27 July 2006

Lost City: New Orleans Edition: Sazerac, Mon Amour

Within minutes of checking in at the Hotel Monteleone on Rue Royale in the French Quarter, I made it my mission to visit the lodge's Carousel Bar as my Stop One. The Carousel is actually a carousel, and a more appropriate symbol for a bar to adopt in a merry-go-round town like New Orleans there never was. You perch on one of the stools surrounding the circular bar, and it will take you round the world once every 15 minutes. This means: good people watching; mild disorientation; and more disorientation, once you'd had a refreshment or two.

I found my seat fairly easily—quite a trick, as the Carousel is a popular joint among locals and tourists alike. The critical question of What to Order was answered quickly. New Orleans has birthed many a cocktail; perhaps more than any other city, save New York. One of these is the Sazerac. I had never tried this ancient concoction, which some say is the oldest cocktail on record. I wasn't about to let another hour pass in Crescent City without knowing its taste. So I put in my order. A rocks glass held its ingredients: Bourbon, Pernod licorice liqueur, sugar, Angostura bitters and lemon peel. A lovely look it has; a sort of burnt orange, accented by the yellow lemon peel. I took a sip.

Now, where has this drink been all my life? Some old cocktails—a Sidecar, say, or a Rusty Nail—take some getting used to. You don't wonder why they've gone out of style; instead, you wonder why they ever WERE in style. A Sazarac bewitches from the first. Some sweet, some sour, some tang, some fruit, and refreshing in a way many cocktails aren't. (I would soon find out that, to survive in New Orleans, a cocktail must be both potent and refreshingly light. The Pimm's Cup and the Hurricane also fit this description. They are stealth drinks: all lemonade going down, with a blackjack hidden inside.)

Encouraged and delighted, I ordered that other famous Big Easy cocktail, the Hurricane. Once again, I was ignorant of the drink. I only knew that folks in college drank it when they wanted to get drunk, and fast. Another revelation. Pure enjoyment in a tall, hourglass vessel. Story goes that inventor Pat O'Brien came up with it in order to move a lot a rum sitting around in his store room. The drink still moves a lot of rum—both light and dark—plus plenty of fruit juice, ranging from passion fruit to grapefruit to pineapple, lotsa ice, and various fruit garnishes.

The Carousel served a superior Hurricane. The next night, I dropped by Pat O'Brien's proper to taste the original. Not nearly as good. I later discovered that Pat O'Brien sells its own "Hurricane Mix," which just makes me go "ick." I have to believe the mix is swilled by barrelful at the bar, explaining the commonness of their Hurricanes.

The Monteleone, by the way, is a literary landmark. Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway hung out at the Carousel. Capote claimed to have been born at the Monteleone. In truth, he was born at a nearby hospital, but his mother stayed at the hotel until it was time to give birth. Truman was a good little liar, and a romantic one, too.

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