The mayor and the cocktail
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
Compared to the guillotine, moving to Louisiana didn’t seem to be such a bad choice. That was the plight of Count Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac, a native of Angouleme, France who, in 1766, was born with royal blood. His godfather and godmother were the reigning Duke and Duchess of Orleans. Their son would become King Louis Philippe. In this, a mayoral election year, Roffignac provides one of our favorite tales - a saga involving royalty, politics, booze and maybe even conspiracy.
Being royalty might have brought some peer advantage when Roffignac was growing up, but not so much by the 1790s when Frenchmen became preoccupied with revolution. In 1800 Spain ceded Louisiana to France, and that was all Louis needed to hop the next boat to the new world.
Any guy whose godparents are nicknamed Orleans would have to be considered a fast social climber in a frontier town named after the family. That was the case with Louis who became a state legislator, a bank director and then mayor of New Orleans, a job he held for two uninterrupted terms from 1820 to 1828.
He is remembered as being one of the city’s best mayors. During his administration, levees were extended, Royal and Orleans Streets were paved and parts of downtown were, for the first time, illuminated with gas lamps. The city’s first fire department was established, as was the beginning of a public school system. He raised money to plant trees, the forerunner of today’s shady avenues. He also kept interesting company, having hosted both Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette.
For all his accomplishments, however, Roffignac would also be remembered for two things. He was the city’s last French-born mayor, but, most of all, a local alcoholic drink would carry his name.
Just how the Roffignac came to be named after the former mayor is unclear, but the drink was on bar menus long after the mayor’s time and into the era when the nightlife blazed with electric lights instead of lanterns.
Possibly the name traces back to there having been a brand of cognac named Roffignac made in the old country. Ok, here’s the tricky part. Early local-centric recipes were popularized by a Royal Street place called Mannissiers, which lasted from the late 1800s to 1914. In addition to its confections, the place liked to specialize in creative drinks long before the term “craft cocktail” came into use. Vintage Roffignac cocktail recipes combined cognac, some sort of raspberry flavoring along with simple syrup and seltzer.
Now here we experience an evolutionary moment: New Orleans, where barrel-laden boats drifted down from Kentucky and Tennessee, was a whiskey-drinking town more so than it drank uppity cognac. Gradually it became common to replace the cognac with the upriver hooch.
Served with ice in an Old Fashioned glass, the drink is a local version of the genre of slow sipping cocktails.
Gradually the drink was forgotten about, all except at Maylie’s the old Creole Restaurant that lasted from 1876 to1986. When Maylie’s closed, so did the public life of the Roffignac. At some point, the whiskey would be replaced by brandy, and the raspberry syrup was swapped for one of several reddish ingredients, the most poplar being grenadine, a pomegranate mix.
Like music and foods, all drinks adjust with times. So at this stage in the evolutionary process, what can one say is the proper contemporary Roffignac? For this I defer to my friend Maureen Detweiller whose mission is to preserve the Roffignac, which she makes better than anyone:
1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
1/2 ounce brandy
1 ounce grenadine
Twist of lemon
Pour ingredients into an ice filled tumbler. Garnish with twist of lemon.
As for the former mayor, his story should have had a happier ending, but it did not. Roffignac returned to France after his stint as mayor, though with little joy. He reportedly complained to a friend from New Orleans that he regretted leaving the city. Perhaps it is better to be a former mayor in New Orleans then to be a former count in France. The circumstances of his death, at 80 in 1846 at his chateau near Perigeueux, France sound suspect to me, but here’s the family version: One evening he was seated in an “invalid chair” examining a loaded pistol when he was suddenly seized by an apoplectic stroke and fell to the floor. The fall triggered the pistol, which sent a bullet into his head.
He died instantly.
At the time of his death Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac was said to be preparing for a return visit to New Orleans. It was a tragic end, but a good life: one worth lifting a toast to, either with raspberry or grenadine.