Spirits: Drink up history at the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- All the other cities just make cocktails. New Orleans invented them.

Or so the story goes. A guy named Antoine Amadie Peychaud, a Creole pharmacist, came up with his own proprietary blend called Peychaud's Bitters, which became the Sazerac cocktail when mixed with a line of French cognac.

Was it the first American cocktail? The first cocktail, period? Only history knows, but if you're going to put the Museum of the American Cocktail in any U.S. city, it might as well be New Orleans. (May 13, by the way, was the anniversary of the date the word "cocktail" first appeared in the Balance and Columbian Repository newspaper, back in 1806, which is why May 6 to 13 was Cocktail Week around the world.)

The museum started life as a roving exhibit, moving from its pre-Katrina, second-floor home in the French Quarter's New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, to a casino in Las Vegas following the storm. Finally, last summer, it found a "permanent" exhibition space in New Orleans' Riverwalk mall, housed within the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Dale DeGroff, author of "The Essential Cocktail" and noted New York bartender, and Ted Haigh, collector and film designer, are two of the founders of this compact museum.

"It's spectacular," said Mr. DeGroff. "Liz Williams is such a good partner. We're delighted to be sharing space with her." Ms. Williams runs the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which, along with the cocktail museum, is at the beginning of a five-year lease in the mall.

Ideally, the cocktail museum would have its own building in the French Quarter. The museum has its eyes on a building along Decatur Street, but as a nonprofit, it doesn't have the cash to buy it right now.

"Our dream," joked Mr. DeGroff, "is to find a very wealthy, hard-drinking millionaire who is close to the end."

For a small space, it's an impressive collection of old bottles (Pittsburghers might get a kick out of a bottle that once contained Monongahela Rye whiskey), juicers, ice picks, glassware, bartending guides, and propaganda for pro- and anti-temperance forces. The collection's highlights include a copy of the very Repository newspaper that first mentioned the word "cocktail," and a cabinet taken from Antoine Peychaud's pharmacy, both holy relics in the cocktail world.

The museum also offers a timeline of cocktail history, from the prehistoric "bitters" period, through the advent of electricity (which allowed for ice storage and instant carbonation) through Prohibition, then the post-WWII period, which brought us vodka and rum-based tropical cocktails. Even cocktail nerds will probably learn new bits of trivia.

The term "jake leg," for example, came from Jamaican ginger extract (nicknamed "Jake" in the U.S.), which, when adulterated in order to bypass Prohibition laws, was toxic and could affect a person's control over his hands and feet.

The museum also explains how rum cocktails became so popular, so fast, after World War II -- because whiskey was a scarcity during the war, distributors would often require bartenders to buy 10 cases of rum if they wanted to acquire a single case of whiskey.

The surplus of rum was fortuitous, though, as many soldiers returning from South Pacific tours had developed a taste for tropical and rum-based drinks. At the same time, many Americans were more freely vacationing in the Caribbean in the 1950s, and rum drinks were evocative of a trip abroad. (But the 1960s were again a poor decade for rum.)

Beyond trivia, the museum seeks to project the importance of the cocktail -- and, indeed, alcohol -- upon the past 200 years of American history.

"The cocktail is a post-Industrial Revolution invention, an American invention," said Mr. DeGroff, and he's quite serious when he says he views the cocktail and the cocktail culture as a metaphorical microcosm of the country that gave birth to it.

The cocktail, after all, is a descendant of the European wine and brandy punches, a conglomeration of Old World traditions, given a New World twist.

As Mr. DeGroff put it, throw enough people together, from so many different drinking cultures (German beer halls, gin from England, Irish pubs, vodka from eastern Europe, brandywine from France) and something novel was bound to develop.

While you're in town, you may also want to set aside a half hour for a visit to the Absinthe Museum of America, at 823 Royal St. The museum is part of the larger La Maison d'Absinthe, a store where you can buy antique and contemporary absinthe-ware -- spoons, glasses and fountains, mostly, as well as posters and other memorabilia. Perfect timing, now that absinthe is again legal, with many brands available in America and at least seven now available in our state stores and through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

The three-year-old museum is split into two main rooms, pre-ban and post-ban (absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, and in France by 1915).

The post-ban room displays 20th-century bottles from around the world, and also focuses on pastis, an absinthe-flavored spirit that remained legal after absinthe was banned. Most of the hardware and memorabilia belongs to the museum's two founders, Cary Rene Bonnecaze and B. Raymond Bordelon.

The museum is in New Orleans because the city's growing 1800s French population meant that absinthe, popular in France, was well-loved in New Orleans, too.

The Old Absinthe House, a popular Bourbon Street bar (originally known as The Absinthe Room), was the epicenter of absinthe sampling, patronized by the likes of Mark Twain, FDR, Oscar Wilde and (it is said) Robert E. Lee.

In that bar, not long after the Civil War ended, mixologist Cayetano Ferrer created the "Absinthe Frappe."

Absinthe Frappe

PG tested

There are lots of ways to make an absinthe frappe, but this is the recipe favored by The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans.

  • 1 1/4 ounces of absinthe
  • 1/4 ounce of anisette
  • Splash of soda water

Mix the first 2 ingredients in a glass, then top with the soda water.

Use a small spoon to whip the drink until the top is frosted, like a frappe.

Other recipes call for the addition of sugar or simple syrup.

For a colder drink, strain the first 2 ingredients over ice, and into a glass, before adding the soda water.

-- The Old Absinthe House

Planter's Punch

This recipe comes from The Old Absinthe House. Planter's Punch is a ubiquitous drink, with recipes that vary from spot to spot. Today we think of it as a tropical refresher, but the origins might not be tropical at all -- the punch is said to have been invented in The Planter's Hotel in St. Louis in the 1840s. Other sources say it was named for the sugarcane planters and concocted to cool them after a long day in the sun. In either event, the first known written reference to Planter's Punch (according to various Internet sources) is a poetic recipe that appeared in The New York Times in 1908:

This recipe I give to thee,

Dear brother in the heat.

Take two of sour (lime let it be)

To one and a half of sweet,

Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,

And add four parts of weak.

Then mix and drink. I do no wrong

I know whereof I speak.

This drink, of course, originated as a punch, meant to be mixed in a bowl, but you can scale the recipe to a single glass.

-- Bill Toland

  • 1 1/4 ounces dark rum
  • 2 ounces orange juice
  • 2 ounces sour mix
  • Splash of grenadine
  • 'Float' of 151 rum on top

Mix the first 3 ingredients in a shaker, over ice. Pour into an ice-filled glass. Splash in the grenadine and the 151 afterward (The 151 float is meant to sting the lips upon the first sip, a sting that is cooled by the punch to follow).

Garnish with an orange slice. Other recipes call for limes instead of orange slices, pineapple juice in place of orange juice, or a splash of club soda in place of the 151.

-- The Old Absinthe House

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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