Find and book great restaurantsFind a Restaurant
Search for exciting venues and eventsFind a Venue
If you need advice or help finding venues or event suppliers, use our free helpline service.
Its population may be diminished after Hurricane Katrina but the New Orleans spirit is very much alive and well, as Alice Lascelles discovered at the Tales of the Cocktail festival
It’s 10am in New Orleans and already an energy-sapping 35 degrees. On the south side of the French Quarter, by the murky brown Mississippi, a busker sits tootling lazily on a trumpet, while tourists and locals breakfast on icing sugar-dusted beignets and chicory coffee. Over on Bourbon Street, garbage cans hum beneath neon signs declaring ‘Daiquiris to Go’ and ‘Shrimp Gumbo’, while a few blocks east the flower-filled porches of Ursulines Street look impossibly picturesque and sleepy.
It’s a feast for the senses, but this morning I have no time to explore as I’m running late for my first seminar of the day – a discussion all about cocktails. Half an hour later I’m sitting in an air-conditioned hall, Ramos gin fizz in one hand, notebook in the other, squinting at a PowerPoint diagram depicting the molecular structure of mint. ‘It’s important to keep your mint hydrated, otherwise the molecules won’t “pop” properly when you muddle your mojito,’ says the speaker.
Welcome to the woozy world of Tales of the Cocktail. Launched in 2003, Tales is the world’s largest cocktail festival, attracting more than 16,000 bartenders, bloggers, hacks and enthusiasts from around the globe for five days of seminars, tastings, dinner and debates on topics ranging from the history of saloons and classic Cognac drinks to molecular mixology and meat-based cocktails (yes, really). There is a vintage barware collectors’ convention and a full-blown New Orleans-style ‘funeral’ for the current cocktail non grata (this year it was the Red Headed Slut: Jägermeister, peach schnapps and cranberry juice).
But we’re also here to learn, and back in the hall our speakers are weighing up the merits of different shaking techniques. An ice-free dry shake is voted best for drinks containing egg white, an ice-heavy hard shake for the frailer daiquiri. The benefits of storing fruit in citric acid solution and the physics of Champagne flutes are also covered before we head back out.
There are many reasons why New Orleans is a natural home for Tales. The relaxed licensing laws is a key factor – many bars provide ‘go-cups’ for cocktails; drinking in the street is legal; there’s even a drive-through daiquiri service. The city is the birthplace of classic cocktails such as the Sazerac and the Ramos gin fizz (see boxes). And it is home to the Museum of the American Cocktail, a leading, if slightly dusty, collection of drinks memorabilia ranging from 18th-century glassware and vintage cocktail books to antique ice picks and gaudy tiki mugs.
To reach the museum you head out to the thundering traffic of the main drag and through a near-empty shopping centre – a stark reminder that the city is still recovering from a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, flooding 80% of New Orleans and destroying about 300,000 homes. The mass exodus that followed has left swathes of the low-lying parts of town largely unpopulated, even four years on.
‘After the evacuation, a lot of folks moved to start a new life in Baton Rouge,’ says Joe Gendusa, a teacher from Gentilly, one of the worst-hit areas. ‘It’s hard for people to move back if you don’t know who else will follow. I’m 70 and I don’t think I’m going to live to see it return to what it was.’
Others are more optimistic, encouraged by reports that the population recently hit 300,000 for the first time since Hurricane Katrina – even though that’s still only about 60% of what it was.
At legendary music venue the Maple Leaf Bar, the New Orleans spirit is alive and well. Cramped and dark, with signs reading ‘Keep dogs on lead – strong rat poison’, it vibrates with sweaty energy. On the night we visit, house favourites the Rebirth Brass Band, a raucous 10-piece that bangs out jazz and funk, sends the crowd crazy.
The next morning’s lecture on the history of Storyville is another reminder of the city’s soul. The notorious red light district’s saloons and brothels provided a practice ground for jazz greats including Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.
A panel discussion about cocktail trends on both sides of the Atlantic follows – participants predict smaller bars, better ice, more seasonal ingredients and classier liqueurs. One panellist suggests ‘shock and awe’ cocktails – though I think I’ll be giving his horseradish and pineapple margarita with seared beef a miss.
After a plate of seafood gumbo, it’s time for a drink. And there are few more charming bars in New Orleans than French 75, an elegant hideaway adjoining Arnaud’s restaurant – a New Orleans institution since 1918. A Sazerac with rye whiskey and bitters is good, but a French 75 with Cognac, Champagne, sugar and lemon juice is crisp and delicious.
Later, we visit one of the city’s hottest bars, Cure, which does superb drinks – even if you don’t recognise half the ingredients. We enjoy a rum & fab (rum, rhubarb bitters, honey syrup, Apry liqueur, soda, lemon juice) and a gothic-looking mix of rye whiskey, bitters and spicy Averna liqueur. The following day I overcome my fear of absinthe with an in-depth tasting of three luxury brands just hitting the US market: the minty/peppercorn Nouvelle Orleans, grassy/lemon balm-spiked Marteau and small-batch Pacifique made with home-grown botanicals. With prices between $60 and $100 a bottle, these are definitely not for student drinking games.
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a spin on the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar. Immortalised by Ernest Hemingway, and famous for its Vieux Carré cocktail made with rye, Cognac, vermouth, Benedictine and bitters, this bar slowly revolves all day long. On my third circuit, I reflect on how perfectly the bar encapsulates the essence of the city: glitzy, cultural, romantic, historic, elegant and unabashedly cheesy – and you can be sure I’ll be back again soon.
Carousel Bar at The Hotel Monteleone - Iconic bar that brings a whole new meaning to ‘It’s my round’. www.hotelmonteleone.com
Acme Oyster House - Hugely popular diner-style joint famed for its hand-shucked oysters and po’boys. www.acmeoyster.com
Café du Monde - Essential breakfast stop for chicory café au lait and icing sugar-coated beignets. www.cafedumonde.com
French 75 at Arnaud’s - French Quarter elegance offering great classic cocktails. www.arnauds.com/bar.html
Cure - Sleek new bar serving beautiful drinks to delight cocktail anoraks. www.curenola.com
Napoleon House - The site dates back to 1797 – get a plate of shrimp gumbo and soak up the atmosphere. www.napoleonhouse.com
Maple Leaf Bar - Don’t expect any frills – just fantastic music. mapleleafbar.com
It was only recently declared the official cocktail of New Orleans, but the Sazerac has been around since the second half of the 19th century. It was originally made with Cognac, sugar and Peychaud’s Bitters – a health-giving tincture created by French Quarter pharmacist Antoine Peychaud that’s still in use today. Over time, the Americans replaced Cognac with rye whiskey and added an absinthe rinse, but the way you drink yours is entirely a matter of taste – just make sure it’s ice cold. Complex, aromatic and strong, this is a cocktail that sorts the men from the boys.
Coburg Bar, The Connaught, Carlos Place, W1K 2AL; 020 7499 7070
Milk & Honey, 61 Poland Street, W1F 7NU; 020 7292 9949
Montgomery Place, 31 Kensington Park Road, W11 2EU; 020 7792 3921
Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, W1D 3LL; 020 7437 9585
Rules, 35 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7LB; 020 7836 5314
Created in New Orleans in 1888 by Henry Ramos, the Ramos gin fizz is notorious for needing at least two minutes of vigorous shaking to achieve the required froth. Ramos’s scented mix of gin, sugar, cream, egg white and citrus juices proved so popular he was forced to hire a squadron of up to 35 ‘shaker boys’ to do the hard work for him.
So it seemed fitting that the hot topic at Tales this year was gin. The revival of old styles such as genever and Old Tom, and the launch of new brands including Beefeater 24, Oxley and Sipsmith, were the source of much excitement.
Bartenders also scrambled for a taste of the limited 54% abv 10th anniversary bottling of Martin Miller’s Gin. To celebrate, I asked Miller’s ambassador, mixologist Jon Santer, to create his own take on the Ramos gin fizz. ‘I’ve always thought Martin Miller’s Gin, especially the Westbourne Strength, had some peach undertones,’ Santer told me. ‘So in our Ramos I highlighted them by replacing the orange flavours typically found in the Ramos with peach.’
50ml Martin Miller’s Gin, Westbourne Strength
15ml egg white
15ml fresh lime juice
15ml single cream 1
5ml sugar syrup (dissolve 1 cup of demerara sugar in 1 cup of water)
8ml lemon juice
8ml peach liqueur
50ml Fever-Tree soda water
Method :Combine the first seven ingredients in a shaker and shake without ice to emulsify. Add ice and shake hard. Then add soda to the bottom of a frozen Colllins glass, strain the mixture into the Collins glass – and enjoy!
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2009