Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Vieux Carré

Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris travels to the Crescent City for this week's cocktail.

Then there’s the Hotel Monteleone‘s Carousel Bar, where the circular bar revolves slowly under a whimsical carnival canopy of carved wood, mirrors, and bare bulbs. The barstools don’t go up and down, thankfully, but the experience can still be a little disorienting; get caught up in a conversation, and the next thing you know, you’re on the other side of the room. Ask bartender Marvin Allen to mix you up a Vieux Carré, a terrific drink invented by the Carousel’s barman in the 1930s, and unknown to most mixologists outside of the Hotel Monteleone. 

--Eric Felton, How’s Your Drink? 

There are four American cities that, if you do not love them on sight, prove you have a heart that is cold and dead. New York is one, with San Francisco and Chicago as the second and third. The fourth is New Orleans, and it is to the Crescent City, with its wealth of epicurean and cocktailian delights, that we again turn our heads this week.

Long before Bourbon Street became Mecca for those seeking obliteration in the form of grain alcohol based “daiquiris” and boozed up children’s drinks served in hand grenades, New Orleans cemented its place in the history of the cocktail with a holy trinity of three drinks. Two of those pillars, The Sazerac and The Ramos Gin Fizz have been covered in these pages, and as spring is sprung in the South and Jazz Fest looms on the horizon, it is time to examine the third, the excellent Vieux Carré. Sipping on a Vieux Carré before dinner, or after work, or, frankly anytime at all, is a reminder to slow down, to savor the moment, to embrace subtle flavors that swirl and evolve. It is a civilized drink, one that stimulates conversation and embraces conviviality.

Walter Bergeron At Your Service

Unlike many of the drinks that make up the classic cannon, the Vieux Carré is a cocktail that has a clear and easily established provenance. Sometime in the 1930s, one Walter Bergeron, head barman at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter, took down a bottle of rye whiskey, then grabbed the Cognac, sweet vermouth and Benedictine. Needing something else, he also looked to the bitters shelf and grabbed both the classic New Orleans Peychaud’s and the more ubiquitous Angostura and set to mixing.

There is little more in the record about Mr. Bergeron, which feels somewhat surprising, though the vast number of sources on the web that date the cocktail to 1938 are decidedly wrong, as it does appear in print, credited to Bergeron, in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1937 edition, Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix Them. The finished drink, using the early French name for what became the Quarter, embraces a number of the many and varied groups that came to make up the base of New Orleans culture, as it mixes American whiskey, French brandy, Italian Vermouth, a French liqueur and two bitters, one made locally by a Creole apothecary and one first made by a surgeon in Simon Bolivar’s army in then Spanish-controlled Venezuela.

It is also a drink that branches off from any number of cocktail trees. It could be said to be a descendant of the Vermouth Cocktail, which also gave us the Manhattan and the brandy version of the same drink, the Metropolitan. It also bears witness to the Saratoga Cocktail, a Manhattan variation that combines brandy and whiskey as its base spirit.

It could be said to be, like the Sazerac, a variation on the Improved Whiskey (or Brandy) Cocktail, that “improves” the original cocktail formula of spirits, bitters and water with the addition of a liqueur or two, but it also appears to be closely related to the La Louisiane Cocktail, the house drink of the Restaurant de la Louisiane that also first appears in Clisby Arthur’s book. But, unlike the La Louisiane, which tilts sweet and is more an after-dinner drink, the Vieux Carré is decidedly balanced and booze forward.

From whatever inspiration or origin, it was a drink that also faded into obscurity, even in the hotel that created it, until relatively recently, when it began to be resurrected by cocktail geek bartenders who had fallen in love first with the Sazerac. Now, any bar with a bartender who cares about her craft should be able to produce a quality specimen, and ordering one from a bartender will endear you to her as a person of taste and refinement.

A Note on Ingredients: Stuff We’ve Talked A Lot About

For the Rye here, seek out something over proof, and, if you can lay hands on it, The Sazerac 6 Year Old would be the first choice. It falls someplace between the more spice forward Pennsylvania style ryes like Rittenhouse and the more mellow Kentucky style whiskeys like those in the Van Winkle family. If Sazerac is not a possibility, go with the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100 proof.

For the Cognac, any robust VS or VSOP should do, and Pierre Ferrand 1840 will be excellent. For the vermouth, remember that it provides one of only two sweet components here, and the other is used sparingly. An overly bittered vermouth will toss the balance of the cocktail out of whack; while something rich and complex like Cocchi Vermouth di Torino or Carpano Antica formula will sing. Dolin is nice, and Martini and Rossi is favored by a number of respectable sources.

Please, just make sure the vermouth is fresh.

Two Notes on Technique

A number of excellent sources and a lot of the historical record (but not the original recipe) call for shaking the Vieux Carré. These sources would be misguided. Your shaken Vieux Carré will taste fine, but one carefully stirred until the drink is quite cold and well integrated will be silky and sublime.

There is also quite a difference of opinion on how to serve the thing. Bergeron gives two options in the originally published recipe—either up in a chilled coupe or cocktail glass or over ice in a rocks glass—so this seems like a matter of taste, though if you go for the rocks version, make sure you have nice solid, large ice cubes, as this is a drink that will quickly go out of balance if it is overly diluted.

A Note on Ingredients: Benedictine

Like Chartreuse, Benedictine is an herbal liqueur produced in France. Unlike Chartreuse, Benedictine is not made by monks, despite its being named for the Benedictine Order. Rather, it was developed by a certain Alexandre Le Grand in the 19th Century with the help of a pharmacist, and marketed as a liqueur that was created at the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, until it was destroyed during the French Revolution. One can assume that Mr. Le Grand was looking at the success of Chartreuse, going as far as labeling every bottle of Benedictine with the initials D.O.M. (Deo Optimo Maximo, "To God, Most Good, Most Great"), the same abbreviation used by the Benedictine Order to open their own documents.

Like Chartreuse, the recipe is a closely guarded secret; allegedly only three people know the complete formula at any given time. And, like Chartreuse many have tried to copy its complex, sweet flavor without success. It is commonly mixed with Brandy, and the company even bottles a B&B that mixes the two together. Its flavor is less aggressive, with more sugar, than Chartreuse, but it still packs quite a punch, and should be used judiciously.

A Recipe

The Vieux Carré

1 oz. Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye Whiskey
1 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
1 bar spoon Benedictine (about 1/8 oz or a teaspoon)
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice.  Stir until very cold and strain into a chilled coupe or over large ice in a rocks glass.  Cut a lemon twist over the glass, expressing the oils over the drink and garnish with same.


Read Bill's other cocktail coverage here