Around the Bar by Robert Simonson

and myself echoing on hardwood floors. There was a Zen-like calm to the place, as though the building had always been here in exactly this condition, but nobody knew to look for it. The whole tour was as much a master class in spirits and cocktails as it was in the city’s culture and heritage. So drawn was I by the serenity and majesty of the empty building that I wasn’t sure what to expect at the opening night gala — tuxedoes and gowns, yes, but with drinks flowing freely and jazz bands singing French songs, would the calm magic wash away? It did not. As stunning as the ribbon-cutting pageantry was — among those holding scissors were Bill Goldring, chairman of the Sazerac Company; Mark Brown, the company’s president & CEO; John Bel Edwards, governor of Louisiana; and LaToya Cantrell, mayor of New Orleans — and as thrilling as the marching brass band was that paraded through the lobby once the ribbon fell and the staircase opened — what moved me most came after. It was how hard the glamour of the event had to fight to mesmerize the guests as much as the magnificent setting did. To enter Sazerac House is to want to know everything about it, and everything about the city that calls it home. The ballroom dance floor remained empty for most of the night because guests were so enthralled with “magic mirrors” that came alive unexpectedly with vintage advertisements and century-old photographs. Even from the outside, Sazerac House is quintessentially New Orleans. It is the sort of edifice you find on Rue de Rivoli in Paris, where practically ancient buildings seem somehow as youthful as the day they were built. The Sazerac House building, abandoned for decades and now vibrant and dignified, is over 150 years old, with every inch of its 48,000 square feet restored and manicured to feel as timeless as the city itself, and its namesake drink. And after hours spent sipping spirits and cocktails distilled and mixed before your very eyes, you exit through the airy, capacious lobby, its ceiling so high it seems it might punch right through the clouds. You walk past its central, wooden staircase adorned in wrought iron and brought into relief by white, lighted and well-bottled shelves, and you step back into the city where horse-drawn carriages belong, taking your lover’s hand as you walk out into the New Orleans night. PEYCHAUD’S BITTERS Bitters are high-proof spirits infused with fruit, spices, tree bark, roots and other aromatics that were first developed and marketed for medicinal purposes.The famous Peychaud’s Bitters were invented around 1830 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary from Haiti who settled in New Orleans. When friends gathered for late night parties at his pharmacy on Royal Street, Peychaud would mix brandy, absinthe and a dash of bitters for his guests – a drink that later came to be known as the Sazerac. HERBSAINT J. Marion Legendre learned about absinthe while stationed in France during WWI. Upon his return to New Orleans during prohibition, Legendre, an apothecarist, began secretly making it in his Uptown home. When prohibition ended, he also began legally selling it as Legendre Absinthe. When the government forced him in 1934 to remove the name absinthe from his product because of the ban on absinthe from 1912, Legendre renamed his product Herbsaint. In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Herbsaint production, the Sazerac Company launched Legendre Herbsaint Original in 2009.

My career as a cocktail writer began with a Sazerac at the Monteleone Hotel’s Carousel Bar. It was 2006. I had been invited to fly to New Orleans to attend Tales of the Cocktail, a five-day event that calls itself a cocktail convention with a straight face. To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in cocktails. I was interested in seeing New Orleans, a city I’d dreamed of visiting for 20 years. That changed. My first night in the city, I took a seat at the Carousel Bar, a low-fi boozy circus act where a circle of stools turned around the central bar at a rate of 15 minutes per revolution. I remember being bemused by the way the standing patrons had to continually adjust their footing in order to keep up a conversation with their seated friends. The call came for my order. I did not know at that point that the cocktail called Vieux Carré had supposedly been invented at this bar. Hell, I’d never even heard of the Vieux Carré. The Sazerac, however — that I had heard of, but only barely. I knew it was a cocktail. I knew it was an old cocktail. And I knew the Sazerac had long been associated with New Orleans which, at that time, was about the only place where you could order one with any assurance that the bartender would know what you were talking about. I needed the bartender to know what I was talking about, because I certainly didn’t. I had done some research, so I knew what was in the drink. Still, if I’d ever tasted rye whiskey, I couldn’t remember the occasion, or its flavor. And I certainly had never sampled — or seen — Herbsaint or Peychaud’s Bitters, the two other critical liquor ingredients in the concoction. Sugar and a lemon twist completed the flavor packet. There was a good chance that I would hate this bizarre combination of foreign elixirs. But it was New Orleans, and sure as shootin’ I wasn’t going to get off on the wrong foot by ordering a Martini or a Jack & Coke. A Sazerac it had to be. The drink I got did not conform to my then-held beliefs about cocktails. It was in a rocks glass, but not on the rocks. There was a lemon twist, but it was discarded once its job was done. And the bright red hue just did not say “whiskey cocktail.” With some uncertainty, I took a sip. I could truthfully say then and can say now

The revolving Carousel Bar & Lounge is located in the famous Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. PHOTO COURTESY OF HOTEL MONTELEONE




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