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Griffin to Go: Drink in Some Mardi Gras Spirit

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The cover of the book says it all: “Famous New Orleans Drinks (And How to Mix ‘Em).”

Well, almost all. This gem from one Stanley Clisby Arthur was first printed in 1937, a few years before the introduction of the Hurricane by Pat O’Brien, whose name still graces a chain of bars, including one on the River Walk.

But don’t let that deter you from searching out this slender volume, because it is a treasure trove of facts and stories behind the potent potables that dominated the Big Easy, and many a Southern bar, during the era. It’s little wonder the book is still in print today.

My copy, given to me by dear friends who understand the joys of a well-mixed cocktail and a well-spun story, is from the book’s fourth printing, which was in April 1941. The country was still months away from the second world war at that time, and some areas were only beginning to emerge from the Great Depression.

Though Prohibition had ended only a few years before, Arthur proudly hails his city as “the home of civilized drinking” for more than a century.

He doesn’t stop there: “The flowing bowl and the adept mixing of what went in it has constituted as high an art in this Creole city as the incomparable cooking for which it is famed.”

To prove his point, Arthur offers recipes for drinks that are still shaken, stirred and layered at many a New Orleans haunt, including the Sazerac, the Absinthe Frappé, Ramos Gin Fizz and Planter’s Punch.

“The quality of mixed drinks as served in New Orleans has always appealed to the sophisticated taste,” Arthur writes. “It was here that your most modern of American beverages, the cocktail, first came into being and was given its jaunty name.”

Etymological stories are of particular interest to the author. The term “julep,” for example, dates as far back as 1400 A.D., he writes, “long before we ever heard of the Southern States of these United States, where the julep is popularly supposed to be indigenous.”

But Arthur doesn’t stop there. He goes on to give advice about how to make a julep that will keep you smiling: “Don’t use rye whiskey in making a julep. If you do use whiskey, let it be Bourbon, which serves its highest purpose when it becomes a component part of that prince of all thirst-quenchers known as the Mint Julep.” As a Kentuckian who honors the derby each May, I heartily concur.

I also love the fact that so much of the lore remains up-to-date more than 70 years after the book’s initial publication. Take this passage on one of the Latin Quarter’s still-popular nightspots: “Of all the ancient buildings in New Orleans’ famed Vieux Carré, none has been more glorified in story and picture than a square, plastered-brick building at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets, known as the Old Absinthe House.”

The building, erected in 1806, was originally used for importing, then bartering foodstuffs and tobacco. Over the course of its history, it became a grocery, a boot shop, and, in 1846, “a coffee-house, as saloons were then called.”

Today, you can taste a cocktail made with real absinthe there.

Absinthe, or actually something called “absinthe substitute” (which I would take to be Herbsaint, Pernod or a similarly anise-flavored alcohol), is a key ingredient in the Sazerac recipe included in the book. But it wasn’t always part of the mix. And Arthur is more than happy to offer the evolution of a drink, when he can. Especially when the drink in question is considered “the best known of all New Orleans cocktails.”

The original recipe called for Peychaud’s bitters, which were created in New Orleans by a druggist named Antoine Amédée Peychaud. It remains a key ingredient today; not so the alcohol it was meant to complement. It seems brandy was a little too European for American tastes, so rye whiskey elbowed its way into the mix. With that change came the addition of absinthe.

“But this history delving is dry stuff,” Arthur notes, “so let’s sample a genuine Sazerac.”

Indeed.

A Genuine Sazerac

1 lump sugar
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 jigger rye whiskey
1 dash absinthe substitute
1 slice lemon peel

[amazon-product]0882891324[/amazon-product]To mix a Sazerac requires two heavy-bottomed, 3 1/2-ounce bar glasses. One is filled with cracked ice and allowed to chill. In the other a lump of sugar is placed with just enough water to moisten it. The saturated loaf of sugar is then crushed with a barspoon. Add a few drops of Peychaud’s bitters, a dash of Angostura, a jigger of rye whiskey, for while Bourbon may do for a julep, it just won’t do for a real Sazerac. To the glass containing sugar, bitters and rye, add several lumps of ice and stir. Never use a shaker! Empty the first glass of its ice, dash in several drops of absinthe … enough will cling to the glass to give the needed flavor. Strain into this glass the whiskey mixture, twist a piece of lemon peel over it for the needed zest of that small drop of oil thus extracted from the peel, but do not commit the sacrilege of dropping the peel into the drink. Some bartenders put a cherry in a Sazerac; very pretty but not necessary.

M-m-m-m-m! Let’s have another!

From “Famous New Orleans Drinks (And How to Mix ‘Em)” by Stanley Clisby Arthur

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