Among hardcore cocktail experts, no American city is held in such high regard as New Orleans.
The Crescent City's cocktail culture dates back nearly two hundred years, when the first cocktails were created for medicinal benefits. Local physicians and pharmacists experimented with concoctions of herbs and alcohol, and in the 1830s, the pharmacist Antoine Peychaud developed an infusion of Gentiana flowers and alcohol, called it “Peychaud’s Bitters,” and sold it as a medicine used to combat a variety of ailments.
All the way through Prohibition and into the twenty-first century, New Orleans has led the way forward regarding cocktail culture, and visitors from around the world descend on the city to visit historic bars that double as living museums. Today, a wave of new establishments, helmed by young, forward-thinking mixologists, are pushing the city's cocktail scene into the future.
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You can get a sense of the city's role in cocktail culture – past, present, and future – at Tales of the Cocktail, the world's most esteemed cocktail gathering in July, the fascinating Museum of the American Cocktail and the equally interesting Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
But to truly understand New Orleans's role in cocktail culture, there's no better way than to belly up to one of these standout bars, order a drink, and take a sip of history. Here are six to start you off:
For a classy hotel bar: Sazerac Bar
Synonymous with New Orleans, the sazerac cocktail dates back to the 1800s when Antoine Peychaud combined his bitters with cognac, then added sugar and Herbsaint. He opened the legendary Sazerac Coffee House, which was later renamed the Sazerac Bar and moved to The Roosevelt New Orleans in 1949.
Today, the tony hotel's Sazerac Bar serves as one of the city's classiest cocktail spots.
Expert bartenders whip up more than 40,000 classic sazeracs (six-year rye whiskey, Peychaud's bitters, and sugar in an Herbsaint-rinsed glass) annually, and other popular concoctions include the Ramos Gin Fizz (Hayman's Old Tom gin, fresh citrus, cream, egg whites, sugar, and orange flower water, shaken until frothy and topped with club soda) and the Vieux Carre (rye whiskey, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine, and bitters).
For a history lesson: Arnaud's French 75 Bar
Situated in the heart of the French Quarter, Arnaud's French 75 Bar is a sliver of a space. Truly a living museum, the bar is led by Chris Hannah, who has become one of the city's foremost cocktail experts. Those lucky enough to visit when Hannah is there are guaranteed a perfectly-prepared cocktail, and the bar's lengthy list of spirits includes several hard-to-find labels.
Many patrons opt for the namesake French 75 (Courvoisier VS, sugar, lemon juice, and Moet & Chandon) and new-school creations such as The Contessa (Boodles gin, Aperol, ruby red grapefruit juice, cranberry cordial, and orange bitters).
Grasshopper cocktail, an old classic from New Orleans, with green creme de menthe. white creme de cacao and light cream © Maurese/Shutterstock
For a romantic cocktail date: Cure
Far more than a neighborhood bar, Cure resides in the quiet Uptown area, far from the French Quarter's boisterous masses.
Neal Bodenheimer and his team of talented mixologists draw upon one of the city's best-stocked bars to whip up a kaleidoscope of inventive cocktails, many of which are inspired by when the city's cocktail culture grew out of a need for boozy medicines and home remedies.
The dark, stylish environs and breezy, enclosed patio are often filled with locals enjoying perfectly prepared punches and Old Fashioneds made, for a change, with dark rum.
For an only-in-New Orleans experience: Carousel Bar
In a city full of unique drinking dens, the Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar stands out thanks to its history and its namesake feature, which slowly rotates to the delight – and confusion – of many guests. The 25-seat bar, which completes a full rotation every 15 minutes, was installed in 1949.
Today, a wide mix of patrons, from rowdy out-of-towners to classy pre-theatre crowds, rub shoulders while downing properly-poured martinis and classic cocktails. Large windows offer views of bustling Royal Street, which is constantly filled with revelers and street performers. Live local musicians keep the crowds moving most nights.
In a city full of enchanting hangouts, few places capture the essence of historic New Orleans like Napoleon House. Situated in a building that dates back to 1797, the bar has hosted a bevy of local and visiting celebs for decades.
Napoleon House is also synonymous with the Pimm’s Cup. Enjoyed in the history-packed bar or movie set-worthy courtyard, a Pimm’s here (Pimm’s, lemonade, 7 Up, garnished with cucumber) is a must for any first-time visitors.
For a forward-thinking approach: Balise
One of the city's most buzzed-about dining newcomers features a handsome, masculine bar helmed by the NYC expat Jesse Carr. His intricate, creative cocktails, several of which are focused on Calvados, are helping to push the city's cocktail scene forward.
Grab a seat by the garde manger, order some oysters (freshly harvested out of the Gulf of Mexico), and sample an inventive, well-made creation such as the Birdfoot Delta Cooler (Calvados, Drambuie, Chablis, lemon bitters, and lemongrass syrup).
Top image © Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock