The Obituary cocktail seems as though it emerged from a foggy New Orleans graveyard, with a foreboding title and murky origins to match. Typical of the city of its birth, which practically has absinthe running through its veins, the Obituary differentiates itself from other dry Martinis through its inclusion of the French wormwood spirit where there might otherwise be bitters. William Elliott, of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, characterizes the drink as a “stylized New Orleans Martini” that, he notes, makes a perfect pairing for the bar’s renowned oyster program.
Though there’s a chance the drink had existed for decades in the cultural enclave of New Orleans, it only began to appear in print in the late 1940s, when it popped up in dispatches from the Crescent City to Midwestern hubs like St. Louis and Kansas City. These accounts point to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a centuries-old Bourbon Street bar, as the origin of the drink—or at least the locus of popularization for the Obituary.
Though it does not appear in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1938 book New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, it is mentioned in the lesser-known, almost-identically titled 1973 book New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Them by Jack D.L. Holmes, which was written during a period when, apparently, Lafitte’s had temporarily shut. “Once located at 941 Bourbon, alas, this tavern is no more. The specialty of the house used to be a dry martini with a lingering taste of absinthe, which they called the Obituary,” he writes. “Apparently the Obituary brought on the death of the establishment.”
Today, Lafitte’s lives on and so does the Obituary, though it is longer confined within the city limits of New Orleans. The drink has been a fixture at Maison Premiere in Brooklyn since it opened over a decade ago. For Elliott, the Obituary was a shoo-in for the early menus, not only for its ability to pair well with oysters, but also because it married two intimidating (at the time) entities—an obscure Martini and absinthe—into a single drink that captured the ethos of the New Orleans–inspired, Francophile bar.
In the forthcoming Maison Premiere Almanac (Clarkson Potter, spring 2023), the bar’s founders Krystof Zizka and Joshua Boissy (along with Elliott and writer Jordan Mackay) list an early recipe for their opening menu Obituary—a roughly 3:1 Martini calling for Hayman’s London dry gin and Dolin dry vermouth with six dashes of absinthe. But if you ask for an Obituary at Maison Premiere today, you’re more likely to get a very dry interpretation of the drink—something nearing a 6:1 ratio—with no change to the amount of absinthe.
Elliott landed on his current, drier Obituary recipe in part because he finds some of the vermouths available today to be far more impactful even in small quantities than those available when the bar first opened. The latest iteration calls for Bordiga Extra Dry, a favorite among high-caliber cocktail bars for its bitter backbone and pronounced floral and herbal notes. As for the choice of gin, Elliott eschews newer styles for traditional English brands. “Something about the combination of absinthe, layered thinly on top of gin, really suggests classic London dry,” he says. Today, he often reaches for Thomas Dakin Red Cole gin from Manchester, which lends its signature horseradish profile to the drink. Elliott calls it “austere and less juniper-forward” than London dry gins.
Though rarely heard of outside New Orleans, the Obituary has been surprisingly popular since it first appeared on Maison Premiere’s menu in 2011. Elliott stands by the drink’s merits, but also recognizes that the name probably has a lot to do with it. “It’s one of the more eyebrow-raising names we’ve had on our menu,” he says. “When you put something [like the Obituary] on the menu, you are forcing somebody to repeat it.”