Family Ties

Who Is the Real Father of the Cocktail?

Getting to the bottom of the legend that New Orleans pharmacist Antoine Peychaud created the famous mixed drink.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

For a serious student of spirits and drinks, there is no greater prize than figuring out who created the first cocktail. While there are as many theories on its origins as there are Martini recipes, for a long time New Orleans pharmacist and my relative Antoine Peychaud was thought to be its creator. Unfortunately, I also have the dubious distinction of being the person to figure out that Peychaud had nothing to do with the birth of the drink.

It all kind of happened by an odd mix of circumstances.

I went to law school in New Orleans (Loyola, ’86), and fell in love with the city, its food, history, music, folklore, architecture, atmosphere, customs and traditions, and even the climate. So, being a history buff, over the next 10 years I found myself reading anything New Orleans-related I could get my hands on, from Gumbo Ya-Ya to Frenchmen, Desire, Goodchildren: And Other Streets of New Orleans, to A Confederacy of Dunces.

Eventually, Orleanian friends of mine would remark that I knew more about their hometown than they did. I came to feel like the city was in my blood, and that it would never leave me. I understood what Ernest Hemingway meant when he wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” That was New Orleans for me.

So, when it occurred to me that my paternal grandmother Nana was born in New Orleans (Mary Louise Dupre, 1892), and was likely to have some interesting French Creole roots, I decided to dig in. I started with a partially-completed family tree that my uncle gave me. According to the document, my great-great-grandfather Turiaf Dupre was born in Martinique (actually it turned out he was from Guadeloupe), and his wife, my great-great-grandmother, was named Pechaud.

Using that as a starting point, I spent a few weeks (and a little bit of money) fruitlessly looking for that name, finding nothing. Then by good fortune I discovered a similar surname, Peychaud, while reading a Fodor’s New Orleans guidebook. It included this short entry:

“The cocktail is thought to have been invented in the 1800s at Antoine Peychaud’s Pharmacy, 437 Royal Street. Peychaud created the first bitters, which he felt improved his bourbon’s flavor when stirred into the liquor. The word ‘cocktail’ itself derives from the egg cups, or coquetiers, in which Peychaud originally served his concoction, a drink known today as a Sazerac.”

His name was so close to my relatives, could it possibly be the same name I’ve been looking for? Could I be related to that guy, the inventor of the cocktail? Be still my heart. So, I spent hours at the Daughters of the American Revolution library, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. I had to find a connection between Turiaf Dupre and anyone named Peychaud for this connection to make sense.

I found the answer in the 1860 New Orleans Census. A household at 1301 Burgundy Street in the French Quarter was included. (The building is, amazingly, still there and is a giant stone house called the Morro Castle.) The heads of household were listed as Henry and Felicite Peychaud, and living with them were their daughter, Marie Louise Peychaud, and her husband, Turiaf Dupre. Boom! This was the connection I was looking for, and in one fell swoop I also found my great-great-great-grandparents.

Some amount of digging later revealed that la famille Peychaud originally hailed from the Bordeaux region of France. There’s a Chateau Peychaud wine to this day, and even the name is linked to viticulture; in French, pey means hillside, and chaud means warm or hot, a sunny hillside being suitable for vineyards. In the latter half of the 18th century, two branches of the Peychaud family, one led by Hyacinthe Mathias Peychaud (my great-great-great-great-grandfather), the other by his cousin Charles Peychaud, left France to seek fortune in the New World, and settled in the French colony of St.-Domingue (sometimes called San Domingo).

Both became wealthy planters, and lived there until the slave rebellions of the 1790s and 1800s, which resulted in the birth of Haiti. Charles Peychaud owned a coffee plantation in the north, near Cap-Français (now Cap-Haïtien), and his son, Dr. Charles Louis Peychaud, was a physician. Dr. Peychaud and his wife Rosalie Martinet had a daughter, Lasthénie (around 1799) and then a son, Antoine Amedée Peychaud. Yes, that Antoine Peychaud.

So, knowing all of this, I could now claim to be related the “cocktail inventing pharmacist”; we’re third cousins, four times removed.

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Around the time that I made this discovery, I bought a 1937 bartending book called Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix ’Em, by Stanley Clisby Arthur. It went into quite a bit of detail about the story of how Peychaud mixed his bitters with brandy, served it in a coquetier, and eventually that word became blurred into “cocktail.” He went on to explain that the drink evolved into the Sazerac, with rye whiskey ultimately replacing the Cognac. Arthur was the source for this early cocktail history that was quoted over and over again and his book gave legitamacy to the claim that my ancestor created the cocktail. According to Arthur, Peychaud came to New Orleans from San Domingo circa 1793:

“One refugee succeeded in salvaging, among other scanty possessions, a recipe for the compounding of a liquid tonic, called bitters, a recipe that had been a secret family formula for years. This particular young Creole refugee was of a distinguished French family and had been educated as an apothecary. His name was Antoine Amedée Peychaud. In the turmoil of the insurrection and the hurried exodus from San Domingo, Amedée and his younger sister became separated.”

So, reading this, I got the impression that Peychaud was a young pharmacist in St.-Domingue, and came to New Orleans in 1793. So, for a few years, I gave this story some credence. After all, it appeared to be consistent with the first-known definition of a cocktail in print, that appeared in the Hudson, New York, newspaper Balance and Columbian Repository on May 13, 1806. It was plausible, Peychaud could have invented the cocktail in the 1790s, and it could have made its way to upstate New York 10 or so years later. Why not?

I wanted to believe the story, I mean, who wouldn’t want to be related to the father of the cocktail? By this time more and more information was becoming available online, and I got to know Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh, another so-called cocktail historian. We commenced to share info on Peychaud, the Sazerac, and related topics.

But I discovered another old book, Creole Families of New Orleans from 1921, by Grace King. She tells of Antoine’s exodus a little differently, that “he and his sister, Lasthénie, were saved from massacre in the insurrection of the slaves by their nurse, but in the panic of the moment the children became separated and the boy was brought to New Orleans alone.”

Hmm, so Antoine was a child, was he? What’s interesting is that 10 years after King published her book, Arthur published in 1931 a very similar book, titled Old Families of Louisiana, wherein he wrote that “Peychaud and his sister… were separated during the insurrection… and it was not until he reached manhood that he located her in Paris and had her come to New Orleans.”

So now Arthur’s story appears to have a few holes, one of them provided by Arthur himself! I mean, how could he have been a mere child in the 1790s, then become a cocktail slinging apothecary by 1806? Then came the coup de grace, when I discovered Antoine Peychaud’s death notice, in the New Orleans Bee newspaper. Though his name was misspelled, it clearly reported that Peychaud died on June 30, 1883, at the age of 80. Through other means, I established that he was born near Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, (then known as Cap-Français) in February of 1803.

As an aside, the Haitian slave rebellions began in August of 1791 and lasted for well over 10 years, culminating in France’s final withdrawal from the colony in 1803, and the independence of Haiti, in 1804. So, King’s story appears to stand up; Peychaud’s parents were among the last French colonists to leave St.-Domingue, toward the end of the rebellions, and Antoine was likely a mere baby, or at most a toddler.

Over the next several years, I continued to build my knowledge of A.A. Peychaud and my other French Creole ancestors. While he created his eponymous line of bitters, which is still produced today, the legend that posited him as the father of the cocktail was sadly just not true. It was a painful realization but one that I had to make and share with others. The rightful father or mother of the cocktail is still out there and deserves to be recognized.

But my decision to admit all of this wasn’t always popular. The first time I attended industry event, Tales of the Cocktail, I was introduced to Joe Gendusa who operates the New Orleans Cocktail Tour company. His tour guides take visitors to the many sites in the Quarter relating to drinking lore. Gendusa was well aware that I had debunked the myth that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans by Peychaud, and he laughingly said to me, “You have no idea how frightened of you we tour guides are!”

The next time you’re in the French Quarter you still may see a tour go by and overhear the legend of Peychaud and his egg cups being told, but at least it’s now usually prefaced with that reliable old prefatory caveat, “As the story goes…”