The Creole Cocktail is not the most famous drink to come out of New Orleans—probably because, despite the name, it didn’t originate there at all. “I’ve never really treated that cocktail as part of the New Orleans canon,” says Neal Bodenheimer, author of Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em. “The Creole Cocktail,” he notes, “was an ode to New Orleans by an outsider.” That outsider was Hugo Ensslin, a German immigrant to New York whose relative obscurity during his lifetime failed to presage the legacy of his self-published Recipes for Mixed Drinks.
Originally a stirred, equal-parts mixture of rye and sweet vermouth with small measures of Bénédictine and Amer Picon, plus a lemon twist, the Creole Cocktail reflects both its birthplace—New York—as well as the city that inspired it. It is, essentially, a modified Manhattan in the style of that drink’s earliest decades, before it became more whiskey-forward and ditched the liqueurs and syrups. One could speculate that the French origin of both of the Creole Cocktail’s supporting liqueurs is the reason for the nod to New Orleans.
When Ben Hatch was beverage director at The Elysian Bar in New Orleans’ Hotel Peter and Paul, he was on the hunt for a lesser-known template associated with the city that he could make his own. One of the bartenders on staff told him about the Creole Cocktail, describing it as a cross between an Old-Fashioned and a Manhattan. Hatch was intrigued.
The recipe development process began with one of Hatch’s favorite American whiskeys: Stellum Rye. He describes the barrel-proof expression as having a silky mouthfeel with “amped up” spice notes. Because his aim was to showcase the rye, he opted for a stepped ratio that departs from the original, with rye in the top slot at one and a half ounces, followed by an ounce of vermouth, a half-ounce of one liqueur and just a quarter-ounce of the next.
For the vermouth, Hatch wanted something super light, so as not to distract from the rye. He reached for Bèrto Ross da Travaj, a Piedmontese vermouth that, he notes, isn’t too “inky” (sweet, heavy and vanilla-forward), but has a subtle herbaceous profile.
A modernized take on the early Manhattan variation.
The choice of the first liqueur felt obvious to Hatch. Amer Picon is not available in the U.S., but he knew he wanted to use a similar product. Bigallet China-China is a common substitution for Picon, as it has the original ABV of the pre-Prohibition French digestif (40 percent) and similarly features a classic bitter orange profile with spice and vegetal notes.
When it came to choosing the second liqueur, Hatch, an amaro fanatic, forwent the Bénédictine and worked an Italian digestivo into the recipe—a choice that makes sense considering the influence Italian culture has had on New Orleans. After some deliberation, he settled on Amaro Lys, from the Valle d’Aosta producer Alpe. “I like the heathered honey notes that Bénédictine has, but I think those are showcased better in this amaro,” he explains. Hatch also appreciates the amaro’s dried Alpine herb notes, gentian-forward bitterness and what he describes as “chew”—referring to the product’s pleasant combination of viscosity and bitterness. To finish the drink, Hatch serves it up with an orange twist, rather than the brighter lemon called for in the original recipe.
What began as a quest to find a spirit-forward New Orleans drink beyond the expected Sazerac or Vieux Carré ended up becoming an ode to Hatch’s favorite Alpine producers, resulting in a drink with a deep sense of terroir, effectively taking the drinker on a virtual trip from the French Alps, near Grenoble, through Torino and up to the Valle d’Aosta.
Hatch’s Creole Cocktail makes the case that authenticity of origin isn’t a prerequisite for entry into the New Orleans canon. The bitter, Alpine take on the northern drink reflects many changes to cocktail culture that have come down in the century since it was born, including an emphasis on the base spirit in Manhattan-style drinks, as well as the outsize influence of amaro.
Though some may see this interpretation of the Creole Cocktail as an ideal cold-weather nightcap (and it is), Hatch says that, in a town where Sazeracs are a perennial standard, this drink sells well year-round. “New Orleans is such a boozy town that people aren’t afraid to pull up a bar stool when it’s 110 degrees outside,” he says. “They order a very spirit-forward cocktail like this and enjoy it just as much.”