New Orleans is a lot of great things—great music town, great food town, great sports town.
Above all else, it’s a drinking town. Between a long historic connection to both the Caribbean rum industry and the whiskey-drinking of the rest of the United States, and its present-day reputation as a party destination, New Orleans and its residents have always recognized the value of a good drink. And that’s not to mention the city’s many claims to cocktail history: It’s the birthplace of the Sazerac, Vieux Carre, Hurricane and several other classics.
These days, it’s easy to have fun in almost any bar in New Orleans: Just order a shot and a beer and start making friends or listening to good music. In recent years, a number of bars have begun bringing that quintessential New Orleanian feeling—easygoing, unfussy, fun—to the craft cocktail movement. These are bars putting out exquisitely crafted drinks with the highest-quality ingredients, without the seriousness and stuffiness (or price-gouging) of many larger markets.
Cure, 4905 Freret Street, 504 302 2357
In many ways, New Orleans’ vibrant present-day cocktail scene only exists because of Cure. Back in 2009, when Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal’s ambitious cocktail den opened in a former firehouse on a largely ignored stretch of Freret Street in Uptown, Cure spurred both revitalization of the neighborhood and, citywide, a new focus on artisanal, artfully-crafted cocktails. Last month, Adam Biderman, chef-owner of neighboring Company Burger and a former chef at Holeman & Finch in Atlanta, took over the kitchen here, bringing snacks and plates as creative and expertly crafted as the drinks.
What to drink: Sutpen Sour (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Emile Pernot Grande Liqueur de Sapins, moscatel sherry, ginger)
THE OLD SOUL
French 75 Bar, 813 Bienville Street, 504 523 5433
Barman Chris Hannah is something of an institution in the New Orleans cocktail community, bringing a deep appreciation for cocktail and spirits history to his work at French 75. This is where people can best experience the lineage of New Orleans’ drinking past, befitting the bar’s setting in the almost-100-year-old Arnaud’s restaurant, which sits in a complex of buildings between 200 and 300 years old. (The French 75 itself opened in 2003, but the space had been used as a bar prior to that.) Despite the potential stuffiness of the space, it’s comfortable and unpretentious.
What to Drink: French 75 (Courvoisier VS Cognac, sugar, lemon juice, Moet & Chandon Champagne)
THE CARIBBEAN COUSIN
Cane & Table, 1113 Decatur Street, 504 581 1112
Cane & Table is arguably the most exciting recent entrant in the Crescent City’s craft-cocktail portfolio. Former Cure bartender Nick Detrich has teamed with his old employers to open a bar and restaurant exploring the history of tiki—all the way back to its 19th-century roots. What Detrich and company have achieved is a great rum bar with fun Caribbean cocktails and European-Caribbean food they’re calling “colonial cuisine.” Company Burger’s Adam Biderman runs the kitchen here, too.
What to Drink: Storm in Miniature (Worthy Gold Rum, Giffard Creme de Pamplemousse Rose, Bäska Snaps Liqueur, allspice dram, lemon, cinnamon syrup)
THE NEIGHBORHOOD JOINT
Twelve Mile Limit, 500 South Telemachus Street, 504 488 8114
New Orleans excels at the neighborhood mainstay, the sort of comfortable bar a half-step above a dive, where the bartenders are relaxed and it’s easy to make a friend. Twelve Mile Limit, in a residential stretch of Mid-City, perfectly embodies that New Orleans neighborhood bar, with a focus on original, innovative drinks. In addition to killer, affordable cocktails, owner T. Cole Newton underscores the local-hangout feeling with trivia nights, the occasional live dating show and free food every Monday.
What to Drink: The Baudin (bourbon, honey, lemon, Tabasco Sauce)
THE QUARTER HANGOUT
Bar Tonique, 820 North Rampart Street, 504 324 6045
Just as Twelve Mile Limit is bringing craft cocktails to the New Orleans neighborhood-joint aesthetic, Bar Tonique delivers ambitious drinks in what is unequivocally a French Quarter bar space. On the edge of the Quarter across from recently reopened Armstrong Park, Bar Tonique is a little dark and ramshackle like the best of the watering holes in the Vieux Carré. It has an impressive list of spirits, liqueurs, and aperitifs, not to mention a lengthy collection of mixed concoctions and house-made sodas, which the menu calls “temperance drinks.”
What to Drink: Frenchmen’s Dark & Stormy (Angostura 5 Year Old Rum, Cruzan Black Strap Rum, lemon juice, lime juice, ginger syrup, Demerara syrup, club soda)
Sylvain, 625 Chartres Street, 504 265 8123
Hiding behind a narrow, unassuming French Quarter facade is this stylish, ambitious restaurant and bar from Robert LeBlanc and former publishing man Sean McCusker. It can be dark; it can be loud. But the drinks are expertly executed, and the vibe is always absorbing. Sylvain is far and away one of the best places in town to experience the modern-day New Orleans: combining old and new, attention to detail and rock-n-roll recklessness, where ordering a shot of whiskey is as acceptable as a well-balanced cocktail—all in a beautiful French Quarter setting. Bar manager Liam Deegan recently left to open a new project for the same owners called Barrel Proof, but Sylvain itself continues to rock on.
What to Drink: Life of a Surfboard (High West Double Rye! Rye Whiskey, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Lillet Blanc, spiced pineapple syrup, lemon juice, Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters)
The Sazerac Bar, 123 Baronne Street, 504 648 1200
The famed Sazerac Bar returned when the historic Roosevelt Hotel reopened in 2009 after a $145 million restoration. Back in the 1920, this was longtime-governor-cum-political-boss Huey P. Long’s favorite bar, while today, it’s an unrivaled setting for experiencing old-school luxury. The cocktail menu includes a number of quality original drinks, but this is a place for embracing the classics. It’s called the Sazerac Bar, after all.
What to Drink: 1840 Sazerac (Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac, Peychaud’s Bitters, Herbsaint)
Booty’s Street Food, 800 Louisa Street, 504 266 2887
This is the passion project from Nick Vivion and Kevin Farrell, formerly the publisher and editor, respectively, of the gay culture and entertainment blog Unicorn Booty. Both Vivion and Farrell have traveled extensively, and at Booty’s (pictured), they’re working on bringing their favorite street foods from across the world to New Orleans. The bar program follows suit, combining internationally inspired cocktails with a special, whimsical focus on frozen drinks. Taking a craft-cocktail approach—with fresh juices and higher-quality spirits—to frozen Daiquiris, Booty’s proves that these drinks aren’t just the purview of crappy Bourbon Street tourist traps.
What to Drink: Bywater Bomber (Old New Orleans Rum, pineapple, orange juice, rose, lime, house-made bitters)
(Photo courtesy Booty’s Street Food)
Alexander J. Hancock is a freelance writer living in sunny Northern California. He previously worked as editor of Eater New Orleans and associate editor of Eater New York.