There’s perhaps no city more important to cocktails than New Orleans. Not only is it the birthplace of classics from the Sazerac to the Hurricane, but it’s also been a staunch supporter of the mixological arts, even when they weren’t popular during the ’70s and ’80s. And today, the city not only offers a range of innovative bars but it also hosts the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference.
And who better to ask for where to drink in the city than celebrity chef John Besh? He’s a native of south Louisiana and has dedicated much of his career to celebrating the foods (and drinks) of his homeland. Starting with the stunningly romantic Creole boîte August in 2001, he’s built an empire of 15 restaurants (many of which are in Nola), including Louisiana-seafood showplace Borgne. He’s also branched out with several collaborations with other top chefs, like modern-Mexican hotspot Johnny Sánchez and artisanal pasta and pizza palace Domenica. That’s not to mention the 2016 James Beard Best New Restaurant winner Shaya, an Israeli small-plates restaurant helmed by Alon Shaya, himself a culinary hotshot (and a partner in three of Besh’s restaurants) who had already earned a Beard Award at Domenica.
On top of all that, Besh has published four cookbooks, hosted a trio of television shows (Chef John Besh’s New Orleans and Chef John Besh’s Family Table on PBS and Hungry Investors on Spike) and started a charitable foundation that funds micro-loans to local farmers and culinary-school scholarships supporting diversity in kitchens.
Yet somehow, he still finds the time to enjoy a cocktail now and then. We asked Besh for his current top three drinks in the Big Easy.
French 75 at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar
When an establishment is named after a drink, you should probably order that drink. That’s certainly the case at this French Quarter spot, which opened way back in 1918. For nearly 15 years, it’s been helmed by Chris Hannah, a talented bartender who specializes in old-school concoctions like his bar’s namesake, which is a mix of Cognac, lemon, sugar, and Champagne. Besh says the French 75 is “the perfect version of the classic, and iconic New Orleans.”
Sazerac at Cure
Cure is high on the don’t-miss list for visitors to New Orleans, but it’s a relative newcomer, having opened in 2009. It features one of the most creative drinks menus on the planet, but Besh’s tastes run more traditional: “Their seasonally rotating cocktail list is always thoughtfully curated and well-balanced, but I almost always go Sazerac!” he says. “Tried and true and always perfectly executed.” The Sazerac is essentially a rye-whiskey Old Fashioned that incorporates Peychaud’s Bitters and an absinthe-rinsed glass. Cure offers two options: the standard, made with the appropriately named Sazerac Rye Whiskey and Herbsaint; and the “reserve” option, employing the hard-to-find Col. E.H. Taylor Rye and the top-of-the-line Nouvelle Orleans Absinthe.
Paris Between the Wars at Compère Lapin
New Orleans is arguably as much a part of the Caribbean as it is Louisana, and Compère Lapin expertly showacses this unique mash-up of both cultures’ cuisines. In 2015, its bar was taken over by Abigail Gullo who won Heaven Hill’s Bartender of the Year contest earlier this year. Besh calls Gullo’s drinks “equally exceptional” to the food and especially recommends the Paris Between the Wars, a mix of Scotch, lemon, honey, and pear cider that’s perfect for fall.