Whether or not New Orleans really invented cocktails is beside the point. NOLA is the cocktail's spiritual home, the place where bitters-spiked Cognac was prescribed as a hangover remedy, where they gave away rum when you bought whiskey and where prohibition never quite caught on. Good thing it's remained the same.
A Pharmacist Invented The Sazerac To Save Money On Cognac
Back in the day, New Orleans residents were crazy for Cognac—chalk it up to the French influence. Pharmacists would turn regular ol' Cognac into a potent and health-affirming concoction with a dash of sugar and bitters (more on those below). But then the Phylloxera virus destroyed French grape vines, decimating the country's wine production and driving the price of Cognac way up. No way were NOLA bartenders going to pour their precious Cognac into a mixed drink, so they started using American-made Rye for a thrifty alternative.
Where To Drink It
Head to The Sazerac Bar, the home of Sazerac rye for a classic take on this essential drink. Located in The Roosevelt Hotel, the art deco interior is perfect for imaging yourself back to the 1920s.
Prohibition Decimated Local Whiskey Production, So Residents Switched To Drinking Rum
New Orleans's spirit liquor is, and always has been, whiskey. Bourbon (though make no mistake, this is not where Bourbon Street got it’s name, that happened thanks France's House of Bourbon). But when Prohibition became law in 1918, whiskey production took a hit. Local distilleries closed and, while home production continued, their moonshine whiskey wasn't the most palatable.
Rum had always had a place in New Orleans's drinking culture, but it was frequently as a cheap alternative for people who couldn't afford imported Cognac and other brandies. Rum became more popular during Prohibition, when so-called rum runners ferried the liquor from Cuba, Haiti and other nearby Caribbean islands. Most of the rum was used in mix drinks, where it was simply swapped for pricier whiskey. You could get a shot for 40 cents or a bottle for $1.50, a decline in price from the pre-Prohibition days.
Where To Drink It
Head to Seaworthy for happy hour and start your night with daiquiris and oysters. This buzz-worthy new restaurant is located in New Orleans's Ace Hotel and has just enough distressed retro cool to make it feel like it's been there forever.
A Cab Driver Got Arrested For Offering A Prohibition-Enforcing Policeman A Flask
Isador Einstein, better known as "Izzy," was trained as post office clerk, but that didn't stop him from pitching in with Prohibition efforts to hunt down those selling alcohol illegally. Izzy was famous for capturing the so-called "uncapturable" and arrested a total of 4,932 people, 95% of which were convicted. His quickest arrest? It happened in New Orleans, of course. Izzy got off the train, hailed a cab and asked the driver where he could get a drink. When the driver unhesitatingly pulled a flask from his boot, Izzy pronounced his trademark line: "There's sad news here. You're under arrest."
Now, don't get us wrong—we know prohibition was enforced in NOLA, but that doesn't mean it wasn't still the best city in the USA to go to if you wanted to party. In 1926, social workers whose job it was to enforce prohibition agreed that New Orleans remained the country’s wettest city. And it’s not because there weren’t raids—there were plenty (play with this infographic to see just how many). New Orleans was able to stay 90% wet thanks to a combination of geography and government. In the outlying rural areas, people hid their alcohol in the forest (most of this was home production). In the cities, the city council lobbied to have alcohol declared a food supplement and did famously little to enforce Prohibition. That meant it was up to government agents like Izzy to come and hunt down speakeasies and rogue distillers.
Where To Drink It:
Old Absinthe House claims to be New Orleans's oldest bar, operating since 1800. Its history prevented it from being demolished during Prohibition and the bar was actually taken out of the building and transported elsewhere for safekeeping. While you'll find a fair share of tourists seeking a cool haven from the glare of Bourbon street, its history merits a visit. Head straight to the upstairs area, which is marginally less packed.
Peychaud's Bitters Was Invented—And Used— As Medicine By An Expat Haitian Doctor
It would be an understatement to say that Haiti in 1793 wasn't the best place to be a wealthy French landowner. So Antoine Amédée Peychaud fled to New Orleans and brought his apothecary know-how with him. Peychaud opened up shop at 437 Royal Street and soon became known for his Cognac, Brandy and bitters mixes (see sazerac). One of his pride mixes was his family recipe for bitters to "cure what ails you." With help from this flavor-enhancing potion, Peychaud played with the taste of everyone's favorite liquors—an essential stepping stone in the invention of the cocktail.
Where To Drink It
437 Royal Street. Although it's now an antiques shop, the family that owns it honors Peychaud's legacy by keeping an original bottle around. If you've ever tried bitters straight, you know you’ll be happier just to take this as a photo op.
The Gin-Based Brunch Classic French 75 Was An Homage To WW1
Oooh la la, a French 75 just makes you think of beret-wearing sophisticates lounging in the Tuileries gardens, mait non? Err, change beret-wearing to bulletproof helmet-wearing and sophisticates to soldiers and Tuileries gardens to French battlefields and you're getting closer to the origins of this classic cocktail. The name comes from the guns the Allied soldiers used—French 75mm artillery guns. But how it made the leap from battlefield to brunch remains legend. One theory states that Americans fortified French Champagne toasts with Cognac and ice, which led the French to add a dash of lemon as a garnish (ignore where these toasts might have actually happened). It ended up in New Orleans thanks to Count Arnaud, founder of Arnaud's, who particularly loved the drink.
Where To Drink It
Arnaud's French 75, this is the place where the drink was perfected as an essential cocktail and they still ace the herbal-bitter-sweet balance.