13 New and Classic New Orleans Cocktail Destinations
Cocktail culture rules this town.
Tales of the Cocktail. Tattoo-fest. Summit of tiny vests, pork pie hats and skinny jeans. Confluence of cocktail aficionados and professional boozehounds. In a nutshell, more fun than anyone should be allowed to have, with more cocktails and more people who love serving them up, drinking them and growing the ingredients that make them.
It’s no wonder NOLA has become the perfect locale for this 14th annual cocktail event: some of the world’s most famous cocktails were invented there, including the Vieux Carre and the Sazerac, classic cocktails still mixed up to their original exacting specifications in the city that birthed them. It’s also the kind of live-in-the-moment town where no one will look askance if you have a cocktail (or two, or three) at lunch and the road to inebriation is studded with the glamorous likes of Truman Capote and Sherwood Anderson.
Held every July in the brutal hot-house funk of summertime New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail is a chance for bartenders, distillers, liquor brand representatives and journalists to convene and attend seminars about topics from the best hotel bars in the country to why rum is important, try new spirits, learn new techniques and basically commune over a shared passion for all things cocktail.
I was lucky enough to attend this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, experiencing the whirlwind of lunches, dinners and seminars that only increased my respect for the talented bartenders and fans who make the craft cocktail world go ‘round. I had a hidden agenda: to discover a go-to cocktail that I would embrace as my new standard. The verdict: rather than one new cocktail, I found a variety of classics, from the Sazerac to the Manhattan to the Vieux Carre and a classic Hemingway not-too-sweet Daiquiri (Hemingway was a diabetic, after all) which I have folded into my cocktail kit bag.
Now that the weather in New Orleans is turning from blazing soup to tepid chowder, it’s time for you to head down to this American gem and follow the well-trod trail forged by cocktail enthusiasts from around the world. Put these hot spots on your list for your next NOLA visit:
If you love seafood, the James Beard-award winning Peche is a must-visit. Don’t miss chef Ryan Prewitt’s shrimp bisque, crab and jalapeno capellini and the grilled tuna with zucchini cake and olive relish. Even better, it’s a great cocktail destination, with an interesting cocktail program that attracts the likes of California distiller Austin Hope, the man behind Highspire, a craft rye that Hope has added to his family’s brand of highly regarded wines.
Hope sips his rye neat, but this old school spirit is also great in classic cocktails, from the Manhattan to the Sazerac. For me rye has always had associations with old Hollywood, and classic gumshoes with a bottle of the stuff in their desk drawer: Hope is a different kind of rye guy, an affable, boyishly handsome fella with the demeanor of a high-on-life surfer.
For Hope making the transition from wine to whisky was a natural: “rye is all about the grain like the wine is all about the grape.” Hope has been in the wine business since way back and in 5th grade started picking grapes and working in his family’s vineyard before he was sidetracked by a successful stint as a motorcross racer. He has since embraced the family business completely, and added even more spirits to their Kindred Distilled Spirits repertoire, most recently Loaded Vodka.
Want to feel like you’re in Havana, sipping a cocktail next to Ernest Hemingway? This gorgeously atmosphere restaurant loaded with old world character (the mottled walls contrasted with glam chandeliers, long bar and intimate room will make other diners fast friends) will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It was the perfect destination for a lazy, rainy afternoon with the Venezuelan brand Diplomatico where I realized how much I love rum and the new trend of sipping rum neat or on ice and savoring the flavors of vanilla, coffee, coconut, dried fruit and chocolate in this incredible spirit. Marked by wonderful Caribbean fare and a cocktail program deeply indebted to rum, Cane and Table is the culinary offspring of New Orleans’ famous cocktail mecca, Cure, another must-stop locale.
Ask for Marvin Allen. He has, quite literally, written the book on classic cocktails, Magic in a Shaker: A Year of Spirited Libations and has stood behind this famous revolving bar inside the Hotel Monteleone since 2002 hob-nobbing with the likes of director Steven Soderberg, Jeremy Irons, Jessica Lange, tolerating the occasional drive-through of a swinger’s convention and a cast of discriminating locals. Only 25 percent of his job, he says, is actually making drinks. The rest is talking, listening, relating and being the face of this legendary bar. Allen remembers when Tales was in its infancy, “ten people having dinner and talking about cocktails,” he remembers, when Bacardi was the only rum behind most bars. How times have changed.
Though Tales is awash in the hippest of the hip, tatted up and bearded bartenders, cocktail culture has a reverence for the classics and Allen credits this annual convention with jump-staring interest in classic cocktails. Allen regaled me with stories of famous visitors to the bar (Liberace and Billy Joel have both done impromptu concerts at the bar’s piano) and showed me how a Carousel bartender arrives at work at the revolving bar: he asks a few customers to momentarily give up their stools and then plants his posterior on the bar and pivots around to hop inside. There is no secret door or gate to enter the bar, so you have to be limber as well as a cocktail genius to helm this New Orleans institution and have a fair amount of stamina to mix anywhere from 50-70 cocktails an hour at peak times. Gently talking people down from that Miller Lite, Allen says, is key. “One of my primary jobs is to educate people... as a bartender I can guide you into something else, maybe even a spirit you’ve never tasted.” His advice? Don’t order a Mint Julep. "It’s not a New Orleans drink, though people often think it is." And if you want to really charm Allen, order a Rusty Nail. It’s his fave. “I do love a good Rusty Nail.”
In addition to the novelty factor of a revolving bar, the Carousel has serious literary pedigree as the watering hole of choice for, among others, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote who, cocktail historian Philip Greene says, used to tell people he was born at the Carousel’s home in the Hotel Monteleone.
You know you’re in a special town when unapologetic cocktail lunches drag on for hours and sometimes even bleed into dinner at this old school New Orleans venue where the waiters and busboys recall the old world manners and scrupulous professionalism of French servers, who have elevated the undergrad summer job of waiting tables into an honorable profession. Some have worked at the restaurant for decades, and are only the most recent in their family’s generations of Galatoire’s waiters. Order the Galatoire’s house cocktail, which packs a Sazerac wallop. You won’t be sorry you did. You can’t go wrong with the rich, seafood-driven cuisine either. Make sure you dine (and sit) in the busy, buzzing downstairs dining room, a special occasion hot spot where I witnessed two raging birthday parties, and it felt like a slow night.
5: The Moxy
You have to love a hotel where the check-in desk is the bar and you are handed a draft cocktail upon arrival. A friendlier, more accessible version of an Ace Hotel, the New Orleans Moxy is helmed by a fun, helpful staff and boasts the kind of slick, perky design that makes you feel like you are staying in a cooler friend’s design-forward digs.
In addition to that welcoming cocktail, the Moxy dishes out cleverly-named craft specials like The Layover, Oaxacan on Sunshine and Bitten n Burnt, genuinely novel sips that make the idea of hanging around the bar in your own hotel, even in a cocktail crazy town like NOLA, a pretty tantalizing proposition. There is a kiosk of drinks and snacks set up in the lobby that feels like the snack bar at a Silicon Valley startup and if you have a day of cocktails ahead of you, the delicious hummus, eggs or s’mores naans served at the bar (open 24 hours in lieu of room service) are an amazing stomach coater. Marriott’s Moxy brand debuted in Europe and so has a cheeky, original vibe that feels fresh and vital to an American sensibility.
Anyone who loves design and fun will embrace the hotel’s point of view and playfulness, backed up by great customer service and a solid food and beverage program. Though its vending machine dispensing selfie sticks and dashboard Queen Elizabeths and lobby selfie board and foosball table make it feel laser-aimed at millennials, the Moxy’s charming brand rep Jennifer Merryman says she often feels like it’s the older set who embrace the Moxy spirit most enthusiastically “I feel like the people who appreciate it the most are the 40-60 year olds who have traveled and have social currency,” she tells me.
Named the best new restaurant by the restaurant Oscars, the James Beard Awards, this modern Israeli restaurant in the Garden District features chef Alon Shaya’s Greek, North African, Turkish and Middle Eastern influences and also boasts a very good cocktail program—something it seems impossible to do without in this very discriminating drinking city. Even before I walked through its door locals were raving about the incredible pita bread and mind-bending lamb hummus, and they were right. Small plates here are a fantastic way to experience the breadth of chef Shaya’s talents, so load up and feel transported to another world. The outdoor patio, if the weather is nice, only enhances the feeling of being in an entirely different, even more exotic place.
Another classic NOLA destination, this time for a quick brandy milk punch, one of those cocktails it’s hard to find anywhere else in the country. When you’re in the mood for a perfectly crafted sip in a 176–year-old restaurant (the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States) whose walls are adorned with black and white photos of Mardi Gras queens, and whose $20.16 summer lunch special includes 25 cent martinis, this is your spot.
Intimate and convivial, the circa 1800s Arnaud’s French 75 bar is a must-hit location for the Tales of the Cocktail crowd. This iconic spot is helmed by cult figure and legendary bartender Chris Hannah, who legend goes, is a kind of cocktail doctor who can discern the perfect cocktail for you based on your spirit preferences, though you could also just have a perfectly balanced French 75 cocktail while you’re there. The food at next door Arnaud’s is a typically wonderful New Orleans feast of sauces and seafood and brilliant, attentive service and the kind of experience that takes you back to what it must have been like for our parents to have dined in swanky venues in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Dining in the less-formal Jazz Bistro room is a special treat with its roving musicians belting out old-timey classics: a table near the window affords a view of the passing parade of Bourbon Street revelers and offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of too much booze. Critical for your dining pleasure is the tableside event of a Café Brulot, a boozy after dinner coffee drink with oranges and spices that includes pyrotechnics along with its delicious Christmas-y flavor.
There are few drinking spots as beautiful as the Sazerac with its bartenders in white blazers and black ties and an Art Deco mural painted in 1932 by artist Paul Ninas behind its elegant bar. It caused me physical pain to go there for a ceremonial Sazerac and watch the bros in T-shirts and backwards baseball caps not showing the proper deference to the refined setting. Things picked up when a Tales of the Cocktail burlesque troupe arrived, with their impeccable posture and vintage ‘40s dresses ably distracting from the beach wear. Do yourself a favor when touring these classic New Orleans bars and restaurants where William Faulkner and Eudora Welty once walked, and dress for the occasion. Cocktails taste better when you make them special.
Helmed by Best Chef 2016 James Beard winner Balise owner/chef Justin Devillier this atmospheric Downtown/Central Business District spot hosted several events at Tales of the Cocktail including a Montanya rum lunch with delicious cocktails from resident drink-guru Jesse Carr. I dined on Devillier’s cold corn soup and a succulent roasted lamb and other seasonal fare at this unpretentious, inviting spot named for the first French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi river.
Cosmopolitan in every sense of the word, this restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter has roots in Israel, a sister restaurant in Costa Rica and an incredible dedication to meat in every incarnation. One of my best dining experiences in New Orleans was a courtyard Spirited Dinner of incredible food and bourbon cocktail pairings from Angel’s Envy bourbon, featuring some remarkably light and refreshing summer bourbon cocktails that opened my eyes to the refreshing possibilities from one of my favorite brown liquors.
12: Salon at Sucre
A gorgeously girly spot (but not so girly that the many men in attendance wouldn’t feel right at home) with an elegant candy shop below and an equally lovely light and airy café above, this pretty spot features pastries and cakes and plenty of savory delectables too. In addition to afternoon tea, the Salon at Sucre also boasts a wonderful cocktail program featuring delights like the Lulu White and Maud Flower—a delicious variation on a Bee’s Knees featuring chamomile-infused gin — whose names are informed by local history and the mystique of New Orleans’ famous red light district, Storyville. As with everything New Orleans, prettiness and a vein of sin perpetually collide.
13: Q&C HotelBar
This charming boutique hotel in a historic 1913 building—at 12 stories high, considered a skyscraper in its day— the Q&C HotelBar (the name comes from the building’s former incarnation as the Queen and Crescent railroad’s headquarters) straddles New Orleans’ Warehouse/Arts District and the French Quarter, making it a lovely, quiet getaway close enough to all the action but with a warm, inviting, clubby feel (made even more so with its pet-friendly policy) that also makes it feel like a world apart.
Featuring the kind of luxe-edgy touches you expect of one of Marriott’s Autograph Collection properties, the Q&C’s rooms are modern, fresh and design-forward with winning industrial touches like sliding bathroom barn doors and polished wood floors and cheeky artwork centered on jazz legends. One of the best features of the hotel is its open, community-oriented lobby and check-in lounge and bar with a buzzy happy hour.