Drink in the History: A Postcard from New Orleans
A fine line separates the Habitual from the Ritual, and somewhere in between, Expediency and Devotion meet. It would take a character of much sterner stuff than I to perform a proper survey, but I know of no other place quite like New Orleans, where the drinking man’s habits live so closely (and in such contrast) to his rituals, where under the guise of a “quick drink” one can still catch a glimpse of the sacred.
The obligatory Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, for instance, might seem like a ritual — don’t let Obligation fool you — but it’s mostly just a garish, frivolous tradition. They let you keep the glass, so, Hey, why not?
No, what we’re looking for is someplace more “churchy,” where the signature quaff of the house has the ring of sacrament and drinking there is a kind of testimony.
So join me on a day tour of my favorite drinking spots in the French Quarter, to a few places I always visit not only because I want to, but because I ought to.
First stop: Napoleon House.
Let’s forget, for the moment, the popular history of the Napoleon House, that it was built by French patriots who, with the help of the pirate Jean Lafitte, planned to bust the Little Guy out of Elba and ensconce him in this place. Try to focus on the present, on the dark little barroom that hasn’t been painted in three or more generations, and let your gaze linger on the busts and portraits of the Little Man himself. There are no TVs, no tunes blaring from a jukebox, just the soft sounds of European classical music — and nothing too Wagnerian.
If done right, this approach will pull you back to an earlier time; the outside world will melt away. If not, stay perched on a barstool and keep waiting — this place will take care of that for you. You can lose most of a day here if you’re not careful. This is, after all, the City That Care Forgot.
The drink here is the Pimm’s Cup. Though not invented in this place, the Napoleon House is positively evangelical about it, pours hundreds every day and, as far as anyone knows, always has.
In 1823, James Pimm began operating the Hogshead Tavern in London and soon went about creating a house “cup” based on gin and a proprietary blend of herbs and spices. It became so popular that by 1859 he was selling “Pimm’s No.1” in bottles on the open market, and folks started mixing drinks with it.
The Pimm’s Cup the Napoleon House pours is an “Americanized” version. Most British recipes call for lemonade, by which they mean something similar to 7-Up or Sprite, whereas the Napoleon House uses real lemonade. It’s a drink perfectly suited to New Orleans and her weather: cold and refreshing, light in alcohol but with a little weight behind it. A body can rehydrate and alcoholize its blood with a couple of these without fear of overcompensation.
With an espresso by its side, a Pimm’s Cup is one of the prettier things in the afternoon. I try to slide a set down my throat every couple hours or so while the sun still shines.
We have a little time to kill before our next stop, and would benefit to learn a little something in the interim. Today’s lesson is about absinthe.
In case you haven’t heard, absinthe is back. The EU forgot to ban the stuff when it formed, and a recent close reading of the FDA’s regulations revealed that as long as your liquor contains less than 35 ppm of thujone (the “poison” in wormwood), you’re all right as far as the Federales are concerned. If you’re using authentic, pre-ban recipes as your template, that threshold is easy to stay under.
New Orleans wears its lust for absinthe on its sleeve; it’s in the DNA of this city. On Bourbon Street, there’s not just the Old Absinthe House, but further down there’s the Old Absinthe House Bar. Out on 2nd Street you’ll find Maison Absinthe, and on Royal Street you’ll find the new Absinthe Museum. A vast collection of advertising, water fountains, spoons and all the other accoutrements of the absinthe maven await you here.
The reasons for New Orleans’ affinity for absinthe at first seem hard to fathom. Luckily, I have a theory: Absinthe’s popularity began to rise on the European continent just as New Orleans was beginning to lose its Frenchy-ness. Absinthe-drinking in the New Orleans of the early to mid 19th century was a mark of cultural identity, differentiating the civilized French Creoles of the French Quarter from the knuckleheaded Americains on the other side of Canal Street.
That, or Anne Rice is behind it.
Can you think of a more ritualistic drink than an absinthe drip? Neither can I. It’s got all the trappings of a junkie’s fix. We have a little time, so let’s slither into the Pirate’s Alley Café and Absinthe Bar for one. Don’t forget that right across the alley is the St. Louis Cathedral — I can’t, and the head reels from the ramifications: the sacred, the profane, pirates, popes, funny hats, water as purifier, water as mollifier… Let’s get outta here.
Next stop: Tujague’s.
Tujague’s was born in 1856 and is easily the oldest “stand up” bar in New Orleans (and quite possibly the oldest in the Unites States). By “stand up,” I mean simply that there are no stools to rest your keister on. “There never have been, so there never will be” seems to be the rule here. This is the second thing that strikes you when you walk in.
The first is the enormous back bar. Shipped over from Paris in 1856, the mirrors have never been resilvered — or so the story goes. If you find your way upstairs to the banquet dining rooms, what awaits you there, hanging on the walls, is a rich photographic history of the French Quarter. Linger, too, at the cabinets displaying one of the largest mini-bottle collections in America.
Tujague’s claims to be the inventor of brunch. They also claim to be the inventor of the Grasshopper cocktail. But this is not why we have come. We are here to see Himself, in the guise of Paul Gustins, and have one of his Sazeracs.
Among pleasantly grumpy barmen, Paul is the high-priest. Twenty-five years ago, this taciturn Dutchman came as a tourist, and has yet to leave. Ask him for a smile and he’ll give you a grimace, then put “Smile… $2.50” on your tab. Ask how long your order will take and “You can stand there” might be the reply.
For my money, he makes one of the best Sazeracs in the city.
The Sazerac is a New Orleanian whose roots are in a Royal Street apothecary shop on or about 1830. Here, Antoine Amedee Peychaud would add his bitters to a little cognac, add some sugar and serve the result to his customers. By the 1850s, Peychaud’s little pick-me-up was the house cocktail at the Sazerac Coffee House, where the drink would finally get its name, the addition of an absinthe rinse and, later, morph into a rye-based cocktail.
In 1937’s Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix ’Em, Stanley Clisby Arthur instructs: “Do not commit the sacrilege of dropping the peel into the drink.” From the looks of my Sazerac, it seems Paul has it in for the Gods, as well.
Lastly, we arrive at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Like most things associated with the pirate, there’s not much of a paper trail, so there’s nothing to substantiate the popular history of this building except the persistence of the stories themselves. Those go something like this…
When Lafitte and his brother weren’t destabilizing governments or buccaneering or running scams involving escaped slaves or any of their other shenanigans, they owned a blacksmith shop as a front. This one. Built sometime prior to 1772, the building is one of the oldest in the French Quarter, and might be the oldest continuously operating bar in the country. For almost a century, Lafitte’s has been serving their signature Obituary Cocktail, an intriguing mixture of gin, dry vermouth and absinthe.
That is, it should be intriguing. On this visit, mine is a licorice-y mess, and not nearly cold enough, and the tour group in the back chased the sacred from this place as soon as they walked in. Or it may be the huge TV behind the bar with the ballgame on. It just doesn’t feel right here.
Screw it. Let’s settle into the Habitual for a little while and try to ignore the fact the deep, rich gravitas of this place is in the hands of chimpanzees.
Get us some beers. The Sox are up 2-0.
2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
3 ounces fresh lemonade
2 ounces club soda
Pour the Pimm’s and lemonade into an ice-filled Collins glass and top with club soda. Garnish with anything. A cucumber slice is de rigueur, but a lemon wedge, a sprig of mint or whatever fruits happen to be in season are fine, too. Sip with straws.
Put 2-3 ounces of absinthe in a fancy glass. Balance an absinthe spoon across the mouth of the glass. Place 1 or 2 sugar cubes on the spoon. Pour pure, ice-cold water over the sugar until it dissolves and you have diluted the absinthe to your liking. Stir briefly with the spoon and enjoy. (Cutting off an ear is optional.)
.5 ounce simple syrup
3 ounces rye whiskey
4-6 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Absinthe or absinthe substitute
Put a scant teaspoon of absinthe in a tumbler, coat the insides and dump out the excess. Fill with ice and set aside. In an ice-filled mixing glass, add the remaining ingredients and stir briskly until well chilled. Expel the ice from the tumbler and strain the cocktail into it. Twist a piece of lemon peel over the drink. What you do with the peel after that is between you and the Almighty.
2 ounces gin
.25 ounce dry vermouth
.25 ounce (more or less) absinthe or absinthe substitute
Put all ingredients into an ice-filled mixing glass and stir briskly until well chilled. Strain into a chilled Martini glass. This may be garnished with a lemon twist. Or not — it’s your funeral.
— John Myers