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The Merchants Exchange Coffee House of New Orleans in the 1840s was a far cry from today’s Starbucks. The mixed-use space included a 125-foot-long bar, always had 12 bartenders working and served a unique drink that would birth cocktail culture both in the city and worldwide.
“When you talk about coffeehouses, it can mean a lot of different things,” said Matt Ray, experience team leader for NOLA’s new Sazerac House.
Opened last fall by the Sazerac Company, the museum is an homage to the drink and its origins. It’s just one of several attractions in the city dedicated to the spirited side of things, demonstrating that cocktail culture extends far beyond the glass.
Here are a few options in The Big Easy for clients who love a good quaff.
Broussard’s Restaurant & CourtyardBroussard’s, which is celebrating its centennial this year, offers drag brunches with performances by the Southern Barbitchuates throughout the year, especially during events such as Pride and Southern Decadence. There are two showtimes with a preset menu, specialty cocktails and champagne specials.
Cycling ToursIt’s not illegal to drink alcohol while cycling in New Orleans (though it is illegal to ride while intoxicated), and there are several bike tour companies that include drink holders on their handlebars. Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours, for one, offers a Beyond Bourbon excursion that includes cruising through neighborhoods outside the French Quarter and a stop for libations. Flambeaux Tours offers night rides on lighted bicycles with stops at French Quarter and Marigny establishments.
Gray Line New OrleansTo learn more about the city’s native cocktails, Gray Line New Orleans hosts daily walking tours of the French Quarter at 3 and 4 p.m., visiting mixologists who discuss cocktails and offer drinks to participants. The operator rotates the businesses it visits, so clients have a unique experience each time. Gray Line can also tailor a group tour to specific sites.
Revel Cafe & BarRenowned mixologist Chris McMillian serves up cocktail classes at his Revel Cafe & Bar. Sessions run about 90 minutes and include drink basics, ingredients and cocktail history. Participants will enjoy wine and snacks during class, as well as master three classic drink forms: the sling, the sour and the cocktail.
Sazerac HouseThe Sazerac cocktail — which typically features absinthe, sugar, bitters and rye whiskey or cognac — was conceived by NOLA pharmacist Antoine Peychaud, who created the medicinal bitters in 1836. He added them to Sazerac de Forge & Fils cognac from France and sold the libation. Bartenders later added absinthe.
“It’s like an Old-Fashioned cocktail with a dash of absinthe,” said Ray of Sazerac House.
When the French wine industry took a hit in 1870, rye whiskey was substituted for cognac, and when absinthe was outlawed, Herbsaint was introduced. Today, the official cocktail of New Orleans consists of whiskey, Peychaud bitters, Herbsaint, sugar and lemon.
Visitors to Sazerac House will learn the drink’s history, plus other New Orleans indigenous cocktails, and they’ll be entertained by video bartenders serving drinks, films narrated by native actress Patricia Clarkson and peeks inside the distillery. All tour-goers receive a small sip of the cocktail, but for an additional fee, groups can access private rooms resembling bistros and bars and enjoy a full-size drink. Special programming occurs regularly, and group tours may be arranged through Jen Merryman, the museum’s events manger.