(This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Travel + Escape Magazine, by Adam McDowell.)
No American city embraces drink the way New Orleans does. More sophisticated than a Las Vegas lounge and more relaxed than a New York cocktail bar, a New Orleans watering hole is the pinnacle of the American drinking experience—if you know how to escape the schlock of mainstream Bourbon Street and seek out more rewarding locales.
New Orleans is a cocktail town, so forget wine while you’re here, and only have a beer every once in a while to cool down. Subject yourself to the voodoo powers of the bartenders of The Big Easy and see if you don’t go home a fan of Sazeracs and Ramos Gin Fizzes.
Below are a few places in New Orleans to while away a few hours.
NOLA's Cocktail Culture
Found in the lobby of the Loews Hotel in the Central Business District, the Swizzle Stick Bar is a good place to begin your New Orleans cocktail education. Take a seat in the high-ceilinged room and order up the house specialty, The Adelaide Swizzle, a tall, sweet-and-sour refresher containing rum, bitters, lime and something secret. Enjoy it with a tasty Louisiana-accented snack, such as a catfish taco, and then have a conversation with the bartender about moving on to some classic New Orleans cocktails (the Ramos Gin Fizz is a terrific choice).
Bourbon Street offers many bars that sling really big, seriously intoxicating beverages, but only Pat O'Brien's puts on airs of sophistication (and they're endearingly inept). Waiters wearing white shirts with kelly green bow ties and matching aprons hurry to and fro, delivering potent concoctions with eye-searing neon colours. You won't see bow-tied waiters at, say, Huge Ass Beers down the street. And speaking of airs, the AC is cranked to absurd force here. But do visit for the famous Hurricanes. They're a concoction of rum, more rum, what can only be described as Technicolor red fruit punch, and even more rum. Corny, yes, but it's a tradition.
Tales of the Cocktail is the spirit-and-cocktail world's most important annual trade show and conference, and the Hotel Monteleone is its epicentre. Every July, the hotel spills over with thirsty boozehounds from all over the world. That's probably the only bad time to visit the Carousel. At any other time of year, head to the bar—which looks like a carnival carousel and slowly rotates—and order a Vieux Carré. A bracing potion containing both rye and cognac, it's the specialty of the house.
Located inside the W Hotel French Quarter, SoBou is a sister bar of the famous Commander's Palace restaurant and combines contemporary décor with a traditional approach to cocktails. We tried a sparkling, aromatic house creation called a Faubourg Tall Boy, chased by a classic Sazerac cocktail, a must-try in New Orleans. The Sazerac is a local spin on the most macho of cocktails, the old fashioned. Delectable bar snacks start at $3, so you may as well grab a bite, too.
You'll probably want to hail a taxi to travel to this far-from-the-Quarter destination, but for cocktail enthusiasts the journey to this mecca of mixological mastery will be worth it. Opened in 2009, Cure is the sort of dimly lit, romantic and sophisticated lounge where cocktail geeks geek out hardest, and it has a liquor selection second to none (if they don't have it, you don't want it). If you're a relative neophyte when it comes to cocktails, attentive and exceptionally friendly staff will guide you toward novel and delicious libations.
A spinoff from the owners of Cure, Bellocq is located in The Hotel Modern and specializes in low-octane ingredients and drinks built around them — think sherry, madeira and vermouth, all of which deserve a second try for those who would dismiss them out of hand. Variations on the sherry cobbler come and go throughout the year; do yourself a favour and sample one to see why it was one of the most popular drinks of the late 19th century.
The Magazine Street strip offers a relaxed, hipster-friendly vibe and a chance to stroll among vintage shops; relatively few tourists venture here, but you should. It's near the famous Garden District, and you can take the quaint old city streetcar from Canal Street. Dat Dog is a chilled-out neighbourhood bar painted in cheerful basic colours. It offers excellent bonus features: sausages made from a wide swath of the animal kingdom (the alligator dog is salty and quite tasty) and more than 50 beers from around the world to wash them down. Or try the house version of "nectar," a bright red, berry-flavoured soft drink that's a local phenomenon.