NOLA 300: New Orleans made the modern-day cocktail possible

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NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans may not have invented the cocktail. But, it was never the same after we put our twist on it.

“The first reference we have to the word cocktail where the word appears in print with a definition is in a Hudson, New York, newspaper in 1806,” says Chris McMillian, cocktail historian and cocktail creator at his Revel Cafe and Bar. “It defines a cocktail as any spirit, sugar, water and bitters–exactly the same way we define it today.”

Some cocktails are still made the same way they were made around the turn of the 20th century. And, the ones that aren’t, may be based on an old recipe by one of the New Orleans’ superstar bartenders.

“When the very first bartending manual ever written was published in 1862, the only bartender it mentions by name is a guy named Joseph ‘Santina’,” says McMillian. They meant Joseph Santini, who was the bartender at the St. Louis Hotel in the French Quarter. The manual credited him with the creation of a drink that would become a template for some of the most popular drinks to ever be mixed: the Brandy Crusta (Cognac, lemon juice, Curacao, Maraschino, and a sugar-crusted glass with a lemon peel).

“If you take this same drink and go to the turn of the century in Paris, leave the Maraschino out, and substitute the Curacao for triple sec, you have the Sidecar,” says McMillian. “If you go to the 1930s London and substitute the gin for Cognac, you have the White Lady. If you go to the 1940s and substitute the lemon for lime and the gin for tequila, you have the Margarita. And, if you go to the 1990s and substitute the tequila for vodka and add a splash of cranberry, you have the Cosmopolitan. The Cosmopolitan was singularly the most successful drink of the modern era because its template–its architecture–is this classic DNA that has its origins on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis in the 1830s.”

Another superstar bartender whose name you hear every time you order his greatest creation is Henry Ramos.

“Ramos was the most famed bartender and barman of his age,” says McMillian. “In the same way that everybody in the world today who has heard about New Orleans has heard about Pat O’Brien’s, everybody in the world in that era who had heard of New Orleans had heard of the Ramos Bar and the Ramos Gin Fizz.”

Today, the cocktail that all drinkers know is the Sazerac. While it may not be the original cocktail, it is one of the best of its kind.

“Really, what the Sazerac is is the ultimate expression of the original old-fashioned form of cocktail,” says McMillian.

The Brandy Crusta, the Ramos Gin Fizz, and the Sazerac all have something else in common. At different times, they all occupied the same spot on the corner or Carondelet St. and Gravier St.

“Santini, he moved across canal street to the American Sector, across the street from the St. Charles Hotel on Gravier,” explains Santini. “And, that bar was called the Jewel of the South. And it later came into the possession of Tom Anderson, the boss of Storyville.”

Ramos’ nearby bar closed and he bought the Stag from Anderson.

“Well, in 1934, the Sazerac bar moves into the same location that Ramos is in,” continues McMillian. “So, on that corner of Gravier and Carondelet–no historical marker–you have the three most historic bars in the history of New Orleans, the center in many ways of the evolution of American drink culture.”


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