In his book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, author Ted Haigh observes that “the saddest forgotten cocktail is the one unknown where it was created.” Until recently, that was true of the Vieux Carré, a drink that remained an obscurity even at its bar of origin, New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone.
The city and the hotel have since reclaimed the drink, and it can proudly be found around town. Elsewhere, however, it remains overshadowed by NOLA’s roster of superstar drinks: the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Sazerac and even the Hurricane.
But among the drink’s coterie of devotees, it holds a special place. “It’s a Manhattan variation with a New Orleans connection—what’s not to like?” asked Gage & Tollner’s St. John Frizell at our recent blind tasting of 10 Vieux Carré recipes collected from bartenders around the United States. Joaquín Simó, owner of the newly reopened Pouring Ribbons, felt similarly: “It’s my favorite Manhattan variation.” The two other bartender judges in attendance, Brendan Biggins (Grand Army, Glasserie) and Haley Traub (Attaboy), fell on the opposite end of the spectrum, noting that they never order the Vieux Carré—an equal-parts mixture of rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth, with a splash of Bénédictine and two types of bitters—citing the difficulty in getting the drink right. “The more intense your ingredients become, the more important it is to get them precisely balanced,” notes Biggins. “When the combination is off, it’s off.”
Indeed, according to Chris Hannah, a fixture in the New Orleans bar scene, the Vieux Carré is “the most average of the NOLA cocktails.” At his bar, Jewel of the South, Hannah uses brown butter to fat-wash the current menu version to give it more texture and intrigue, and even offers a White Vieux Carré consisting of unaged Armagnac, genever, blanc vermouth and génépy. Judging by the recipes submitted—several of which opted for tweaks such as a cacao nib infusion or a dash of pimento bitters—Hannah is not alone in thinking the drink requires a certain level of zhuzhing.
After all, the formula is undeniably hard-hitting—a “sledgehammer of a drink,” as Biggins put it. According to our findings, that sledgehammer can be difficult to wield. Among the submitted recipes, there were only three that the judges considered noteworthy. The others were deemed too hot, too weak, unbalanced, vermouth-heavy, or, in one case, “like when you drink a Coke through a Twizzler—the worst flavor sensation.”
Getting it right required a deep understanding of how the equal-parts components play together. As Simó noted, “If that split base doesn’t work on its own, no amount of vermouth can pull it together.” Important, too, was keeping the Bénédictine in check since, as Frizell noted, “a little goes a long way.” Too much and the spicy sweetness quickly takes over. When it came to garnish, the judges were unanimous in their preference for a lemon twist over an orange twist or, as suggested in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1938 Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, a cherry or pineapple (the former made an appearance, but no pineapples were in the mix). “You want that drying effect of a lemon,” noted Simó.
While the judges expected the drink to maintain its original equal-parts base, the top three recipes deviated from the prescribed formula, opting instead to dial down the vermouth in relation to the rye and Cognac. Taking first place was Chip Tyndale, of New York’s Dutch Kills and the newly opened Saint Tuesday. His recipe called for one ounce each of Michter’s Rye and Rémy Martin VSOP Cognac, with only three-quarters of an ounce of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, a quarter-ounce of Bénédictine and three dashes each of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, garnished with a lemon twist. It was one of the few where the honeyed note of Bénédictine was detectable without overpowering. Simó described it as “dancing the most” of any we tasted, while Talia Baiocchi, Punch editor in chief, praised its “long, complex finish,” noting that “it sticks with you in a good way.”
Taking second place was Nick Bennett of New York’s Porchlight, whose recipe likewise called on three-quarters of an ounce of sweet vermouth, albeit a 50/50 blend of Carpano Antica and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. This was joined by one ounce each of Rittenhouse Rye and Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, a quarter-ounce of Bénédictine, three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and two dashes of Angostura bitters garnished with a lemon coin. It was considered a more delicate expression of the drink, in which the brandy was not bullied by the rye.
Eric Alperin, of The Varnish in Los Angeles, took third place with his version, which follows a similar formula: three-quarters of an ounce of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, one ounce each of Old Overholt Rye and Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, a quarter-ounce of Bénédictine and two dashes each of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. It was deemed “super expressive,” rye-forward and, crucially, “not too thin.” The drink was garnished with a lemon twist and a cherry, the latter the judges’ only minor quibble. It was balanced and robust, and did not shy away from the heavy-hitting nature of the original, adhering to Traub’s manifesto for the Vieux Carré: “It’s not a drink to hold back on—if you’re going to make it, fucking make it.”