Mention New Orleans to someone who’s never been there and chances are she’ll conjure visions of frat boys and the women who love them drinking technicolour, sugary Hurricanes and riding mechanical bulls until they pass out on the sidewalk. Banish the thought. Yes, it happens, but there’s far more to the Crescent City than that seedy strip. Fact is: there are few metropolises on the planet where whiskey and cocktails are as central to its history as they are in this city, founded by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne in 1717. But what else would you expect from a city where the Sazerac – that timeless mix of American whiskey and sugar in an absinthe rinsed glass rounded out with locally-invented, now iconic Peychaud’s bitters – is the official cocktail by the state government’s decree. Whether you prefer your whiskey in a no-frills haunt or a grand historical establishment, New Orleans is an embarrassment of riches.
936 St Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130
This expansive parlour opened in the Hotel Modern in 2011. With red walls, velvet upholstered chairs, and small lamps with red fringed lampshades on the bar, it has a Victorian air about it that screams bordello-esque sexiness. The owners, the same team behind Cure, were inspired by native son E.J. Bellocq, a 19th Century photographer known for his photos of prostitutes in the city’s red-light district. In the spirit of that era, the drink list here is focused on recipes that honor the early days of cocktail making – cobblers and punches and juleps and smashes. Ingredients are made in-house and if you get there at the right time, you’ll be welcomed with the powerful scent of one of them, like cinnamon syrup, as it cooks on a hotplate.
819 Conti St, New Orleans, LA 70112
Some bars you visit for the history, some for the cocktails, and some for the bartenders. Broussard’s, an airy, elegant French Quarter institution that opened as a classic French restaurant in 1920, has all three. Bartender Paul Gustings, who’s brusque and salty in the most charming way, has been mixing drinks in the city for 35 years. His sazeracs are epic, prepared in front of you ceremonially. He’s fast to regale you, “It’s one of the few drinks from the 1800s that never went away. Nobody in the US knew what a sazerac was 30 years ago because they were drinking cosmos, but everyone drank them here. It made a huge comeback everywhere else, but never made a comeback here because it never disappeared. We’re famous for sticking to what we like in this city and we’re proud of that.”
4905 Freret St, New Orleans, LA 70115
There’s a lot to be said about classic drinks and tradition. And then there’s Cure, a cocktail bar that’s all high ceilings, exposed brick, and lighting that illuminates the bottles on the soaring back bar in a manner that suggests stained glass windows. It was founded in 2009 by veteran barmen Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal, the latter of whom penned Rogue Cocktails, a book that pushes the boundaries of mixed drinks with tricks like using salt and uncommon amounts of bitters. That cheeky inventiveness is the hallmark at Cure, which employs fresh juices and house-made tinctures. Try the Whisky Sinister, one of the fixtures on the otherwise seasonally changing menu. This Monkey Shoulder Scotch-based formula involves Pages Maurin Cherry Quina (a cherry-infused sweet white wine), cream sherry, and Angostura bitters, delivering top notes of sweet fruit and a silky, malty finish.
618 Frenchmen St, New Orleans, LA 70116
Frenchman Street is to Bourbon Street what Lower East Side is to Times Square – less garish, more hip and soulful. D.b.a., which has a sister outpost in, you guessed it, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, captures the laidback, come-as-you-are essence of the city. No frills, no pretenses, no fancy light fixtures, just hundreds of whiskies, craft beers on tap and in bottles, and other spirits. Everything’s scrawled on 11 chalkboards that hang in a neat row above the bar, each one listing options from a particular country or region of origin – Speyside, Orkney, Skye, Irish whiskey, Czech beers, local beers, etc. There’s a second room with a radically pared down selection, leaving less to distract you from the local musicians playing upbeat jazz nightly on the stage.
5. Latitude 29
321 N Peters St, New Orleans, LA 70130
The décor at this Polynesian outpost is a study in giddy tropical kitsch – all carved totem poles and bamboo. Rums dominate the shelves and drinks come in tiki mugs with garnishes flashy enough to inspire a drag queen costume. But whatever you do, don’t panic! This tiki bar is the brainchild of celebrated tiki aficionado Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. You won’t find run-of-the-sugar-mill, cavity-causing scorpion bowls here, only balanced recipes from drink icons like Don the Beachcomber, father of the Tiki movement in glamourous 1930s Hollywood, as well as updated classics. Bourbon makes an appearance alongside macadamia nut liqueur in the Paniolo. But take this opportunity to explore the alluring complexity of rum drinks, like the Navy Grog, Sinatra’s favourite, Jamaican and Demerara rums perfumed with allspice and laced with lime and grapefruit. Don’t miss the pork ribs, a standout on the Hawaii-inspired menu.
6. Museum of the American Cocktail
1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70113
MOTAC was founded in 2005 by a cadre of some of America’s most celebrated industry luminaries, like Dale DeGroff, who’s recognised as blazing the trail for the cocktail renaissance from his perch in the famous Rainbow Room in the 1980s. After years of temporary homes, the cocktail-centric collection is now permanently installed in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which opened in an airy warehouse-like building in 2014. The well-curated items include bar tools, old-timey glassware, extinct whisky bottles, antique cocktail books, historic documents and the world’s largest assortment of absinthe paraphernalia. Give yourself plenty of time to loiter, as you can get a drink at Purloo, the adjoining modern American eatery, and drink it while wandering through the exhibits.
823 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116
The cypress wood standing-only bar at this historic spot, which opened in 1856, is thoroughly scraped and scuffed, prompting you to consider the countless conversations, debates, celebratory toasts, and bitter feuds that took place around it. The saloon, connected to a white-tablecloth Creole restaurant, historically dished out hearty fare to dockworkers and seamen from the nearby river. Today, the elegant yet unpretentious space, which still features tiled floors and the ornately framed mirror shipped from Paris in 1856, draws tourists and locals alike for casual conversation over Sazeracs prepared by bartenders in bow ties. And if you’re looking for a little whiskey reprieve, take note that one of Tujague’s claims to fame is the Grasshopper, that electric green guilty pleasure that evokes mint chocolate chip ice cream. It was invented here in the 1950s.
8. Twelve Mile Limit
500 S Telemachus St, New Orleans, LA 70119
This neighborhood spot in the Mid-City district has all the trappings of a standard dive bar – pool tables, a CD jukebox, cheap beer, poor lighting. But aside from those superficial details, there’s nothing standard about this spot. In 2010, T. Cole Newton, a DC native who went to New Orleans to help with Katrina recovery and stayed, took over the space, which had been a bar for about 90 years. Bartenders here dole out frosty pints at a rapid clip. They also turn out seriously high-end cocktails, but don’t take themselves too seriously. Try the signature Baudin, a bourbon-based riff on the whisky sour with local honey and a dash of tobasco. Added bonus – the bar sells locally made, traditional French doberge cakes, a layered pastry with sweet pudding and poured icing. Flavours change regularly. If you luck out with a chocolate variety, order a bourbon chaser.