Drinking in the Spirit of History

For a town about to celebrate its 292nd birthday, New Orleans not only revels in its history but also continues to create special moments at a rapid rate. Think what has gone on just over the past five years, and that’s enough to boggle the mind –– some good boggle, others not so hot.

Yet through fires and plagues, wars and riots, hurricanes and floods, the one characteristic that New Orleans has possessed from its founding has been the reputation and the ability to throw a great party. We do not suck at staging festivals and parties. Lots of towns just can’t get it right, but we slide into a celebratory mode as simply and comfortably as bedroom slippers.

Whenever we have the opportunity to travel and the subject of parties and festivals comes up, inevitably the group I am with tosses their collective hands into the air and hollers: “Uncle! No town anywhere can compete with New Orleans for whipping up frenzy and hosting a party.”

Kinda makes you proud.

It used to be that hosting a good celebration was all we were known for –– in a positive sense. But lately with the hard work that our citizenry has collectively put into reconstruction and with the newfound fleur-de-lis ambassadors we used to call The Aints, it seems that across America, we are being reconsidered and viewed by a lot of right-thinking folks as the truly unique community we are.

At our core, however, is the joy of spirits. Well, yes, there are some spirits in the unexplained phenomenon sense, but I was suggesting something more along the lines of adult beverages.

New Orleans certainly does not lack for suitable retail outlets in which to enjoy spirits. What may be of particular interest to you, just from a historical viewpoint, is to learn how these concoctions known as cocktails came to be and where we fit into that well-crafted story.

If that thought had ever crossed your mind, a perfect beginning place for you is the New Orleans-based Museum of the American Cocktail. Or if you have been enjoying spirits for a long while and have some knowledge of their development, then those circumstances mean it’s a logical destination for you.

What? You’ve never heard of the place? Get out from under that rock, or those “rocks,” and hie thee over to the Riverwalk. MOTAC, as it is clumsily abbreviated (don’t say it out loud; it sounds like a government spy program), is located at the most upriver section of that marketplace, right near the main entrance to the New Orleans Convention Center.

There are actually two museums for the price of one. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is an excellent collection of artifacts and storyboards that feature what we take for granted in our culinary pleasures. Within SOFAB (really, more initials) is the Museum of the American Cocktail. Together, these two installations perfectly complement each other without one story overwhelming another. 

MOTAC is here because there is a large school of thought that the cocktail, very early in its history, was embraced by New Orleans and New Orleanians, who at that time in the early 1800s were really more French, Spanish, and Creole than American.

There is even a local urban myth that the cocktail, and the word itself, were invented here. That is likely not true, but the true facts are lost in the mist of history. It does appear that the first printed reference using the term “cocktail” was on May 13, 1806, in the upstate New York newspaper, the Balance and Columbian Repository.

Seems an election had been held and the loser printed in the newspaper a list of items under a column headed “Lost.” The items included many rums and other spirited drinks he had evidently purchased for potential voters, and in the list was a line item, “25 do. cock-tail.”

By the way, the other column next to the one marked “Lost” was a column marked “Gains,” and under that heading was NOTHING. Bit of a sore loser, I’d say.

A week later, in the next issue of the publication, was a long letter to the editor inquiring about what a “cock-tail” was. The letter writer, known only as A Subscriber, had extensive knowledge of “phlegm-cutter, fog driver, whetting the whistle, moistening the clay…” but did not know “cock-tail.” In his reply, the editor noted that a cock-tail was “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.”

To this day, those ingredients ––  a base liquor, sugar and bitters (citrus) –– are the foundation of every cocktail. 

The museum also brings the story of bar accessories to life with archival examples of what these early instruments looked like, and many have not changed much over 150 years.

The story of drinks, such as a true New Orleans creation, the Sazerac, is included here, with each story meticulously researched and presented.

There are also videos of Chris McMillian, bartender at Bar UnCommon in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, showing you how to properly make 20 of the most requested cocktails in the world.

Then there is the lecture series. Each month the museum brings to New Orleans noted authorities to discuss history, technique, ingredients, spirits and philosophy in a lecture/classroom-style arrangement. Also involved in these demonstration seminars are the stars of the New Orleans bar scene: talented mixologists, bartenders and bar chefs who assist and participate with the visiting lecturer. It’s a lively, entertaining learning experience, complete with samples of the drinks being featured.

This is truly living history at New Orleans’ best. The museum was established here by noted authorities in the world of beverage service from all over the world. Led by the legendary Dale DeGroff of New York, the museum’s board and membership are spread all over America, Europe, the Far East, Australia and South America.

This is probably something you will want to be involved with, and full details of the museum, including a virtual tour, membership information and announcements about the seminars are at www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org.
And it’s all right here on the river. Did you know that? Evidently you still have a lot to learn about history.

The Museum of the American Cocktail, Riverwalk Marketplace

1 Poydras Street, Suite 169 (Julia Street entrance)
(504) 569-0405

Open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
$10 admission for members, free to members

(Disclosure: Tim McNally is a founding member of the board of the Museum of the American Cocktail)


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