Carnivalesque cocktails


The Roosevelt Hotel. Beignets. The Blues. Is it any wonder that New Orleans is the American heir apparent to the indulgent Mardi Gras holiday?

Fat Tuesday is the end of European-born Carnival, which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings to Jesus' birthplace. The first Mardi Gras was brought to America by French explorers who celebrated the holiday at the mouth of the Mississippi River, around present-day New Orleans.

Or maybe Huey P. Long so enjoyed a good Ramos Gin Fizz that he hijacked American history to point home for the occasion. It wouldn't be the first time he redirected something for a good Crescent City cocktail.

Regardless, Fat Tuesday is Feb. 24 this year, and you've been bound by Pope Gregory XIII to expel your demons in preparation for Lent.

But if you seek to truly honor New Orleans during your revelries, capitalize on one of its enduring legacies as the birthplace of these classic American cocktails.

The Sazerac

... Is the Crescent City's most storied - and official - libation. It is an exacting cocktail, the kind whose perfectly balanced citrus and full-bodied bite warrant the elegant portrayals in classic cocktail hardbacks.

Sazerac gets credit as America's first cocktail categorized by that name. Most accounts have its birthday somewhere in the 1830s, though the concept of a cocktail by any label has been around in America since the very early 1800s.

It's likely the very first cocktail to be invented in New Orleans, by Haitian apothecary and refugee Antoine Amadee Peychaud. Peychaud's toddy of French brandy and special bitters was regarded as highly medicinal.

The concoction was tweaked and popularized decades later in the 1850s at The Sazerac Coffee House, whose name reflected the drink made with Peychaud's Bitters and Sazerac-de-Forge et fils French Cognac. Thomas Handy inherited the saloon and later substituted American rye whiskey and absinthe for French brandy in the 1870s. (Handy's Maryland roots and the European grape-destroying phylloxera epidemic may have contributed to the switch.) The Sazerac became the Crescent City's official cocktail last summer.

Euphoria bar manager Zach Wilks makes a mean version that includes absinthe, Stirrings blood orange bitters in place of Peychaud's and "the official" Sazerac rye whiskey.

The Hurricane

The Hurricane was born in a tumultuous period at the iconic Pat O'Brien's New Orleans saloon, which opened days before Prohibition actually ended. New Orleans barkeeps were forced to buy cases of plentiful rum in any World War II-era deals to buy whiskey, bourbon or scotch. The trademark hurricane-shaped cup was large enough to accommodate the four or so ounces of rum bartenders would thus dump along with a proprietary mix of fruit flavors to unload the stuff.

Ironically, the throwaway liquor put this establishment on the map. Today, many barkeeps will use vodka instead of rum and their own mix of fruit juices that seek to mock the original. The Jazz Kitchen's Matt Schoen uses a blend of tangy-sweet orange and red juices for an eye-pleaser.


The Brazilian-born Caipirinha is not of New Orleans, but technically, neither is Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras has been exported all over the world, and Brazil has one of the largest celebrations around. There, locals will be drinking many more Caipirinhas than Hurricanes.

A Caipirinha is beautifully simple in its mixture of lime, Muscovado sugar and cachaca, a rum-like alcohol that is distilled from fermented sugarcane juice. That means it's strong, sour-sweet and fiery. Try it at the Jazz Kitchen, where bartender Schoen serves it up with liberal amounts of fresh lime.

Ramos Gin Fizz

Ann Tuennerman of New Orleans' Tales of the Cocktail festival can't be sure the classic Gin Fizz was developed in New Orleans - only the version by Henry C. Ramos, which he created at his own Imperial Cabinet Bar in 1888. His version is very distinct in its addition of orange flower water and cream and egg white for frothiness. "Shaker boys" reportedly had the sole responsibility of properly emulsifying this drink.

Legend has it that Gov. Huey P. Long brought a bartender from the New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel to the one in New York so the traveling statesman would never have to be without his favorite libation. The move pales in comparison to the 90-mile highway he commissioned to deliver him to the Roosevelt directly from his Baton Rogue post.

Euphoria's Zach Wilks makes a close version - a "Silver Fizz," according to some recipes, because of the addition of egg white to the regular Fizz recipe of gin, soda water, citrus juice and sugar. (No orange water, though.) And where most bars will substitute powdered egg whites for the real thing for obvious reasons, Wilks prefers connoisseurs to cowards (my words).

Conclusion: There's never been a better Mardi Gras, Indianapolis, so show us your fizz.

On the Web: Local bartenders serve up some of these recipes.


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