few short days I managed to see some of the most amazing bars I have ever set foot into and become pals with many of the world’s leading drinks aficionados. Well, if not pals, at least I got a chance to have a chat with some of the names I have been hearing for the past decade. For me it was also a real treat to enjoy someone else’s event and see how the big USA boys and their even bigger budgets throw one hell of a party!  The real reason for attending this annual bartender love-in was that we were invited to do a presentation on Australian bar and drinking culture appropriately titled ‘From Convicts to Cocktailians’. And I must say it went pretty well even if we had to resort to handing out a few boomerangs and showing a picture of Miranda Kerr to keep their attention!

This trip was an absolute sensory overload and trying to attend just a fraction of the official seminars and parties proved difficult for even a seasonal drinker/traveller such as myself. As the wise David Wondrich wrote in referring to first time Tales visitors: “Don’t feel bad, too much paradise is not paradise.” And boy, that’s the truth. There is just so much going on at this event that you have to make sure you slow down for a minute. Its important to find time to step outside the hotel functions and seminars and visit a few local back street bars or get out of the city and head for some local southern cuisine. That’s what made my Tales visit so special. In addition to attending a bunch of seminars and tastings I loved walking the streets soaking up this city’s wealth of history and drinking culture.

So, if you get the chance to go to Louisiana, here are a few joints that you should definitely check out:

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Fritzel’s Jazz Pub

733 Bourbon Street, French Quarter

This little gem was suggested to me by Dale DeGroff while catching up at one of the many official cocktail parties. Dale raved about its live Jazz and intimate cosy atmosphere which I must say is world’s away from most of its neighbours along the notorious Bourbon Street (think Surfers Paradise during Schoolies but every day and night of the week!).  For over a quarter of a century this bar has been playing to packed audiences most nights and is widely considered to offer some of New Orleans best jazz. Considering this town is the birth place of jazz that’s a big honour. Try and get in early to snag a prime seat at the bar.

Fritzels Europen Jazz Pub

Johnny White’s Bar

733 St. Peter St, New Orleans

Now let me explain first up that there are three bars on the same block all called ‘Johnny White’s’ but all three are very different. The one I am suggesting is on St Peters Street which is just off Bourbon Street. The other two bars with the same name on Bourbon Street are more full-on, attracting hoards of loud frat boys. This place was a suggestion from a local enjoying a lunch time cleanser who I met while sitting at the bar at Napoleon House earlier in the day. I genuinely think one of upsides of visiting bars by myself (which I tend to do while travelling) is that you get to meet the many locals and this town was without question one of the friendliest places I have ever visited. Anyway, back to Johnny Whites. Did I mention you can still smoke in most bars in this great town? Sliding up to the bar I lit up a nice Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No 2 and ordered one of this town’s famous classic cocktails, The Hurricane (up to 6 ounces of white and golden rum along with some orange and pineapple juice topped with crushed ice and grenadine served in a plastic pint cup). I can see the benefit of such a strong, cold and fruity concoction in such a humid climate but for me it was just a bit of a novelty as like so many homegrown classics they tend to be sickly sweet and over the top. My tour guide friend I meet earlier informed me it’s where Hunter S Thompson spent many hours writing and imbibing (and a few other things I’m sure) plus the apartment right across the street is where the famous stage play A Street Car Named Desire was based. For the past forty years I’m sure this place hasn’t changed much and if you want to experience one the world’s greatest dive bars then you have to drop into Johnny Whites.

Johnny White's Bar

Napoleon House

500 Chartres Street, New Orleans

If there was one bar you just have to visit when visiting New Orleans then it’s Napoleon House with its colourful history and charm. Over 200 years ago the building’s first occupant, Nicholas Girod, was mayor of New Orleans from 1812 to 1815. He enlarged his house to accommodate his homeland hero and the then exiled emperor Napoleon who he planned to rescue off the Island of St Helena with fellow New Orleans townsman pirate Jean Lafitte (another great bar named after this famous pirate also exists in this town). Unfortunately Napoleon died before they could undertake their rescue mission but the name stuck and it has been a popular bar and restaurant for almost the past 100 years. Once inside, it’s wall-to-wall Napoleon artwork (something I’m sure the emperor would have approved of) but done tastefully. The classical music helps remind you of the history of this place along with a their laid back atmosphere where you can enjoy some of the best local southern French cuisine – from gumbo to jambalaya – along with their signature drink the Pimms Cup.

Napoleon House

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

2401 Saint Ann Street, New Orleans

Willie Mae’s is about a 10 minute cab ride out of town for what the locals describe as, “the best fried chicken in New Orleans.” The drive out will also give you a firsthand look at the devastation that Hurricane Katrina had on this city five years ago. So many streets and houses are just abandoned and still in complete ruins. Around Willie Mae’s there is very little re-building going on and only due to the some very generous donations was this landmark establishment able to re-build and re-open. Check out YouTube as there is a great documentary called ‘Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House’ that also interviews the one and only Willie Mae herself. Now what you need to order here is the signature fried chicken that they have been serving up from this same location for over 57 years. We tried a mix of their white meat cuts (more expensive by a few dollars) and their dark meat cuts and we all agreed the flavour was the best with the dark meat. This all gets washed down with their refreshing homemade lemonade. If a local restaurant doing good old fashioned southern cooking and creole cuisine is what you want, then this place has it in spades. If your thinking about using your plastic then take note of their sign on their wall that reads “In god we trust – all else pay cash.”

Willie Mae's Scotch House

Willie Mae's famous fried chicken
“Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House” documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uVUNpkvAiA

Carousel Bar

Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal Street, New Orleans

This place was Tales HQ and you can consider yourself lucky to even get a seat at the Carousel bar day or night during the week of the festival. The hotel I told, is the last family owned hotel in the French Quarter and is a real old school, elegant establishment in every way. Since 1949 this 25-seat revolving Carousel piano bar has been mostly catering to intrigued tourists like myself as the locals tell me the drinks are a little too expensive for their liking. It was impossible to really get a true feel for what this bar is capable of as the staff were just slammed day and night. In saying that I’m sure during a quieter week it would be a wonderful place to sit back take a few spins with friends while listen to some local jazz. You should also order the drink they are most famous for – the Vieux Carre Cocktail (1/2 teaspoon Benedictine, dash Peychaud, dash Angostura,1/3 shot each rye whiskey, cognac and dry vermouth – shake and serve on the rocks with a twist of lemon).

Carousel Bar

The Sazerac Bar

The Roosevelt Hotel, 123 Baronne Street, New Orleans

Originally opened in 1893 as The Grunewald it quickly becomes one of the South’s first grand hotels. In 1923 it was sold and re-named the Roosevelt Hotel in honour of the late former president Theodore Roosevelt.  Another name change to the Fairmont Hotel occurred in coming years then in 2005 the Fairmont closed its doors and undertook a $145 million restoration to return this grand old dame to her former glory and again she was back to the Roosevelt Hotel (Yes that took me a few re-reads of my research to understand that!).  Their famous Sazerac Bar also received a facelift while keeping her original design much the same. Take a look above the back door of the bar and you can see a bullet hole that missed the then, hotel resident and colourful governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long. The drink named in the bar’s honour has been around in one form or another since the early 19th century being served in coffee houses though out the French Quarter until one named the Sazerac House moved into the hotel in 1949 where it has been ever since. Originally made with Cognac over the years it has been substituted with a more local spirit Rye whiskey. Some say the reason for this is that back in the 1870s and 1880s a phylloxera epidemic devastated the French wine region of Cognac creating an international shortage of Cognac and so the cocktail was substituted with a robust Rye whiskey. The original recipe also used absinthe, and although again legal to acquire, many bars including the Sazerac Bar, still tend to make theirs with a popular substitute called Herbsaint, Pernod or Absente.

This again is a must-visit for any self respecting bartender and drinks aficionado.

The Sazerac Bar

Arnaud’s French 75

813 Bienville Street, New Orleans

You will have to wait a while for your drinks at Araud’s as on both my visits they seemed terribly understaffed (probably due to Tales commitments!) but they are absolutely worth the wait. Let me explain that this bar didn’t invent the famed French 75 as that honour goes to Harry’s Bar in Paris in 1915. Instead, founder and French wine salesman Arnaud Cazenave opened a ‘gentleman’s only area’ within his restaurant in honour of his homeland’s famed concoction. Today it’s one of the best places to enjoy a well made cocktail and you must of course try the French 75 (1 1/2 oz Gin, 2 oz Lemon Juice and sugar syrup, topped with Champagne). They also pride themselves on their range of premium hand rolled cigars (non-Cuban of course) that you can also enjoy inside the bar. God love Louisiana!

Arnaud's French-75

Cool New Orleans video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzVCHv6FSbg

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