By Anitra D. Brown
There is a perfectly good reason New Orleans is well-known for some of the most tongue-tantalizing mixes, medleys and blends of alcoholic libations.
We invented it, baby. At least it is a widely held belief that the world’s very first cocktail was created in New Orleans in or around 1838; and we are going to roll with ‘dat!
Today, that drink, the Sazerac, is the official drink of New Orleans; and while plenty of bars and restaurants across the city serve the cocktail, a pretty good version of the mélange is served at the New Orleans Drink Lab, 343 Baronne Street, where owner and master bartender Daniel Victory has taken the craft of the cocktail to new heights.
With its deep, rich wood furnishings and stained glass embellishments, co-owner Camille Whitworth says the Drink Lab’s décor is inspired by Mahogany Hall, a legendary brothel and saloon on Basin Street owned by Storyville businesswoman Lulu White until the U.S. Navy shut down Storyville, the city’s red-light district, in 1917.
Victory and Whitworth also own the neighboring cocktail lounge, Victory, which has quickly become an after-work and late-night hot spot for young professionals to gather for conversation and the latest news; but the New Orleans Drink Lab provides a space for locals and tourists alike who want to go beyond just drinking their favorite cocktail to exploring how to make classic drinks while learning the history behind them.
“When people leave here, they drink differently than they ever had before,” says Victory.
A favorite for those interested in learning how to make three classic New Orleans cocktails, the Sazerac, the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Hurricane, is the “master class”—a two-hour session that includes welcome drinks, lunch, cocktail history, and hands-on learning. In other words, you actually get behind the bar to shake or stir things up while Daniel Victory or one of the Drink Lab’s other master bartenders provides step-by-step instruction coupled with fun facts about the specific drinks you are blending as well as general cocktail-making techniques and history.
At the Drink Lab, one will learn that by definition a cocktail is “any spirit with sugar, water and bitters; without bitters, it is a toddy,” Victory explains just before he starts a lesson on making a Sazerac.
Now this may not be essential knowledge, but it just might help you impress friends the next time you belly up to the bar.
And if you ever wondered why anyone would create a drink using bitters, which were originally developed as a digestive medicine, Victory offers a completely logical explanation—Sazerac creator Amedee Peychaud owned a medicine shop and had lots of bitters.
“So how does he get more of his bitters into peoples’ mouths—add alcohol.”
Although the official Sazerac recipe calls for one cube of sugar, Victory adds two because “sugar cubes have gotten smaller since the mid-1800s” and “recipes are just a guide.”
You will also learn the right position to rest your fingers on the glass container in which the drink is being mixed in order to know when it is chilled to perfection, the proper way to hold and twist a healthy slice of lemon zest before dropping it into your glass, as well as the precise names for many of the tools of the cocktail trade.
Of course, the trick will be remembering any of that after you have mixed and imbibed a Sazerac, a Ramos Gin Fizz and a Hurricane.
“It’s really about education and having fun at the same time,” says Whitworth.
Ten to Try!
While you’re here, make sure you try one of these drinks to make your NOLA vacation truly inspired by the craft of the cocktail. These New Orleans classics are easy to find at bars and restaurants throughout the city.
- The Sazerac. If the widely-believed story is correct, you are here in the place where the very first cocktail, the Sazerac, was created. Come on, you gotta try one!
- The Ramos Gin Fizz. Another iconic New Orleans classic created in the 1880s by Henry C. Ramos. The drink requires gin, heavy cream, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, an egg white, orange flavor water, soda water and lots of shaking. Another version of the cocktail uses powdered sugar, and excludes the heavy cream.
- The Vieux Carre. A blend of rye whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth, benedictine, and bitters. Invented at the Carousel Bar in the 1930s, one website describes this cocktail has pure New Orleans.
- The Hurricane. A sweet alcoholic drink made with rum, fruit juice, and grenadine; one of the most popular drinks served in the Big Easy.
- A Frozen Daiquiri. Okay, we included this one because it is a can’t-go-wrong fusion of fruit flavor and alcohol blended into frozen goodness.
If you are adventurous, these five Specialty Cocktails are all featured at Victory NOLA:
- Little Boy Blue: vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, blueberries, sage, lavender
- Te Quila Hummingbird: tequila, hum, chartreuse, lime juice, agave nectar, strawberries, champagne
- “So Pho-cking Good”: soju, lime juice, pho syrup, mint, jalapeno, chives
- Baronne Flop: amaretto, lemon juice, simple syrup, pineapple, chocolate bitters, egg
- Blood & Smoke: scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, orange juice