Is the Vieux Carré the King of New Orleans Cocktails?
A case for this homegrown concoction that was created in the French Quarter.
When it comes to cocktails New Orleans has quite a lot to boast about it. The city has been home to many famous bars, bartenders and, of course, drinkers. And that’s not to mention its legendary and annual Mardi Gras celebration that is already underway.
But one of my favorite NOLA cocktails has to be the Vieux Carré, which first saw light of day in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1938 classic Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix ’Em. I discovered both the book and the drink way back in 1996, while I was researching my New Orleans roots. The immortal H.L. Mencken called the book “a classical work,” and that was good enough for me. For a number of years, I took Arthur’s writing as gospel, which is ironic, as I’m now known to throw rocks at it (and its author) in recent years.
Why? Well, in the legal trade we’d call ol’ Arthur an unreliable witness. You simply cannot trust him. He appears to be the one who created the myth that my ancestor Antoine Amedée Peychaud invented the world’s first cocktail, supposedly served in an hourglass-shaped egg cup (called a coquetier in French). When that word became mispronounced into “cocktail” by American customers, a drink, and its name, were born. While it is a charming story, it is, of course, patently false (Peychaud was but 3 years old when the cocktail was first defined in print!), but that’s the topic for another article. There are any number of other transgressions in Arthur’s writings, instances where he played fast and loose with the truth.
The problem is that just about all we know about the venerable Vieux Carré comes from Arthur’s book. Can we trust it? All Arthur says about it is that “this is the cocktail that Walter Bergeron, head bartender of the Hotel Monteleone cocktail lounge, takes special pride in mixing. He originated it, he says, to do honor to the famed Vieux Carré, that part of old New Orleans where the antique shops and the iron lace balconies give sightseers a glimpse into the romance of another day.”
For the record, I’m inclined to trust Arthur in this instance. According to the research of New Orleans bartender and author Cheryl Charming and what I’ve been able to find, Bergeron was born in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, in 1889, and moved to New Orleans in 1907. Census and city directory records from as early as 1918 list him as a bartender at the Monteleone for most of his adult life, interrupted, of course, by Prohibition. During those dry years, Bergeron was a manager at a cigar store. Could it have also been a speakeasy? We do know that in 1924, during a raid at the United Cigar Store at the corner of Baronne and Gravier in downtown New Orleans, Bergeron was arrested for possession of “punch boards,” a common gambling device of that day. After Prohibition, Bergeron returned to the Monteleone bar, and in the mid-1930s he lived in the Lower Ninth Ward on Chartres Street. He reportedly left the Monteleone in the 1940s to work at the old Sazerac Bar, at the corner of Carondelet and Gravier (the same site previously housed Henry Charles Ramos’s immortal Stag Saloon, the pre-Prohibition home of the Ramos Gin Fizz). Bergeron died on 70 years ago this week and just a few days before Mardi Gras.
As for Arthur, I interpret his somewhat spare “to do honor to the famed Vieux Carré” as meaning that Mr. Bergeron was paying homage to the many influences that had shaped the oldest section of New Orleans. (After all, Vieux Carré literally means “old square.”) Indeed, in those days the Quarter was made up of French Creoles (New Orleans was originally settled by the French in 1718), Italians (a great many went to the Crescent City in the latter half of the 19th century), Americans (who moved to the area after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803), and assorted folks from the Caribbean (as New Orleans is the main port on the Gulf of Mexico, our original window to the Caribbean and South America). Among those Italians, I might note, was Antonio Monteleone, who came to New Orleans from Sicily around 1880 and later founded the hotel Bergeron worked in for decades.
Indeed, the Vieux Carré has a French brandy and liqueur, Italian vermouth, American rye whiskey, and Caribbean bitters (Angostura Bitters is from Trinidad, Peychaud was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti).
So when you’re drinking a Vieux Carré, you’re really drinking New Orleans history! Laissez les bons temps rouler!
1 oz Cognac (the Ferrand 1840 is very nice)1 oz of Rye whiskey (such as Sazerac)1 oz Sweet vermouth (Dolin Rouge works well)1 tsp Bénédictine2 dashes Angostura bitters2 dashes Peychaud’s bittersGarnish: Lemon peel, cherry, and pineapple slice
Add all the ingredients to a rocks glass and fill with ice. Stir and garnish with a lemon peel and, as an option, a slice of pineapple and a cherry.