Vieux Carré

The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:

“May I offer you a drink, sir?”

[vc] through the sun

That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex,  it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.

The Story:

As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.

Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of  1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar,  and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.

This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.

Ingredient Notes:

Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.

Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.

Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.

[vc] grid

Variations:

There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.

This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.

But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.

[vc] shot

The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.

It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?

Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:

A la The Georgetowner:                              A la Saveur
0.5oz rye                                                                 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac                                                      0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth                                    0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine                                            0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters                               dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters                             dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.                 Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble.                  Served alongside a shot of insulin.

Autumn Negroni

When I was back in Chicago over Thanksgiving, Vikki, my sister Kelly and I took occasion to go to the Violet Hour — my favorite thus far of the Chicago cocktail bars, even if it is a faux-speakeasy. I’ve never really been into the whole  fake speakeasy idea, and am relieved that the trend seems to be dying. People sometimes forget that “pretense” is the root of “pretentious,” a fact I’m never more aware of as when I’m at a hidden, exclusive, “password-only” bar that I found by checking their address on yelp.

Regardless — once you find the stupid hidden door and wait at the stupid velvet curtain, actually being there is a very pleasant experience.

The standout drink I had there was called the Autumn Negroni, which on paper looked redundant. Five of the seven ingredients (71%) are bittering agents, and one could reasonably think that once you have Campari, Cynar, Fernet Branca, and Angostura Orange bitters, a dash of Peychaud’s seems like a waste of everyone’s time.

In practice, however, the bitters strip away individually and at different moments, yielding waves of flavors that make each each sip last like 10 seconds. Each ingredient picks up at the tails of the last one and carries the flavor for a while before handing off to another. It’s like a relay race, or cars of a train. This drink is so fucking good.

Autumn Negroni

2oz dry gin (Beefeater)
0.75oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
0.5oz Cynar
0.5oz Campari
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash orange bitters (Angostura)
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Stir over ice and strain into coupe glass; garnish with orange peel.

I immediately asked them for the recipe, which they immediately gave me. Not to single out Saltbox, but I’ve made this drink for probably two dozen people, all of whom loved it, and all of whom now know where to get it if they ever find themselves in Chicago. I share recipes with anyone who asks. I firmly believe it makes all of us better.

Peychaud’s anise shows faintly on the nose alongside aromas of the sweet vermouth’s wine. But what’s so engaging about this drink is that you get to taste all the ingredients, more or less one after another. When taken, the sweetness of the amari mixes with the gin’s juniper, followed by the bittersweet Campari and the brightness of the orange bitters, but right when the Campari would turn rusty bitter that quarter ounce of Fernet Branca prickles up all peppermint and menthol, only to be batted back down by the long, earthy finish of the cynar.

Before this, I had no idea that bitters could layer in this way. I have since used this as the inspiration for the Mane of Needles, my favorite of the URBN cocktails and about which I’ll write soon.

This is the kind of drink that you keep going back to, keep taking small drinks because you identify something different in each sip, and when you feel like you’ve almost mapped all the flavors, you find there’s nothing left but sweetness on your lips and you have to do the whole thing all over again. Which is all I could ever ask from a cocktail. Four stars. A+.