New Orleans has played a significant role in cocktail culture over the past century-plus, responsible for classics like the Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz. Its contributions also include the Vieux Carré, which was first stirred to life in the 1930s by Walter Bergeron, a bartender at New Orleans’ legendary Carousel Bar inside the Hotel Monteleone. Vieux Carré means “old square” in French and refers to the city’s French Quarter neighborhood.
Like so many classic cocktails from that city, the recipe represents the crosscurrents of America at the time: brandy and liqueur from France, vermouth from Italy and rye whiskey from just up the Mississippi. The Vieux Carré is at once boozy, sweet, bitter and smooth—in other words, it’s New Orleans in a glass.
The drink features several strong ingredients. In most cases, rye or cognac could carry a cocktail on their own, but the Vieux Carré calls for both in a split-base technique that allows each component to shine. The rye provides muscular spice, while the cognac lends softer notes of fruit and florals. Sweet vermouth adds rich botanicals, while Bénédictine brings its distinct flavors of herbs, spices and honey. Finally, the bitters add structure and seasoning. Each element has a role to play; when combined, the ingredients meld seamlessly together into a cohesive package.
This recipe comes from legendary bartender Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail. He subs out the classic combination of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters for his own pimento aromatic bitters, which bring similar accents of baking spices and anise to the drink. He also chooses George Dickel rye from Tennessee, but any good rye whiskey will do the job, so feel free to experiment with your favorite bottle.
Today the Vieux Carré can be found on cocktail menus across the country, alongside other New Orleans classics like the Sazerac. If you find yourself in the French Quarter, don’t pass up a chance to drink one straight from the source. The cocktail is potent, but note that the Carousel Bar is famous for its revolving bar. So, if the room feels like it’s spinning, don’t worry, it is.
Click Play to See This Vieux Carré Recipe Come Together
- 3/4 ounce George Dickel rye whiskey
- 3/4 ounce cognac
- 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
- 2 teaspoons Bénédictine liqueur
- 4 dashes Dale DeGroff’s pimento aromatic bitters
- Garnish: Maraschino cherry or lemon peel
Add all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Strain into a cocktail glass. Alternatively, you can strain into an Old Fashioned glass over fresh ice.
Garnish with a cherry, lemon peel or both.