A 24-hour drinking city that embraces both the theatrical and the historical, New Orleans has been a font for classic cocktails for upward of a century. The city’s homegrown recipes are known to have quite a range, too, spanning strong and stirred whiskey staples, fiery dessert drinks and even ice-cold holiday favorites. There’s no better way to get to know New Orleans and its nightlife than by experiencing its iconic drinks, one glass—or to-go cup—at a time. But if you can’t get to New Orleans just yet, here are a handful of our favorite perfected recipes to transport you there.
Though the Absinthe Suissesse was not born in New Orleans, the city has nevertheless adopted it as its own. With roots in Europe and northern U.S. cities, the minty drink has shape-shifted over time, with variations including or omitting egg white, orgeat, various liqueurs, sweeteners and soda water documented since the 1930s. It somehow made its way into the Depression-era book Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, and, decades later, the Cure cocktail book. Kirk Estopinal, a champion of the drink, says, “It has a very Mardi Gras connection to me,” adding, “it feels like the kind of drink you want to drink early in the morning.”
Invented by an Italian bartender named Joseph Santini in New Orleans, the Brandy Crusta was one of the city’s first true calling-card cocktails; originally mixed in the 1850s, it predates even the rye whiskey–based Sazerac. Though it all but disappeared in the early 20th century, today, the Crusta is experiencing a revival of sorts, thanks to bartenders like Chris Hannah, who, in 2004, was the first to bring the drink back to its home city. His version of the Cognac cocktail, shaken and strained into a sugar-rimmed glass, has been balanced to suit the modern palate, but otherwise stays true to the original in its spirit-forward template.
This “incendiary coffee” was first served at New Orleans’ Antoine’s restaurant in the 1880s; it was inspired by pirate Jean Lafitte’s streetside drink-making theatrics, used to distract his audience while his cohorts picked their pockets. A fiery blend of brandy, kirschwasser, clove-studded orange peel and coffee, Café Brûlot has remained a New Orleans tableside dessert staple and a favorite of Dale DeGroff, who introduced the drink while working as the head bartender at New York’s Rainbow Room in the 1990s.
Despite its name, the Creole Cocktail didn’t actually originate in New Orleans. Instead, according to Neal Bodenheimer in his book Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, the drink “was an ode to New Orleans by an outsider.” When developing the menu for New Orleans’ Elysian Bar, however, Ben Hatch found it an intriguing template to work with. His variation on the drink reads as a love letter to his favorite alpine producers, calling on a subtly herbaceous Piedmontese vermouth and the bitter orange, spiced notes of Bigallet China-China.
The classic Grasshopper, a mix of crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream, has long been beloved as a guilty-pleasure drink, thanks to its familiar chocolate chip-mint flavor profile and eye-catching color. According to most accounts, the drink was created at New Orleans bar Tujague’s and the version perfected there by bartender Paul Gustings deserves its acclaim. This version, however, comes courtesy of Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, and took top honors at our blind tasting of 10 examples of the drink.
The origins of this Bourbon Street staple remain a mystery, though some sources point to the 1940s, when Pat O’Brien created the drink to make use of excess rum. Kirk Estopinal, bartender at Cane & Table, created an elevated take on the drink by making a fassionola syrup (passion fruit, sugar, guava, hibiscus) and layering it with a blend of Puerto Rican and Jamaican rums.
New Orleans has its very own Martini riff. The variation popularized at the historic Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in the 1940s is an absinthe-laced dry Martini that lives on at the extant bar and in Brooklyn, where it graced the opening menu at Maison Premiere. There, William Elliott’s recipe has gotten increasingly dry since it debuted in 2011, evolving from a 3:1 version made with London dry gin and Dolin dry vermouth to a 6:1 version made with Thomas Dakin Red Cole gin and Bordiga extra-dry vermouth. “It’s one of the more eyebrow-raising names we’ve had on our menu,” Elliott says. “When you put something [like the Obituary] on the menu, you are forcing somebody to repeat it.”
A simple stirred drink made with a 50/50 combination of sweet and dry vermouths plus bitters, the Old Hickory is a classic with a low-proof build that feels surprisingly modern. Bodenheimer, owner of New Orleans bars Cure and Cane & Table, among others, sought to put the forgotten drink back on the map for his Washington, D.C., outpost, Dauphine’s. At the restaurant, the vermouths are batched together and refrigerated ahead of time to enable quick service, but this version makes a single drink. The ingredients are deliberately mixed without ice to avoid overdilution and to preserve the character of the vermouth.
First served in the late 1800s, this classic by Louisiana bartender Henry C. Ramos is a crowd-pleasing drink known for its picture-perfect crown of froth. In our blind tasting of 10 Ramos Gin Fizzes, top honors went to this version from New Orleans–inspired Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. Like most Ramos recipes, its showstopping meringue is a matter of method—topping the drink with seltzer, rather than layering it at the bottom, in this case—and the precise ratio of ingredients.
A Cognac highball, the Roffignac has remained a relic because of the drink’s once-fatal flaw: the mistaken inclusion of raspberry syrup. Bodenheimer, who has recently revisited the drink, has revived it by turning instead to raspberry vinegar, which historical research suggests is the correct modifier for the drink. Along with Dauphine’s bar director Donato Alvarez, he’s brought the cocktail into the 21st century by swapping the base spirit for tequila and turning to a cranberry shrub.
In the early 2000s, this hard-hitting drink saw a resurgence that paralleled the rise of rye whiskey and the expanded distribution of Peychaud’s bitters. While the construction of the Sazerac typically begins with rinsing a glass with absinthe, St. John Frizell’s perfected version calls for using an atomizer to mist absinthe into a rocks glass before stirring and straining rye whiskey, simple syrup, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters into it. “When guests smell that anise, it makes them turn around and ask questions. It whets their appetite to order a Sazerac,” Frizell says.
First served at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, the Vieux Carré is the city’s own Manhattan variation, an equal-parts mix of rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth with Bénédictine and bitters. Taking first place in our Vieux Carré blind tasting was New York bartender Chip Tyndale, whose recipe dials back the sweet vermouth. Talia Baiocchi, Punch editor-in-chief, praised its “long, complex finish,” noting that “it sticks with you in a good way.”