The Birth of America’s Most Famous Bar
The fascinating story of how New Orleans’ Old Absinthe House became a national sensation.
The Old Absinthe House is the oldest bar in New Orleans. Founded at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets in 1836, or at least by 1842—its early years are murky, as you can read in Part I of its history, here—it survived hurricanes, riots and the Civil War, which left the city’s economy in shambles after years of occupation by Federal troops.
By the late 1860s, the Absinthe House was being managed by a second generation of the Aleix family, the Catalan immigrants who had founded the business, and it was gaining recognition as a local institution; as a surviving snippet of the real, old French Quarter. The next two generations of management would see it become a world-famous symbol of that neighborhood and its heavily-mythologized Creole culture.
When the French Opera House opened at the end of 1859 on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans it was the first purpose-built opera house in the United States. An elegant, three-story stone building in the Greek Revival style, it was one of the city’s landmarks until 1919, when it was consumed by fire.
In an age when opera straddled both high and pop culture, the French Opera was the social heart of Creole New Orleans. (These were residents of the ever-complex city’s population who descended from or were otherwise related to the French and Spanish colonists who came to the area before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.) As is usual with such places, the Opera was where the city’s fancy people went to strut and preen before their peers. But its patronage included a broad slice of the old city, even stretching to “Creoles of color,” as the French- and Spanish-speaking black population was known. (The main floor being whites-only, they had to sit in the balconies. As we saw in Part I of this history, New Orleans’s white Creoles were effectively as racist as their Anglo fellow citizens.) Ferdinand Lamothe, who under his professional name, Jelly Roll Morton, became one of the founding fathers of jazz, was a member of that group, and as he told pioneering oral historian Alan Lomax it was a visit to the Opera House that inspired him to take up the piano.
Of course, as all such institutions did at the time, the Opera House had a bar, on the ground floor to the right of the entrance. Given the bibulousness of Americans in general at the time, and in particular of those who liked to dress up in flashy clothes and join the peacocks on parade, one would think that the title to this establishment was a license to print money. Certainly Leopold Aleix, second-generation proprietor of the Absinthe House, three short blocks up Bourbon Street, must have thought when he took over the lease in 1865.
But while Leopold was good at such things as reporting black men to the Opera House’s management when they tried to sit on the main floor, as he did in 1869, he wasn’t so good at running a bar. Evidence of that came in 1870, when the Opera Association auctioned off the contents of the Opera Coffee House to pay Aleix’s back rent: the six pictures, the three mirrors, the two “iron marble top tables,” the twelve chairs, the ice box, the glassware, the crockery and even the “one punch bowl and one punch spoon.”
The only thing Aleix salvaged from the Opera Coffee House was the bartender, whom he promptly installed behind the bar at the Absinthe House. That was another bar that, it seems, he had trouble running: for whatever reason, Leopold was out of the business by May, 1872, leaving it in the hands of his mother, who still held the lease a decade after her husband’s death, and his older brother Edouard.
A persistent sort, anyway, Leopold moved down Bourbon Street to the other end of the block, at Customshouse Street (now Iberville), and opened a bar of his own (he made sure to mention that he was the “sole proprietor” in his ads). “Café de L’Absinthe,” he called it in his French ads; in English, he simply called it the “Absinthe House,” forcing the original to change its name to the “Absinthe Room” (it finally reclaimed that “House” in the early 1900s). That business only lasted for another year or so; after that, he bartended for other men.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Aleix had made some improvements in the original bar: New Orleans historian Ray Bordelon has a bill of sale in his collection dated July 3, 1871, made out to Maria [Severine] Aleix for the fixtures of a bar at Bourbon and Conti streets. Along with the usual stuff, they included two “fountains.” It is likely, as Bordelon suggests, that these are the famous twin marble-and-gilt fountains that the bar has used to drip water into its absinthe (or legal substitute) ever since.
Maria Severine Aleix died in 1873. At that point, the Absinthe Room had been run by members of her family for more than thirty years and was finally beginning to get recognized locally as a living relic of the old French Quarter, when it was much more French and Spanish and much less American than it was after the Civil War. (The 1864 abolition of the use of French in the schools did nothing to slow that transition.) After her death, though, the Aleix family was done with the bar: its operation went instead to Cayetano Ferrer, the bartender whom Leopold had brought over from the Opera House.
Another Catalan (and apparently an Aleix kinsman of some sort), Ferrer had arrived in New Orleans in 1844, when he was 17. I don’t know what he did at first, but the 1861 City Directory found him working as a grocer. Two years later, he had a liquor license for a waterfront place far uptown from the French Quarter, about which I know nothing. In any case, he learned the trade well: under his management and that of his heirs, the Absinthe House became the most famous bar in New Orleans, and one of the most famous in America.
First, though, there were some tough times to navigate. Before the Civil War, New Orleans had been one of the country’s leading cities, a commercial and industrial powerhouse. The war put paid to that, and its aftermath wasn’t much better. The end of the Union occupation allowed a resurgent and organized neo-Confederate resistance to Reconstruction to flourish. In 1874 the tensions broke out into days of pitched battle on Canal Street and in the French Quarter between the insurgent “White League” and Reconstructionists and their Federal allies. Even when this was beaten down, it left the city’s economy in shambles. What remaining economic energy there was came from the American Quarter, above Canal Street; from the Central Business District, as it is now known.
As the city was seeking to regain its place among America’s go-ahead, modern metropolises, the French Quarter—essentially, a backwater within a backwater—was described not with words such as “historic,” “quaint,” “colorful” or “interesting,” but rather ones such as “decrepit,” “dirty,” “diseased” and, worst of all, “old.” But that attitude, while prevalent, wasn’t universal. As large parts of the pre-war city fell away through demolition or neglect, there were some who appreciated places with a history. In 1875, John Couret, owner of the popular and well-regarded Ruby saloon on Common Street in the American Quarter began stating forthrightly in his advertising that “this saloon was established in 1851.” That was an unusual move for the time, as good as admitting that your establishment was out of step with the times, but it did his business no immediate harm.
In 1878, Cayetano Ferrer took a page from Couret’s book, and then some. Not only did he start calling his bar the “Old Absinthe Room,” he even claimed that it was “the oldest saloon in this city, having been opened since 1836” (even if that year is accurate, something I have been unable to determine, the bar at the City Hotel was in fact older, dating to 1832). He did, however, hedge his bets by having the place “refitted,” as he said, or “thoroughly overhauled in every one of its details” to the point that it was “metamorphosed,” as the New Orleans Daily Democrat put it. Overhauled or not, it was still a dark, low-ceilinged place in a building old enough to have grown shabby, and it still specialized in absinthe and French and Spanish wines, not Whiskey Cocktails and Gin Daisies in the modern American style.
Such places were increasingly rare. In fact, the city’s drinking habits were in the midst of a major shift, aligning themselves more with those of the rest of the country. As one local bartender told the Times-Democrat in 1885, when that shift was in full swing, “brandy drinking in New Orleans was a thing of the past,” and even the whiskey that “displaced” it was now falling victim to lager beer. The famous old bars were starting to wink out, one after another: Joseph Santini’s Jewel of the South closed in 1883 after 28 years in business; the City Hotel went in 1887, after 55 years, as did Couret’s Gem, after 36 years. Even the mighty Sazerac House, the city’s premiere stand-up, American-style bar, had a near-death experience in March, 1882, when Thomas H. Handy’s business partner, to whom he had sold the bar in a moment of financial weakness, closed the then-rundown old building and moved the bar to shiny new quarters a couple of blocks above Canal Street. Handy would not stand for this. He promptly tore down the old building, for which he held the lease, and rebuilt it from the ground up. In October of that same year he reopened the “old and long established” Sazerac and quickly drove his erstwhile partner out of the bar business.
In these treacherous waters, Cayetano Ferrer’s Old Absinthe Room kept steaming ahead. And it did it not by learning to serve perfect Whiskey Cocktails, as the Sazerac—a bar named after a brand of Cognac—did. Ferrer stuck to his French absinthe.
That proved to be a wise choice. For one thing, he knew what to do with it. As a writer for the Daily Democrat gushed in 1878, “there are many places in New Orleans where a glass of exhilarating absynthe [sic] can be mixed, but [only] at the Absynthe Room one is ever certain that it will be well mixed…for the secret in making a glass of perfect absynthe depends mainly on the time and manipulation bestowed upon it—in fact, it might be said that it is the entire secret—a secret which has secured and maintained for the Absynthe Room an enviable reputation.”
New Orleans lore has it that Ferrer’s skill with absinthe went beyond mixing a perfect absinthe in the approved French style, with water just dripped in (through a sugar cube if preferred) and long, gentle stirring, to allow for a slow, tantalizing “louche”—the clouding characteristic of absinthe when it is cut with water. Indeed, according to the Internet, and here I’m paraphrasing several dozens of articles that put this forth as established history, in 1874 Ferrer achieved cocktail immortality by inventing the Absinthe Frappé, America’s greatest contribution to the mixology of that green and potent spirit (frappé is the French term of art for “shaken with ice”).
Cayetano Ferrer may have been the first to shake absinthe up with ice, water and a little sugar syrup or anisette and strain it into a chilled glass. If he was, however, I have yet to see any proof of it. It’s true, the drink first makes it into print, under its alternate name, “Frozen Absinthe,” in 1874—but that’s in San Francisco, in a context that implies it was a well-known drink there. It turns up again in 1877, in Cincinnati, and 1881, in San Diego. It goes nationwide in the 1880s, but it doesn’t begin to get mentioned in New Orleans newspapers until the 1890s, by which time it was a notorious signifier of la vie Bohème at its most devilish. Nowhere in Ferrer’s advertising is there any trace of the drink, and nor does it appear in any of the nineteenth-century mentions of Ferrer or his bar that I have been able to find.
The only contemporary hint at anything like the Absinthe Frappé associated with the bar is a line in one of pioneering journalist Martha Field’s fictionalized portraits of New Orleans from 1886, where an old Bohemian christens the corner on which the Absinthe Room sits “the corner of Absinthe and Anisette.” But the Absinthe Frappé wasn’t the only drink to combine those ingredients: the French had been drinking “Absinthe et Anisette,” without the aid of a cocktail shaker and with nary a shaving of ice, for decades.
It’s worth remembering that New Orleans was always a conservative town when it came to drinking, and the Creole “cabarets” were the most hidebound bars in town. In other words, I think that if you had stepped into the Absinthe Room and asked Cayetano Ferrer for an Absinthe Frappé he would have favored you with the same “get-the-fuck-out-of-my-bar” dead-eye an order for a Vodka Red Bull in one of today’s top cocktail bars will get you. He wasn’t in business to monkey around with cocktail shakers and strainers and such foolishness.
Ferrer died in November, 1886 and was buried by his fellow Creoles of the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association. By then, he had already a sign of what would happen to his bar, a decade in the future, in the form of an article by one “Falcon,” visiting New Orleans for the World’s International and Cotton Centennial Exposition, one of the schemes the city fathers thought up to juice the economy. In the article—originally published in the Times, although unfortunately I don’t know which Times—Falcon recommends a restaurant in the French Quarter, and then adds, “Close by is the ‘Old Absinthe House,’ where the absinthe is said to be the best in the world,” and goes on to say that, although only an occasional absinthe drinker at best, he had never had anything like what the bar serves.
Up to this point, New Orleans had never been a tourist town. For one thing, no American city had been, not in the modern sense: very few Americans traveled just for the hell of traveling; it was expensive, uncomfortable, often dangerous, and very slow, even with the railroads that were stitching the country together. But New Orleans, in particular, was avoided: it was, of course, built on a subtropical swamp, and that meant mosquitoes. Mosquitoes often meant yellow fever, and yellow fever meant death. For those new to the city, the mortality rate was shocking. Add the occasional outbreaks of cholera from the poor sanitation—again, built on a swamp—and for most of the nineteenth century the only people who went to New Orleans were those who had to.
As the century drew to a close, however, a few things clicked into line and all was changed. The city’s sanitation greatly improved. America found itself rich enough to grow a leisure class, people who would travel for relaxation and to see things that they couldn’t see at home. The Union Pacific Railroad, whose eastern terminus was New Orleans, consolidated its hold on the southern route—the all-weather route—across the United States, and began promoting it for leisure travel. Suddenly, the city’s old French Quarter traded “decrepit” for “picturesque,” and it was in business.
And so was the Absinthe House. In 1894, the Southern Pacific commissioned a series of promotional booklets devoted to the Crescent City’s charms. They hired Larry O’Donnell, a city judge, to write the first one. Its title: “The Old Absinthe House” (unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a copy). The Ferrers were still running the bar then. Although Cayetano Ferrer had left six surviving children, when he died the oldest son, Jacinto, was only 19 and so the business had gone to his half-brother Leon, who ran it until 1896. Then it went to Jacinto, but “Jos,” as he was called, was better at bartending than managing so before long it went to his brother, Felix.
The bar remained unchanged: the “little room with its dark green woodwork, its boarded ceiling, its sanded floor, its old pictures, its whole air of sympathy with time,” as the great (and rather silly) Satanist Aleister Crowley described it after a visit in 1917, was very much as Cayetano had left it. Its Absinthe Drips were still made the old-fashioned way, with a bartender letting the water fall in to the glass drop by drop from one of the two green marble fountains, “stirring vigorously all the time,” as one observer noted in 1900. It was a slow process, but “in this queer French city time doesn’t matter if the [Drip] is good.” And it was: as another writer put it in 1900, “it tasted like the scent of clover-field in springtime.”
As the 1800s clicked over into the 1900s the bar’s customers went from a steady trickle to a stream to a flood, particularly during Mardi Gras, a purely local institution that suddenly found itself one of the mainstays of America’s shiny new tourist industry. You would take the train down to New Orleans and check in at your hotel, which was almost invariably in the American Quarter. (The St. Charles, newly rebuilt in 1894 for the second time after burning down for the second time, was the favorite.) Then you’d embark on the “cocktail route.”
That route, at least for tourists, only had three bars, each quite different from the others. Henry Carl Ramos’s Imperial Cabinet, across from the St. Charles, was a genteel place where men and women alike could sip his famous, nectareous and almost-innocuous Gin Fizzes. From there, the men at least would amble across Canal Street and hoist a foot up on the brass rail at the Sazerac House, where they would ingest the bar’s namesake whiskey cocktails, a drink that was anything but innocuous. Having thus gotten their beaks wet, it was time to collect the ladies again and go quench those beaks at the Old Absinthe House. “It is one of the sights of the town,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1901, and, despite its being “a quaint, dingy old place” it is “considered smart to patronize it.”
There, our visitors would pass their fifteen cents over the bar and, often, their business cards as well. The cards would get pinned up on the wall (there were thousands) and the fifteen cents would get them an Absinthe Drip, which they all too often misidentified as “Absinthe Frappés” (the notoriety of the Frappé attracted all absinthe preparations into its darkly glamorous orbit). They would sip their drinks and, in theory, gaze upon the sloe-eyed Creoles who whiled away the idle hours there, living lives unimaginable in Montgomery or Dubuque. Of course, most often they were gazing on their ruddy-cheeked fellow tourists, but no matter—“the Old Absinthe House is not a place,” as Crowley put it. “It is not bounded by four walls. It is headquarters to an army of philosophies.” One of those philosophies was that after a glass or two of absinthe, everyone’s a Creole, even if the “tall dark girl, exquisitely slim and snaky, with masses of black hair knotted about her head” and her companion, the “plump woman with hungry eyes, and a mass of Titian red hair” that fascinated him were far more likely to have been from French Lick, Indiana, than from the French Quarter.
Crowley was far from the only celebrity to check in at the Old Absinthe House. Some time in the 1940s, the building was adorned with a marble plaque listing a couple dozen of the famous names who had supposedly communed there with the Green Fairy, including four presidents (five, if you count Jefferson Davis; I don’t), a couple of noblemen, a clutch of generals (seditious and not) and a whole lot of other dignitaries. There’s little documentary proof for any of them, but some are more likely than others. O. Henry, Buffalo Bill Cody and Enrico Caruso, sure—all three were confirmed sports, and were in town in the period of the bar’s greatest fame. And while Walt Whitman was an ardent prohibitionist during his sojourn in the Crescent City, he did write a series of satirical pieces for one of the local papers under the title “Sketches of the Sidewalks and Levees, with Glimpses into the New Orleans Bar (Rooms),” which must have required at least a little field research. Teddy Roosevelt, though, might have poked his head in, but he barely drank and was not one to linger in a bar.
As the bar’s fame grew, so did its myth. Over time, its origins got pushed farther and farther into the past. In the hands of his sons, the 1836 that Cayetano Ferrer advertised as the year of the bar’s founding became first 1826, then 1796 and finally 1752. That opened the door for naming it as “the first saloon in New Orleans” and then enlisting it among the places the pirate Jean Lafitte drank, back in the early 1800s (it wasn’t). From there, it was a short step to making the building Andrew Jackson’s headquarters during the War of 1812 (nope) and then identifying it as the place Jackson met with Lafitte to plan the city’s defense from the British (uh-uh).
Even if Jackson and Lafitte and, for that matter, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee didn’t actually drink in the physical Absinthe House, their presence was required in the Absinthe House of the mind; in the mythological Absinthe House. By the 1910s, the old building had become an icon of Old New Orleans and in a way a synecdoche for it—a small part of the historic town that stood for its whole culture and history; that embodied its uniqueness and its difference. As such, it had to be properly peopled. But if its history was largely imaginary—by the 1910s, people were making up stories about it from whole cloth—its fame was very real. People painted it, photographed it, eulogized it and gawked at it.
What people didn’t do, however, was visit the bar during the summer. Then as now, tourists preferred to come to New Orleans when the city’s always-high humidity wasn’t accompanied by temperatures in the high nineties and frequent torrential downpours, and no matter how many Absinthe Drips the Ferrers sold at fifteen cents a throw the rest of the year they weren’t enough. In 1902, after a particularly slow summer, Felix Ferrer was forced into bankruptcy. As he told the Picayune, “My creditors would not wait for better times…Eh bien, c’est la vie.” He remained in charge of the place, but under straitened circumstances. So straitened, in fact, that he rented out the second floor to a numbers operation, until that got raided in 1905. In 1906, the Absinthe House underwent a near-death experience of its own, when, icon or not, the brewery down the block from it on Bienville wanted to buy the lot and tear it down so it could build new offices. Fortunately, the property’s Spanish owners, old-country heirs of Francisco Juncadella and Pedro Font (the men who originally built the house), didn’t sell.
The next big threat came in 1912, when the United States government yielded to decades of hysteria and forbade the importation and interstate shipping of absinthe. Newspapers around the country carried stories about the Absinthe House’s impending closing before the ban and actual closing after it. That was news to Jos Ferrer, who had never left his place behind the bar. “Where do you get your absinthe from now?” a reporter asked him. “From the cellar,” came the answer. They had years worth stockpiled, and if that ran out, it was still legal in Louisiana to make it and sell it, as long as it stayed in Louisiana.
But the economics of the bar didn’t get any better, and in 1913 Felix Ferrer finally had enough. He sold the business to Pierre Cazebonne, a short, stout beer salesman and former saloonkeeper from Pau, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. To him would fall the task of steering the bar through Prohibition. In their forty years of running the bar, the Ferrers and their stubborn resistance to change had turned it from a quiet neighborhood place to perhaps the single most famous bar in America.
At the end of Part I of this history, I promised Prohibition, fake pirates and Brennans. Now, at the end of Part II, I’m going to promise them again, but in Part III, coming soon.
I would like to thank Ray Bordelon for his invaluable research and Laura Bellucci, Paula Echevarria and Marissa Alberts of the Absinthe House for their kind assistance. Any errors here are entirely my own.