The ornate mirror was already 90 years old when it left Paris in 1856, bound for New Orleans. Looming over America’s oldest walk-up bar, the massive mirror has reflected the images of dockworkers, soldiers, foreign dignitaries, artists, Hollywood Stars, Presidents, resident New Orleanians, and tourists alike. At just over 250 years old, this icon survived a trans-Atlantic crossing, the Civil War, Prohibition, and multiple hurricanes. And, at the moment, reflects our guide Naif as he recounts the history of Tujague’s and their famous Grasshopper cocktail as we sip on our own creamy concoction.
Our New Orleans Classic Cocktail Tour began outside the doors of Tujague’s, just across the street from The French Market. Designed to immerse cocktail aficionados and enthusiasts in the unique drinking culture of New Orleans, the walking tour grants behind-the-scene access to some of the oldest and most influential restaurants and bars in America. Naif Shahady, a retired teacher, gracious introduces himself and the city in which he loves. “My favorite aspect of guiding tours is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world every day,” he tells us. “Today, my guests may be from New Zealand, Mexico, New Orleans, Michigan, and Japan. Tomorrow, they may be from Russia. I truly enjoy making them feel welcome. I love the challenge of helping them to not only understand our rich, fascinating history but also to love this city.”
Naif then explains how the Grasshopper came to be. In 1928, the nephew of Tujague’s owner, Philibert Guichet, came up the Grasshopper for an international cocktail competition. Made with Crème de Menthe, Crème de Cacao, and whipping cream, the Grasshopper took home second place. We drank while Naif brought our attention to painted figures, faded autographed portraits, and weathered newspaper clippings covering the walls of Tujague’s. People shuffled in and out, bellying up to the worn cypress bar to try the minty, sweet, vibrant green cocktail in its birthplace. For those who may not want a creamy cocktail, they can try an Abita beer. This local microbrewery is located in Abita Springs, La once an Indian settlement named for its “healing waters”.
From Tujague’s, Naif leads the way through the bustling French Quarter, across Jackson Square, and down the narrow slip of Pirate Alley. The cobblestoned alley that runs between Saint Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo is as storied and colorful as the name invokes. Privateers such as Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre once peddled black market goods through the wrought iron fence of St. Anthony’s garden. William Faulkner resided at number 624 and published his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. And the Spanish Colonial Prison once sat on the very spot of today’s Pirates Alley Cafe and Olde Absinthe House. A nautical compass rose and blue skies compose the ceiling while caged skulls, ship helms, and crossed sabers dangle from the roof and walls. And on the counter? Absinthe.
Naif regaled us with the turbulent, and mostly undeserved, rumors that have followed absinthe through history. As the buccaneer-clad bartenders (or serving wenches, if you like) prepared our drinks, Naif broke down each step of the process for us. First, begin with about an ounce of high-quality absinthe, made from natural, whole herbs. Then balance a slotted or perforated absinthe spoon on the rim and top it with a single sugar cube. The sugar is used to round out the bitterness of wormwood from the absinthe. Ice water is then slowly dripped onto the ice cube and into the absinthe below. The drink will gradually cloud over, or louche, as the essential oils from the herbs precipitate. The result is a complex layering of licorice and green herbs with a slightly sweet but numbing finish. Maybe not for everybody, but the ritual and history make it a “try it at least once” cocktail.
Continuing down Pirate Alley, Naif took us left on Royal Street then right on St. Louis to Antoine’s, America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant. Founded in 1840, Antoine’s set the Fine Dining bar and not just in New Orleans. Antoine’s son Jules trained in the fabled kitchens of Paris, Marseilles, and Strassburg. He even worked in other New Orleans restaurants before returning to the family kitchen of Antoine’s. Generations of the Alciatore family have navigated the restaurant through the Civil War, both World Wars, Prohibition, The Great Depression, and countless natural disasters without missing a beat.
The same time Antoine’s was making a name for itself, another Antoine was also making history. Pharmacist Antoine Amedie Peychaud began “treating” his friends with a personalized concoction of French brandy and his “Peychaud’s Bitters” He used a coquetier (where the word cocktail derives from) or jigger to measure out his bitters, thus giving rise to the first “branded” cocktail!
Naif took us through the various alterations of the Sazerac Cocktail, before giving us a private tour of Antoine’s and their 14 dining rooms. Originally the cocktail used Sazerac French Brandy but was officially amended in 1873, replacing the brandy with American Rye and a splash of absinthe. Following the ban of absinthe, the recipe then called for Herbsaint. To date, the latest Official Sazerac Cocktail recipe amendment states Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey be used. One item that never changed? Peychaud’s Bitters.
The last stop of the cocktail tour took us two blocks from Antoine’s to Arnaud’s. Over the years, as Arnaud’s grew in popularity so did the floorplan. Eventually, 13 separate structures combined to encompass the whole of Arnaud’s. Arnaud’s Richelieu Bar resides in one of the oldest structures in New Orleans, dating back to the end of the 1700s. We pulled up stools to the original polished mahogany bar, gleaming under the tin ceiling and gilded mirror. The band tuned their instruments as Naif expounded on our last cocktail of the tour. Which just so happens to be his favorite drink. “The ounce and a half of cognac gives the champagne a wonderful boost of flavor: Easy to drink, and deceptively potent,” he explains.
Named for the game-changing French 75mm field gun used during World War I, the drink consists of a healthy dose of Cognac (or gin), shaken with a splash of lemon juice and simple syrup, then topped off with chilled Champagne. Ryan, our barkeep, prepared our French 75s as Naif wound down the tour by ordering us a Pommes Souffle with Bernaise Sauce. The sweet and tart champagne-cognac-lemon cocktail contrasted perfectly with the salty puffed potatoes appetizer. We raised our glasses in one last toast to Naif and his excellent tutelage.
If you are interested in a historical cocktail tour or any other tour Naif offers, please visit New Orleans Culinary Tours, call 504-427-9595, or contact Naif at [email protected] “I lead many types of tours: French Quarter, Garden District, Cemeteries, Congo Square, Culinary, and Drinks. Our New Orleans Creole culture is built upon a legacy of drinking, eating, listening to music, and dancing. We never take ourselves too seriously here. Life is short. So we often live like there is no tomorrow. Our drinks tour fits in perfectly alongside our amazing history.” With a huge smile, he says, “I am having more fun in retirement than I ever dreamed possible! I love this city! Come experience our wonderful city! Never forget- ‘You are Safe With Naif!’ ”
What’s your cocktail of choice when down in New Orleans?