The Fascinating History of New Orleans’ Oldest Bar
We go all the way back to the early 1700s for the history of the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street.
At the dawn of Prohibition there were three world-famous bars in New Orleans: Henry Ramos’s Stag Café, Chris O’Reilly’s Sazerac House and Pierre Cazebonne’s Old Absinthe House, perhaps the most famous of the three. Two of those bars enjoy truly mythical stature in the modern cocktail revolution. Their signature drinks are among the bedrock classics and their histories are recounted in bars from Sarasota to Singapore, St. Petersburg to Punta Arenas.
Conveniently for their legends, the Sazerac House, opened in 1851, and the Stag, successor to the bar that Ramos opened down the street in 1887, never came back after Prohibition; they never had to scrape by during the dry years, try to rebuild their clientele during the 1930s, pump cheap rum drinks into G.I.s and gyrenes, flyboys and swabbies during World War II, figure out what the visiting merrymakears wanted to drink during the buttoned-down 1950s or compete with hard drugs and hookers in the 1960s and 1970s. They’re not still keeping the lights on by selling Vodka Sodas to sorority girls and Bud Light to guys who look like their dads.
The Old Absinthe House, open pretty much continually since at least 1842 (there were a couple of years during Prohibition when the place was padlocked—but its actual bar was still in use, in a building down the street), has done all those things. It is a true survivor: the oldest bar in New Orleans and one of the oldest in America. In all that time, it has grown its own crust of myth and legend, a rough, patchy thing that is as neglected as it is ancient. The last time the bar’s actual history was investigated in any detail was in the 1930s. I think it’s time for an update, particularly since, as far as can be determined, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of its embrace of the word “absinthe” in its name.
Because we’re in the realm of mythology here, I’ll begin at the very beginning, in the Dreamtime.
In the beginning was earth and water, sun and wind—separated as God intended, to be sure, but perhaps not quite so well as they were separated in other, tidier places. Alligators and herons, frogs and mosquitoes, leeches and palmetto bugs, cypress, sawgrass and purple muscadine, all shared the sloppy patchwork of fetid water and the stinking muck that passed for land; all simmered together under a sun of balled-up fire and hunkered together against the howling winds and whipping rain that periodically blew the thick air clear.
Then the humans came—“Nahchee,” they called themselves—and trapped some of the ducks and the deer and pried some of the fat oysters out of the ooze. In some places, where there was more earth and less water, they piled the dirt up into elegant ceremonial mounds and maybe planted some corn and squash and beans around them. But mostly they slipped silent and sure-footed through the swamp, hunting and fishing and reveling in the veiled bounty of what surrounded them.
In the fullness of time, other men came; French men. They did nothing quietly, hacking out a trading post here and throwing up an earth-and-log fort there, seizing dominion over a handful of the places where the earth was firmest and highest. One of those was on a bend in the great river that slowly bulled its way through the wilderness, a little way upstream from where the “Mississippi,” as the French rendered its name, spilled itself untidily into the Gulf of Mexico. By way of a branchy little channel, a bayou, the site offered a short and easy overland portage between the river and the grand lake that lay just to the north of it. Since time immemorial, it had been a key link in Natchee trade routes.
But now, in the year 1718, it was French, and to make sure it stayed that way the new inhabitants cleared the cypress and live oak off of a 400-acre rectangle, surrounded it with drainage ditches and heaped up some mounds of their own. Only theirs surrounded the clearing on three sides—the river closed the box—and had cannon-studded bastions at the corners. Within these walls, they laid out a grid of streets and began building wooden houses. “La Nouvelle Orléans,” they called the place, after the Duke of Orléans, who was acting as regent for King Louis XV, who was eight.
After a little adjustment to the walls, Nouvelle Orléans ended up with 66 square blocks. Not that it needed that many: a 1763 map shows houses clustered together in only about half of them. That same year, France ceded the town to Spain without a fight. In spite of—or maybe because of—being administered from Havana with a loose hand, the city quickly began to fill out. Even two devastating fires and a subsequent requirement that everything be rebuilt in brick instead of wood didn’t hold things back. In 1800, the city went back to France, which promptly turned around and sold it and the rest of French North America to the United States.
As contemporary maps show, at some point between 1788 and 1817 one of the remaining empty blocks, over near the city walls, finally got some houses built on it, including one at the corner where Bienville Street met Bourbon Street. If you stood in Bienville with your back to the river, this house was on the near left corner (locally that’s known as the “uptown riverside” lot; in New Orleans, the normal compass rose has been replaced with “riverside” and “lakeside,” “downtown”—that is, down the Mississippi towards the Gulf—and “uptown”). It’s still there today, more or less: it’s been repaired, redecorated, remodeled, renovated, rebuilt, reopened and remojoed more times than Cher. But it’s still the same house, standing in the same place it’s occupied since some time around the Louisiana purchase.
Nobody’s sure precisely when it was built, which hasn’t stopped them from throwing out years; French Quarter historian Stanley Clisby Arthur, the last person to seriously investigate the bar’s history, gives the year as 1806, without evidence. There were some “edifices” on the property as early as 1797, but we don’t know if they included the house; on the other hand, an 1820 property transfer describes the building perfectly as it still stands. It’s entirely possible that it was built, or rebuilt, after the great hurricane of 1812, which wreaked havoc on the city and left most of it under water.
The house is a standard New Orleans corner shop, circa 1800: a two-and-a-half story stucco-brick cube with two big, arched floor-to-ceiling windows on the Bienville St. side and two more on the Bourbon one, along with a separate kitchen extension and a walled-in courtyard that once held the house’s well. At some point in the late nineteenth century a cast-iron balcony was added, right under the top-floor windows. The high-ceilinged ground floor held two stores; the top floor was residential. The extra half-story—an “entresol” in the local terminology—was shoehorned in between them as a place to keep goods and servants, be they free or enslaved.
Whenever the actual house was built, in 1806 the property came under the ownership of a pair of Catalan business partners, Pedro Font (or Fon) and Francisco Juncadella. Catalonia was an uneasy part of Spain, and its people often found refuge in the colonies; New Orleans was one of the centers of their migration. At the same time, the partners built, or at least bought, another, humbler one-story house kitty-corner to that one. I don’t know who lived in which or if they actually lived in either. They may have run a grocery on the ground floor, as Arthur claims, or leased it to someone else who did, but Juncadella died in 1820, Font went home to Spain and by 1822 the house was occupied by Antoine Cruzat, the treasurer of the parish of Orleans—“parish” being Louisianan for county. There may have still been a grocery on the ground floor: city directories list one at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville, but of course every intersection has four corners and Cruzat was an important man, unlikely to live above someone else’s shop. But hey, it’s New Orleans.
The Cruzat family was still in the house when the “Racer’s Storm” of 1837 blew roofs off throughout the town and left much of it under water. In 1841, however, they ended their tenure when Antoine Cruzat built his own house over on St. Louis Street. Within a year, we find one “Mr. Aleix” disbursing liquors at the location (Francisco Juncadella’s widow, Rosa, was an Aleix, and she had inherited his share of the building). New Orleans local historian Ray Bordelon, an expert on all things Absinthe House, has uncovered a liquor license dating to January 14, 1843 for a “coffeehouse”—that’s New Orleans-speak for “bar”—issued to Jacinto Aleix and before that licensing for a “cabaret or commodities house.” These are two different kinds of establishment, but in New Orleans both of them sold liquors.
In any case, the first time the establishment appears in print is in April, 1842, when the men of Washington Fire Co. No. 4 took out an add in the Daily Picayune to thank “Mr. Aleix” for supplying them with “refreshments” while they were fighting a recent fire on Bienville St. (Back then, volunteer fire companies had a rough and tumble reputation and tended to be peopled by the sportier elements of society; the ones who kept corkscrews twisting and waiters stepping. If you ran a retail liquor dispensary, they were the people you wanted to butter up.) They could have come from a grocery, but the sending of iced drinks to firemen and other workers in the public interest was a fairly common thing for fancy nineteenth century bars to do.
As if that weren’t murky enough, there’s also the fact that various people, over the years, have claimed that the coffee house was open well before Cruzat moved out; years later, the bar gave 1836 as the year of its founding, although this later slipped back to 1826. It seems as unlikely that the county treasurer would live over a bar as a grocery store, but again, New Orleans.
The next time the bar turns up it is under a different Aleix: the Annual and Commercial Register for 1846 has Jacinto running a shoe store at the same corner and the coffee house under the proprietorship of the mysterious “A. Aleix,” who does not appear elsewhere in the contemporary records to which I have access. Three generations later, however, the brothers who were running the business—Ferrers, not Aleixes, but kinsmen nonetheless—believed that it had been founded by Antonio Ferrer, a great grandfather. It is possible they got their genealogy bollixed up and it was Antonio Aleix. Pending further research, “A. Aleix” will have to remain a mystery.
Whoever A. was, his or her tenure was brief: by 1850, Jacinto was firmly in charge.
Born in Catalonia in 1800, give or take a year, he had emigrated to Havana in his youth. There, he worked as a sailor on the New Orleans run. He appears to have settled in the city for good in 1823 and later spent at least a decade running a shoe store on the next block of Bourbon St., until he got tired of smelling feet.
We know vanishingly little about Aleix’s operation beyond the fact that he had a large mirror behind the bar and a big old clock. While the city had a number of showplace drinking establishments, elaborate temples to Bacchus such as Hewlett’s Exchange, the St. Charles Bar, and the Gem, Aleix’s was not one of them. It received no mention in the survey of the city’s best and most popular bars the Weekly Delta printed in 1850. Just about the only time it made it into the newspapers was in August, 1851, when word reached the city of the failure of Ecuadoran revolutionary Narciso López’s latest attempt to liberate Cuba from Spain. That failure was followed by the public execution in Havana of 50 of his men, most of them Americans, many of them recruited in New Orleans. Anti-Spanish feeling ran high in the city, and on the night of the 24th rioters swept through the French Quarter, sacking the Spanish Consul’s office and a number of Spanish-owned businesses. Aleix’s was among them. “The mirrors, bottles, decanters and liquors were cast into the street,” the Weekly Delta reported, and the place was “completely sacked.”
Odds are it wasn’t Aleix’s French-Quarter neighbors who did the damage. By the 1830s, the old city had grown a whole new city, across Canal Street, which ran from the river toward the lake on the Uptown border of the old town, where one of the city walls had been. Now that old town was known as the “French Quarter,” while the new part was the “American Quarter.” The French Quarter was peopled largely by French and Spanish families who had been there before the Louisiana Purchase—the city’s famous “Creoles”—and their compatriots who had come over to join them.
The American quarter, technically a separate municipality from 1836 until 1852, was full of hard, charging, “go ahead” Americans, manifest-destiny types from New York and Boston and Hartford and such who regarded the less-driven, tradition-obsessed French-Quarter Latins with suspicion and more than a little contempt. The feeling was mutual. Lopez had recruited mostly among the Americans, and they were most likely the ones who rampaged through the French Quarter.
The American-Creole divide stretched through the bars the city’s residents drank in. French-Quarter residents tended to prefer “cabarets,” as they called them, to the more elaborate American bars of the day. These were low-key places, “modest in pretension” and “plain in furniture,” as the Daily Picayune observed in 1850, where most of the clientele shared an ethnicity with the owner; where French and Spanish wines—Burgundies, Garnachas, and the like—were far more popular than bourbon and old Monongahela and you were much more likely to find a vermouth or an Anisette and Water on the bar than a Gin Cocktail or a Mint Julep. For those, you’d need to amble over to a bar like the Sazerac House, opened by Aaron Bird in 1852 half a block below Canal (for all intents and purposes, the American Quarter actually began a block before the official Canal Street border), where you could stand at the bar and throw down Whiskey Cocktails and Brandy Smashes and all the other potent gum-ticklers characteristic of the American school of drinking.
At any rate, Aleix put his business back together, with no help from the city authorities, whom he sued unsuccessfully for the $3,500 damage he claimed the mob caused. He ran it more or less without incident for the next few years, unless the Bernardo Attores who was arrested in 1856 for “selling liquor to slaves” at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville worked for him (it should be noted that Charles Ogilvie, the grocer across the street, was arrested two years later for precisely that offense). Some time around 1860, Jacinto brought his son Pierre Oscar in as a “clerk,” the genteel way of saying “barkeeper.” Despite the events of 1851, Oscar, as he was known, and his brother Leopold seemed to have no hard feelings toward the local Anglos, since when Louisiana joined the Confederacy in 1861 they both enlisted immediately, serving in local militia units until New Orleans fell to the Union in April 1862.
By then, Jacinto had been dead for almost a year and his widow, Severine Espinoso Aleix, was running the bar in his name. When we next see it, in 1865, Leopold had taken over the day-to-day operation, sometimes with Oscar’s help, but the business was still in Jacinto’s name. But now the bar had acquired a new nickname: “The Absinthe House,” which first appeared in an advertisement in the New Orleans Times that August (the bar had ice, and wanted to let the world know). By the late 1860s, the Aleixes’ old cabaret was starting to get noticed: in 1869, the Times-Democrat dubbed it a “popular resort.” Although it wasn’t old enough to be truly picturesque, the bar had still been around long enough to be a familiar survivor, and a small counterweight to the modernization that was beginning to transform the big American saloons in the city, and the Americanization that was beginning to rob the French Quarter of some of its distinctive flavor.
A big part of that counterweight was Aleix’s promotion of absinthe-drinking. To the average American of the day, absinthe-drinking was, as one of the city’s American-Quarter newspapers reminded its readers in 1868, a form of “dangerous dissipation.” The seductive green liquid was known mostly as the thing that drove Parisian café-loafers to the poorhouse and then the madhouse, a powerful, mind-altering nerve toxin that left people hollow, gibbering wrecks. For the next 40-odd years, the newspapers, and particularly those aligned with American-Quarter interests, published frequent reminders of its toll, usually translated from the more sensationalist segments of the French popular press.
Meanwhile, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, here was a quiet little neighborhood bar—Bourbon Street in 1865 was not the Bourbon Street of 1965 or 2015—proudly identifying itself as a place to drink absinthe. New Orleans had been importing absinthe since at least 1821, but if it caused any fuss it didn’t make the papers. It’s significant that the Aleixes didn’t take a stand in favor of it until the 1860s, when it was becoming an identifier for Bohemian tendencies and worse; when it was singled out as foreign and un-American.
I don’t want to make Leon Aleix out to be some hero of diversity: in the most important things, he was anything but. A small December, 1874, ad in the New Orleans Bulletin is co-signed by him as an officer of the “Ogden Invincibles,” one of the many political clubs that sprang up to support one political candidate or another. This one supported Frederick N. Ogden for governor. Ogden, a former Confederate officer like Aleix, had served under Nathan Bedford Forrest and shared his virulent views on race. In July, 1874, he founded the Crescent City White League, dedicated to naked white supremacy.
At first glance, there seems a disconnect between Leon’s repugnant, reactionary racial politics and his promotion of some decidedly un-American drinking customs, but New Orleans is a complicated place and the Anglo-Creole divide had been largely wiped away by the Civil War and the enthusiastic enlistment of young men like Aleix in the Confederate cause. Rather than fighting each other, the two groups had banded together to fight the Yankees, and now their black fellow citizens (the Spanish, after all, had historically hardly been paragons of racial enlightenment, and indeed listed among Francisco Juncadella’s property when he died were “Paul and Joseph,” two human beings).
Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with Leopold Aleix anymore, as the Absinthe House was about to change hands, and families, and move to new heights of popularity. For that, and the rest of its history, including Absinthe Frappes, Prohibition, Fake Pirates, the unstoppable Brennans, and much more, see Part II, coming soon.