When Neal Bodenheimer got his start in the New Orleans cocktail scene more than 15 years ago, no one was drinking Roffignacs. Despite being one of the Crescent City’s homegrown recipes, the drink—a highball-style serve built on a Cognac base—remains a relic that is only now beginning to see the light of day again. “The reason why is because everybody was using raspberry syrup,” explains Bodenheimer of the drink’s once-fatal flaw.
For a long time, the established recipe for the Roffignac was the one printed in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1938 book, Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em. Though the author notes that Cognac was the drink’s original base, his recipe combines rye and soda water with any one of three sweeteners: raspberry syrup, grenadine or “red Hembarig syrup.” Use either of the first two and “you get a flabby, too-sweet whiskey soda that’s just begging for acid,” says Bodenheimer, partner in CureCo., the hospitality group behind some of the city’s most acclaimed bars, among them Cure and Cane & Table. That last syrup listed, however—red Hembarig—holds the secret to unlocking the drink’s potential. According to Robert Moss’ 2016 book Southern Spirits, Hembarig syrup was a misspelling of himbeer essig, which is German for “raspberry vinegar,” that is, raspberry shrub.
It’s unclear precisely when the shrub’s use in the recipe was abandoned or when the long-standing translation error was rectified. But Bodenheimer points out that New Orleans bar legend Paul Gustings was instrumental in popularizing the use of raspberry shrub in his Cognac Roffignacs, having done so since the late 1990s. It’s a move that, according to Bodenheimer, turns a bad cocktail into a great one, adding an acidic note that transforms the drink into more of a Collins than a highball, despite the lack of citrus. (In fact, the Roffignac appears in the “Collins & 75s” chapter in Bodenheimer’s forthcoming book, Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, which he co-wrote with Emily Timberlake.)
Exactly how far back the Roffignac’s legacy goes is obscured by the cobwebs of history. The drink was named after Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac, a member of the French gentry who fled France during the Revolution. Roffignac was mayor of New Orleans for most of the 1820s and is credited with modernizing the city’s infrastructure. The name had attached itself to the drink sometime in the 1870s and had become popular by the 1890s. Notable old New Orleans establishments founded in the later 19th century, such as Harrison’s, Mannessier’s Confectionary and Maylie’s, all served the drink, likely made with Cognac and raspberry shrub.
Bodenheimer and his team have worked on their versions of the Roffignac extensively. At Peychaud’s in the Hotel Maison De Ville—housed in the one-time home of Antoine Amédée Peychaud, creator of the famed bitters—Bodenheimer and head bartender Nick Jarrett developed a menu focused entirely on the city’s historic cocktails. They initially sought to recreate something close to the original drink. Instead of Cognac, though, they reached for an 8-year Armagnac expression by producer Darroze. They loved it, but didn’t think it had broad appeal. For their next iteration, the duo decided to stick with the Armagnac region, but looked to an unaged expression imported by PM Spirits: Cobrafire eau de vie de raisin. “Essentially a still-strength blanche d’Armagnac,” says Jarrett, “the Cobrafire brings heady notes of red berries to the table which marry perfectly with a simple raspberry shrub.” The cocktail is presented in a footed glass, piled high with pebble ice and garnished with raspberries.
At Dauphine’s, a New Orleans–themed bar in Washington, D.C., the house Roffignac also eschews the traditional aged spirit base. Instead, Bodenheimer and beverage director Donato Alvarez swap in tequila, complemented by cranberry shrub and soda. The Tequila Roffignac is kegged for optimal carbonation and served in a Collins glass, garnished with a sprig of mint.
Bodenheimer’s approach to the Roffignac—and other New Orleans classics—favors interpretation over preservation, resulting in an ever-expanding canon that’s more of a living document than a museum piece. Though certain icons, like the Sazerac, wear a heavy mantle of codification, the Roffignac was obscure enough to reinterpret without causing a riot. “There is the tradition of a drink, and then there’s, like, what tastes better?” he says. “Ultimately you’re using your brain and your palate to connect something.”