Few American neighborhoods are as mythologized in cocktail culture as the French Quarter. This tiny, square mile of real estate looms large on the spirits stage and with good reason. Its past is a journey through America’s love-affair with alcohol.
The Grande Dame of New Orleans Neighborhoods
The French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans. In 1721, royal engineer Adrien de Pauger designed the iconic layout, naming the streets after French royalty and Catholic saints. Founded as a port city, from its start, the Quarter has attracted all types of transients, travelers, and those of dubious character searching for a drink.
The Birth of the Sazerac
Enter a young pharmacist by the name of Antoine Amédée Peychaud. Arriving from San Domingo, Peychaud quickly opened an apothecary shop. By 1832 his iconic blends of bitters he used in various elixirs had developed a loyal and faithful following.
By the 1850’s, Peychaud was combining his bitters at the Original Sazerac House with his favorite imported French brandy – Sazerac-de-Forge et fils and the original Sazerac Cocktail was born. The classic Sazerac we enjoy today, with rye whiskey instead of brandy, came later, when a shortage of the imported brandy necessitated the switch.
From these humble origins, American cocktail culture was born, and with it, the historical importance of the French Quarter as an incubator and celebrator of all things alcohol.
The Unofficial “Liquor Capital of America”
The view of the quarter as a haven for good times and strong drink was reaffirmed during the Prohibition era. With the passing of the 18th Amendment, the Quarter became the epicenter of alcohol consumption, not just in New Orleans, but for throngs of thirsty Americans looking to sneak a drink. Bootlegging and speakeasys sprung up to meet the insatiable demand, and New Orleans Laisses-faire attitude towards prohibition enforcement made the Quarter the go-to spot to find a drink.
Throw in a burgeoning jazz scene, and the term “roaring” may have been a bit of an understatement about the atmosphere in the Quarter in the 20’s. It’s said the when the Treasury Department sent their most decorated agent to New Orleans to help quell the flow of alcohol, it took him less that 30 seconds of being in town before the taxi driver who picked him up at the train station offered him a drink.
Raising a Glass to the Go-Cup
Whether true or simply apocryphal, that Treasury agent’s story highlights the attitude and tolerance the French Quarter has always brought to raising a glass and having some fun. And that spirit lives on today.
The 1960’s may not be the most glamorous era in the Quarters history, but for today’s visitors it might just be the most important. By that time, the jazz joints and burlesque shows along Bourbon St. had fallen on hard times and the crowds had begun to move on.
Enter the go cup. While other American cities were banning public consumption of alcohol, Bourbon St. vendors began selling drinks out their windows to bolster sales. Instead of outlawing the practice, local officials embraced the idea. They created a statute that limited outside sales to plastic containers and, voilà, the go-cup was born, and the Quarter was re-invigorated. Today the go-cup is a venerable New Orleans institution. The ability to enjoy a cocktail as you stroll the Quarter’s historic streets is a quintessential New Orleans experience.
So, the next time you find yourself in our fair city, we encourage you to pay homage to the Quarter and all its quirky glory and enjoy your favorite beverage at a bar or, even better, as you walk along the street.
And if the spirit so moves you, we invite to join us at the Sazerac House, where you can sample, sip, and explore your way through the stories, legends, and spirits that have helped make the Quarter what it is today.