You can’t think of New Orleans without thinking of daiquiris, sno-balls and, obviously, cocktails. But getting your favorite drink served on the rocks used to be a luxury. In fact, just getting ice was a feat in and of itself. Thanks to some clever businessmen, a few creative bartenders and a lot of thankful customers, ice became a necessity and helped the Sazerac–and New Orleans–become what it is today.
The Ice Age Begins, So to Speak
How do you get ice in the sweltering summers of New Orleans? You get imaginative. At least, that’s what businessman Frederic Tudor did in the mid-1800s. The story goes that he had ice cream that was so good, he decided the rest of the world needed a taste, too. Or maybe he just wanted to make a lot of money. Either way, his methods of shipping and storage paved the way for ice to reach places like New Orleans like never before.
By the 1850s, Frederic Tudor was shipping 50,000 tons of ice all over the world, and New Orleans was getting its fair share of shipments. That’s why the city started investing heavily in local ice houses. Think of them as warehouse-sized storage sheds for ice that could store and ship ice throughout the rest of the city. Once New Orleans had access to more and more ice, it became less of a luxury. Now, it was just a matter of deciding what to do with it.
Cocktails on the Rocks
Orsamus Willard was a bartender in New York in the early 1800s. He was one of the first “celebrity” bartenders that used ice in more creative ways, making it more of a feature than an afterthought. Soon, it was commonplace for patrons to order their drinks on the rocks. But not everyone liked having ice in their drinks, especially when it came to a New Orleans favorite: the Sazerac Cocktail.
To prevent the feeling of ice hitting their teeth, patrons started drinking cocktails from straws. But the Sazerac was best enjoyed straight up. So, bartenders started chilling the glass and straining out the ice. Over 150 years later, it’s still served the same way.
By the 20th century, the quality of ice dropped dramatically. But it was also a lot cheaper and accessible. People bought their own refrigerators and started making drinks in blenders instead of by hand. That got us some good daiquiris in New Orleans, but it hurt the artfully crafted cocktail business.
The Art of Ice Returns
Now, we’re back to enjoying cocktails the way they were meant to be enjoyed. Bartenders are using the older tools of the trade and cutting their own ice with mallets and ice saws to get perfect, crystal clear cubes. But you still won’t find a cube of ice in a Sazerac anywhere in New Orleans–just as it was meant to be.