Remembering the Roffignac – A New Orleans Drink with a Twist
Where Maylie's, the second to last of the old authentic Creole restaurants (Tujaque’s in the Quarter is the last) once stood before being renovated as a Smith & Wollensky steak house, there is now Walk-Ons, a sports bar and "bistreaux;" and Happy’s, an Irish pub. A lot of booze flows in those two places, but not the house drink that Maylies’s popularized and was the last to serve. The drink belonged to the Old Fashioned/Sazerac class of cocktails and it had a history that spanned two countries and one incredible noblesse oblige-d politician.
Compared to going 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 Antoulême, 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.
Being royalty might have brought some peer advantage when Louis was growing up, but not so much by the 1790s when Frenchmen on the street became preoccupied with the annoyances of revolution. In 1800 Spain had ceded Louisiana to France. That was all Louis needed to hop the next boat to the new world.
Any guy whose godparents are named 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 1820-1828. 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. He also kept interesting company, having hosted both Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de la Fayette.
For all his accomplishments, however, Roffignac would best be remembered for two things: He was the city’s last French-born mayor, and there is a drink that carries 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 was forgotten and into the era when the nightlife blazed with electric lights instead of lanterns.
Made with grenadine, brandy, whiskey, a twist of lemon and seltzer then served with ice in an Old Fashioned glass, the drink is a local version of the genre of slow-sipping cocktails. In an age when the male workforce spent many hours both during and after work propped against a bar, the Roffignac seemed to have its following. It was even the subject of a barb in an 1892 edition of the Mascot, a slightly sassy literary magazine of the day.
A prominent cotton broker, so the story went, had a problem. His son “took the jag to bed with him every night.” In the slang of the time, taking “the jag” was what our age more delicately describes as being plastered or flat-out drunk.
Apparently there was a lot of jag-taking going on because the local Methodist church had organized a crusade urging men to march, or perhaps swagger, to the local YMCA to take a temperance pledge. The next morning the boy was forced to listen to his father’s arguments and to witness his mother’s tears and thus agreed to take the pledge. That day father and son headed to the YMCA to get rid of the jag. Later, after the pledge was taken, the two were walking along Camp Street toward Canal when the father decided to stop at McCloskey’s bar for a couple of sodas. The cotton broker ordered a raspberry soda for himself; the son slyly ordered a Roffignac explaining that it too was made with soda, but not telling the old man about the hooch that it was in the rest of the mix.
Since the father paid for the first round, the artful son insisted on buying a second round, thus having another shot at a Roffignac. On the way home the men stopped for two more drinks, sodas for the dad, the stealthy Roffignac for the son. As they rode on the streetcar the son, his jag now reactivated, fell asleep. That evening the father lamented to his wife, “My dear, its no use trying to cure the boy; he took the pledge and then got drunk on soda water.” Since then, the Mascot reported, “the son’s jag is respected in the home as a dispensation of Providence.”
Gradually the drink was forgotten about, all except at Maylie’s, which operated a mere 110 years, from 1876 through 1986. That the drink is remembered at all is probably because it was the house specialty there. When Maylie’s closed, so did the public life of the Roffignac.
A more intriguing ending was that of Mr. Roffignac. The circumstances of his death at 80, in 1846 at his chateaux near Perigueux, France, sound suspect to me, but here’s the lowdown: 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.
Roffignac had returned to France after his stint as mayor of New Orleans. At the time of his death he was said to be preparing for a return visit to the city. It was a tragic end, but a good life – one worth lifting a drink to.