Finding the Epicenter of New Orleans Cocktail History
A single non-descript block of New Orleans was once home to a number of extremely significant bars.
New Orleans has long been known as a Mecca of “civilized drinking,” boasting a long history of venerable bars, saloons and “coffee houses.” It’s also, of course, the ancestral home to an all-star menu of cocktails, including the Sazerac, the Vieux Carré, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Hurricane, the Monsoon, the La Louisiane, the Roffignac, the Brandy Crusta, the Obituary Cocktail, the Absinthe Frappe and, of course, the infamous Hand Grenade.
Even with all these important drinks and establishments, there is a one-block stretch that, in my book, stands out and is the most holy of holy spots for drinkers. I bet you’re thinking it’s somewhere in the French Quarter, which is certainly reasonable given the number of famous watering holes there. But it’s not.
Make your way over to the uptown side of Gravier Street between St. Charles and Carondelet. While there’s currently not one place on this stretch to wet your whistle (yes, there is a block in New Orleans without a bar), back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was the place to go. This unassuming stretch was the likely birthplace of the Brandy Crusta and the Ramos Gin Fizz, and the post-Prohibition home of the Sazerac Bar.
Let’s start with the Crusta. After tending bar at the Washington Hotel on Lake Pontchartrain and at the City Exchange, Joseph Santini opened the Jewel Coffeehouse at 105 Gravier in early 1855. The so-called “Jewel of the South” was located approximately mid-block on the uptown side of Gravier. In a 1938 article in the New Orleans Item Tribune, Stanley Clisby Arthur noted that it was “opposite the side entrance to the stylish St. Charles Hotel,” which fronted on St. Charles Street. The Mississippi Free Trader raved in March 25, 1855, that “Rare Carpenters, Painters and Upholsterers have indeed made a Jewell, so rich and dazzling is it in appearance.” It went on to say that when people visit “the Crescent City the ‘Jewell’ is non pareil.” The author acknowledged that “These reflections entered my mind last evening just after partaking of a Frozen Egg Nogg,” perhaps recognizing that his somewhat purple prose was influenced by Santini’s hospitality.
In addition to his Frozen Egg Nogg, Santini became famous for his Brandy Crusta and his Pousse Café. Indeed, in what is believed to be the first-ever cocktail book, Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide, Santini was the only bartender whom the somewhat vain Thomas saw fit to mention by name, while referring to him as “the proprietor of “Santina’s Saloon, a celebrate Spanish Café.” By the way, Santini was Italian, not Spanish. In Thomas’ 1876 revised edition, Thomas referred to the Crusta as “an improvement on the ‘Cocktail,’ and is said to have been invented by Santina, a celebrated Spanish caterer.”
The Crusta is believed by many to be the father of the sour cocktail, that immortal trinity of sweet, strong and sour, which is the basic formula for classics such as the Sidecar, the Margarita, the Daiquiri, the Whiskey Sour, the Pisco Sour, the Jack Rose, the Aviation, the Bees’ Knees, the White Lady and, more recently, the Cosmopolitan. In his classic book The Joy of Mixology, Gary Regan referred to the Brandy Crusta as “the drink that launched a thousand classics–I’m given to exaggeration.” He went on to say that it “became the template for a string of cocktails we know as New Orleans sours, and this drink was also the first cocktail that included citrus juice, an aspect of the Crusta that didn’t occur to me until Dave Wondrich set me straight.”
For that matter, my fellow Half Full columnist, Wondrich, in his James Beard Award-winning book Imbibe!, noted that the inclusion of citrus in the basic Brandy Cocktail “planted a seed. That seed would remain dormant until the 1890s, when suddenly everyone started putting lemon juice, lime juice, even orange juice into their cocktails. From the Crusta, evolution brings us the Sidecar—and life without Sidecars would be very dreary indeed. If Santini hadn‘t done it first, they still might have done it anyway, but at least they had someone in the dark backward of time shining a flashlight for them to show the way. Mr. Santini, we salute you.”
In addition to the Jewel, Santini owned a few other establishments on this block of Gravier, notably two cigar stores (the Intimidad and the Corona, known for their selection of Havana cigars), as well as another bar at the corner of Gravier and Carondelet which, sadly, is now a grassy little park bordered by a short iron fence. That bar was known as the Parlor. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it a palace on October 2, 1869. It boasted “a very beautiful tessellated floor of illuminated tiles,” and featured not only a saloon but a fine cigar store. More on this spot in a moment.
That celebrated Italian caterer Joseph Santini shuffled off this mortal coil in 1874. So, let’s focus on what was to become of his two Gravier Street bars, the Jewel (located mid-block), and the Parlor (corner of Gravier and Carondelet).
Enter the Ramos Gin Fizz. Exactly 10 years after Santini’s death, the Imperial Cabinet (named most likely for a brand of rye whiskey) opened on the same corner of Gravier and Carondelet. It was at the Imperial Cabinet that Henry Charles Ramos (circa 1888) made the Ramos Gin Fizz a household name. In a December 19, 1888, Louisiana Review story, the Imperial Cabinet was described as “deservedly one of the best kept and most popular saloons in the city.”
In 1907, according to Clisby Arthur’s Tribune story, Ramos moved his bar from the Imperial Cabinet (corner of Gravier and Carondelet) “to Tom Anderson’s ‘The Stag’ saloon opposite the Gravier street entrance of the St. Charles hotel, the same location Joe Santini had chosen years before for his ‘The Jewel of the South.’”
So, what became of that corner, that is, before it became a grassy park? After Prohibition ended in 1933, the Sazerac Bar occupied that spot, until the late 1940s (whereupon it moved to the Roosevelt Hotel where it is still today). You know who was behind the stick at the Sazerac Bar during the 1940s? None other than Walter Bergeron, formerly of the Monteleone, and creator of the immortal Vieux Carré cocktail.
So, to review, mid-block of Gravier you had Santini’s Jewel of the South, followed by Ramos’s The Stag. Down at the corner of Gravier and Carondelet, you’d find Santini’s Parlor, then Ramos’s Imperial Cabinet and, finally, the Sazerac Bar. You might ask why this now-nondescript stretch of road was such a cocktail hotbed back in the day? Those three immortal words: location, location, location.
See being across the street from one of the greatest hotels in the world, the St. Charles Hotel, made this block of Gravier Street a prime location. The St. Charles was the focal point of New Orleans’ society throughout much of the 19th century. In the words of modern New Orleans bartending legend Chris McMillian, co-owner of Revel, on Carrolton Avenue in Mid-City, “from the 1830s onward, New Orleans was the jumping off point to the great untamed American West. The St. Charles Hotel was the stage upon which the American democratic play took place.”
And that’s not to mention that across Carondelet Street from the Parlor, the Imperial Cabinet and the Sazerac was the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, another Mecca of the New Orleans business community. (My great-grandfather Louis Arnold Dupré worked there in the 1880s and ’90s. I like to imagine him crossing the street after a long day for an afternoon drink.)
While there might not be any monument yet on this block, there is a modern tribute a short distance away. My friend Chris Hannah just opened a new place, aptly called the Jewel of the South. Have Chris or his partner Nick Dietrich fix you a Sazerac or a Crusta and toast this amazing stretch of New Orleans mixological history.