A bar-hopping guide to America’s native spirit
Marianna Massey and Photo Assistant Scott Williams
Even when starting a brand new life in a very new place, the early settlers of America didn’t escape their Old World heritage, nor did they want to change “everything.” These new Americans gave up their old place of life, enduring a long voyage en route to another land across the sea – but some things had to remain the same.
Their love of fine spirits was one of those respected traditions. Around 1760, it fell to the Scots and the Irish to establish a whiskey presence in the New World. And so they settled far enough inland to be near fields of grain, the agricultural birthplace of the required base ingredient in the distillation of whiskey. They wanted to emulate their beloved Scotch whiskey. Life on the frontier was rough and challenging enough without access to a pleasant liquid fortification against all the difficulties.
The distillation process was often crude, with poor choices being made as to the quality of the grains and yeasts; and the initial necessary use of homemade contrivances to serve as stills was primitive. But after a bit of trial-and-error, the grain was chosen and grown with an eye to overall good quality fermentation. Distillation and construction techniques for stills, including better regulation of the temperature, improved.
After the operation was established, the final product had to be transported to market. Most of the market was in the eastern United States, but moving the liquid over the Adirondack Mountains or sailing upstream was, at that time, not only challenging but also often impossible. However, not far away from the fields and the distillation facilities were quick-running streams flowing to the south, and ultimately to the large and infamous port near the bottom of the greatest river on the continent.
New Orleans was storied even then and owned by foreign interests, and the town loved the distilled product from the north. Something else fortuitous happened along the way.
During the barge voyage heading south, the whiskey in barrels acquired a brown tint. This was not fully expected, since the spirit is clear when it leaves the still, but the sloshing movement of the liquid within the barrel during its travels over three to four months caused it to mellow and further mature. It could be referred to as the “Miracle of Oak and Water.”
Very soon, with the influx of American businesspeople and a fondness for adult beverages, New Orleans, a European city on the American frontier, became a bourbon town. So much was consumed here that distillers had to pick up their pace to assure that there was enough product to satisfy New Orleans and still have some liquid remaining reach the intended target markets along the East Coast.
To this day, bourbon is an important offering in all of our local adult watering holes, but there are more than just a few that put a lot of effort into offering excellent bourbon, properly served.
1201 Magazine St.
America’s greatest bourbon distilleries are well represented, from the notable Kentucky communities of Frankfort, Bardstown, Lawrenceburg, Loretto and Clermont. It all fits into an American style that we have dubbed Roadhouse Rustic, which works perfectly on New Orleans’ most eclectic street. Things have a way of working out – sometimes.
Hyatt French Quarter Hotel
800 Iberville St.
Aging in barrels is one thing; serving in barrels is something else. Batch is quite something else all together. One-liter barrels, filled with the cocktail of your choice, are available for your thirsty bunch. Each serves about four New Orleanians or six visitors. High West Son of Boureye, 5 years old, a blend of straight and rye bourbon, is the featured spirit.
Oxalis and The Branch
3162 Dauphine St.
Deep in the new ultra-hip section of Bywater, where gentrification, fine dining and fine eating coexist in the same building, is a multi-part bar and restaurant where each section makes it own architectural statement. In truth, there are several areas of the building that look like they’re about to fall in about your ears. And there are other parts that seem to be out of your parents’ home when you were growing up. The patio area is dominated by a surprising fountain feature. In the midst of the quiet mayhem are Oxalis and the connected bar, The Branch. These folks are on to something, and that’s likely the proper respect, alongside creativity, for America’s native beverage, bourbon.
916 Lafayette St.
Located on a rebounding section of Lafayette Street. Check. Former brothel. Check. Reputedly haunted. Check. Serving cuisine rooted in the Philippines style. Check. Also serving classic and modern cocktails using bourbon. Check. Could be located anyplace but New Orleans? Not a chance.
701 St. Charles Ave.
Chef Donald Link has expanded his empire and even roamed (a little) far from home, but his flagship dining room, Herbsaint, has maintained high standards. Locals love the place because the décor is New Orleans; not just the pictures and decorations, but the views of the city out every almost-floor-to-ceiling picture window, which fully cover two sides of the restaurant. The compact bar, facing St. Charles Avenue, is a favorite even when dining isn’t on the agenda.
301 Tchoupitoulas St.
Every John Besh restaurant pays homage to the sector of New Orleans’ culture he’s committed to preserving. However, Besh is a New Orleanian who respects his Southern roots. That is apparent in his culinary creations, always incorporating fresh, local ingredients of the season, and in the cocktail offerings impeccably served at his bars, most notably the clubby bar at Restaurant August. Some people in other places pay big membership money to have access to such comfortable and swank surroundings. All you have to do here is walk through the front door and be welcomed.
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
We know Cajuns love their beer, but we weren’t aware that they love them some bourbon, too. It is a Southern thing. Try a Delta Burke with Ridegmont 1792 Reserve Bourbon.
Sazerac in The Roosevelt Hotel
123 Baronne St.
If only these walls could talk; marriage proposals, business deals, class reunions, even assassination attempts have all, literally, left their marks in history and on the walls. One of the most dramatic and historic bars in the city, it’s named for the Official Cocktail of New Orleans, likely the only officially designated, by city and state legislative act, cocktail for any town. The rye bourbon-based drink wasn’t invented here, just served to perfection.
144 Bourbon St.
Any discussion of bourbon bars in New Orleans has to begin at the home of the New Orleans Bourbon Society (NOBS). This free-to-join group is passionate about all manner of bourbon, and more than 90 whiskies and bourbons are offered every day. Among the notable offerings are Angel’s Envy, Jefferson Reserve, Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor Small Batch, Willett’s Single Barrel, Basil Hayden, Bulleit and Blanton’s.
1732 St. Charles Ave.
While The Avenue Pub’s reputation has been built mainly on beer, this place knows its way around fermented and distilled grain beverages. The style offerings include High Rye (over 16 percent of the mash bill), Low Rye (under 16 percent of the mash bill) and Wheated Bourbons (over 10 percent of the mash bill). Oh, and to its credit, The Pub has gone non-smoking from 10 a.m. until midnight inside. Balconies are available to those who wish to drink and smoke.
800 Tchoupitoulas St.
1300 St. Charles Ave.
Restaurants true to their venues with mixologists who are well familiar with their wares. Just as much effort and thought goes into the bar program at these Emeril-run restaurants as the culinary team puts into what appears on the plate in the dining rooms. They both also feature classic selections of bourbons.
4905 Freret St.
From that wonderful team that brought you the post-Katrina re-born Freret Street, these talented professionals know their way around bourbon, and they’re not afraid of over-shooting their mark. Their philosophy is to take the really good stuff and surround it with other top-notch ingredients. Where other bar personnel would be afraid of overshadowing the grandest bourbons on the market, at Cure drinks are enhanced by the presence of other quality supporting ingredients. Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Barterhouse 20-year old and E.H. Taylor Uncut and Unfiltered Barrel Strength, among others, populate an obviously well-considered, personally designed cocktail list.
International House Hotel
221 Camp St.
The name refers to divine spirits in the Voodoo faith. But this place is just plain cool. There is an ethereal vibe all around, which is due to the soothing décor, low lighting levels and the demeanor of Alan Walter, a former New Orleans Magazine Bartender of the Year, guaranteeing phenomenal drinks coming from the other side of the bar. Be conservative and be adventuresome, the spirits will watch over you.
605 Canal St.
Love and marriage; horse and carriage; Creole cuisine and bourbon: Some things belong next to each other. This former piano and sheet music retail store is both a grand souvenir of another era and a foreteller of trends still unfolding. Look one way and take in the wide vista that’s New Orleans’ main street. Look the other way to follow the adventures of modern restaurant food preparation in one of the largest show kitchens you’ll ever see. The out-of-the-way, almost diminutive bar is well stocked and reflects on another scale the bourbon offerings from a sister restaurant, Bourbon House.
Empire Bar at Broussard’s
819 Conti St.
Opened in 1920, this grand dame dining emporium, with one of the finest courtyards in the United States, is today still serving Creole and French cuisine that satisfies the soul. The Empire Bar is aptly named; reminiscent of its heritage, there is indeed a sense of empire in the décor and the cocktail selections. Do not let the many references to the Napoleonic era fool you. Bourbon is at the root of this bar’s best work. There are always 22 to 26 bourbons on the menu with Booker’s, a small-batch bourbon, being a personal favorite of the staff. Try the multiple-meanings cocktail named Bourbon Restoration.
936 St. Charles Ave.
Leading the way in the resurgence of the historic style of cocktail named “cobbler,” which is a liberal amount of spirits with a respectful measure of fresh fruit, Bellocq has taken the traditional Whiskey Cobbler, made here with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, to new taste heights.
You Mean There Are Rules?
Bourbon is a tightly defined alcoholic beverage. The Federal Government, with the help of the industry, has crafted regulations to assure that bourbon isn’t copied or duplicated anywhere else in the world. Bourbon is America’s only native spirit.
All bourbon is whiskey. But not all whiskey is bourbon. Tennessee whiskey isn’t bourbon; Kentucky bourbon is bourbon.
All bourbon must, by law, be distilled in the United States.
In the grain mixture, the essential basic ingredient of the spirit, all bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn.
The barrels used for aging and storing bourbon at the distillery must be new American white oak and freshly charred.
Bourbon cannot be distilled to more than 160-proof, 80 percent alcohol by volume. The bourbon cannot exceed 124-proof when it enters the barrel. The reduction in alcohol is accomplished with water used in the fermentation process for the grain, and since most bourbons are sent to market in the 80 proof, 40 percent alcohol by volume range, there’s additional water added to the whiskey during bottling to dilute the alcohol.
Bourbon that has been aged in the barrel for a minimum of two years and doesn’t contain coloring, caramel, flavorings or other spirit additives meets the legal requirements for the designation, “Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” There is, however, no legal requirement for such a bourbon to define itself as “straight.”
A bourbon’s age is measured from the youngest whiskey contained in the blend. Bourbon that contains a heavy percentage of rye grain is labeled “rye.” A bourbon that makes use of previously used mash in the fermentation and distillation is labeled “sour mash.” A bourbon that notes a higher proof than 80 can be labeled “barrel proof,” meaning that water has not been extensively used to manage the alcohol by volume.
In the distillery, bourbon is managed to achieve balance and maturity. The color and the aromatics are products of the interaction of the whiskey with the barrel. Bourbons can be aged too long, becoming woody and unbalanced.