It's the birthplace of Peychaud's bitters and Southern Comfort, of the Sazerac and the Ramos gin fizz. And it has a long-standing absinthe legacy, including in 2007 being the first port of entry for the liquor since it was outlawed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1912. Not a bad inheritance.
However, the cocktail revolution sweeping New York, San Francisco and Chicago -- the speak-easies and fedora-sporting bartenders alchemizing booze into transcendent mixology -- has been slow to come to town. But a new crop of bars and bartenders are giving the Big Easy's drinking scene a decidedly upscale flavor.
And if New Orleans' bars were whirring at speeds slightly above normal this month, it was because the seventh annual Tales of the Cocktail conference had flooded the city with enthused drinkers.
Cure, a bar that opened just a few months ago, leads the pack. Owner Neal Bodenheimer, supported by the kind of obsessive staff that recently self-published a cocktail manifesto (Rogue Cocktails, blurb.com), mixes balanced, subtle drinks, the contents of which would set the heart of the nerdiest drinker aflurry.
"You want something short and stiff, or long and refreshing?" my bartender asked. I opted for the latter and gratefully accepted a frothy, sparkling tumbler of bourbon, lemon juice, bitter Czech liqueur, spicy Jamaican allspice liqueur and apple cider vinegar.
Outside on the patio, I sat near Danny DeVito, who was in town to promote his new limoncello and was nursing a drink alongside Rhea Perlman and a gaggle of spindly models.
The next night I went to Bar Tonique, on the fringe of the French Quarter, with a vibe light-years away from the mango-daiquiri action on Bourbon Street. With a drinks menu designed by Cure's Bodenheimer (New Orleans really is a small town), classic cocktails such as the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and originals including the Whiskey Kiss were easy to nurse on the cream-colored leather marshmallow couches curled into corners of exposed brick.
The best cocktail I had was at the hands of the luxuriously maned Alan Walter at the bar of restaurant Iris, the Pontchartrain. Rhum agricole (made with sugar cane rather than molasses), lime juice and vanilla buttressed the brisk flavors of local strawberries and pine needles collected along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
Tales of the Cocktail officially opened with a party at the newly reopened Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, a grandiose space that, despite a post-Katrina renovation, has blessedly kept its brocaded, bombastic charm, as well as its lilting, anise-kissed original Sazerac.
At the Hotel Monteleone, where Tales was held, conference rooms echoed with the slightly disconcerting sound of ice clanging in shakers at 10:30 a.m., and the lobby was packed from morning to night with slightly buzzed industry professionals, media and cocktail aficionados. The hotel's 60-year-old revolving Carousel Bar was continuously flush with liquor reps and brand ambassadors doing deals; the conference, which occurs during a relatively un-busy time of year for New Orleans, creates more than $7 million of economic activity during the week it's in session.
Bartenders from all over the country flashed suspenders, trilbies and tattoos at sessions like "Citrus: In History and Application" and "The Molecular DNA of Classic Cocktails." There was a bitters competition, a vintage cocktail book auction and a raucous "cocktail burial," in which a procession from the steps of Harrah's casino through the French Quarter, complete with coffin hoisted high and waving handkerchiefs, laid to rest the Red-Headed Slut, a lame cocktail that involves Jägermeister, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.
At the end of the week, everyone from elsewhere went home. But the locals who stayed behind were smug in their knowledge that, thanks to the proliferation of quality cocktail bars in New Orleans, the distance between them and their next terrific drink is getting shorter.