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 Antouleme, 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.
Now that the opening of the Sazerac House has assured the immortality of the Sazerac cocktail another classic local drink, the Roffignac, is in need of rediscovery. Even better than the story behind the evolution of the Sazerac cocktail, the Roffignac provides a saga involving royalty, politics, booze and maybe even conspiracy.
Being royalty might have brought some peer advantage when Louis Roffignac was growing up, but not so much by the 1790s when Frenchmen became preoccupied with revolution. In 1800 when 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 nicknamed Orleans would have to be considered a fast social climber in a frontier town named after the family. And 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. 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, the cocktail that 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, just as Sazerac got its name from a French cognac, although that ingredient would eventually be factored out of the cocktail.
Now, here’s the tricky part – there is a dispute. But I, in the end, will resolve it.
Early local-centric recipes were popularized by a Royal Street bar 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 and some sort of raspberry flavoring along with simple syrup and seltzer. Here is where 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. (The same thing would happen with Sazerac for which the namesake cognac would be replaced by rye whiskey.) Served with ice in an Old Fashion glass, the drink is a local version of the genre of slow slipping cocktails. In an age when the male work force spent many hours both during and after work propped against a bar, the Roffignac seemed to have its following. Eventually, the drink was forgotten about, all except at Maylie’s the old Creole Restaurant that lasted 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. At some point the whiskey would be replaced by brandy and the raspberry syrup was swapped for one of several reddish ingredients with the most popular being grenadine, a mix made with pomegranate. Like music and foods, all drinks are fusion shifting and adjusting with times. So, at this stage in the evolutionary process what can we say is the proper contemporary Roffignac? For this I defer to my friend Maureen Detweiller who has made it her mission to preserve the Roffignac, which she makes better than anyone has ever done.
- 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.
You cannot find the drink at many bars, though with one notable and historic exception. Copper Vine, located at 1001 Poydras St., in the same building that once housed Maylie’s, though primarily a wine place, has had the good sense to include the drink, along with the Sazerac, among its selections. According to its menu, here are the ingredients:
Copper Vine’s Roffignac
- raspberry shrub
- simple syrup
- topped with sparkling wine
As for the former mayor, his story should have had a happier ending, but it did not. Roffignac had 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 chateaux 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 cognac or whiskey.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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