Back in 2002, a woman called Ann Rogers Tuennerman had the idea of launching a cocktail tour of New Orleans. She contacted the Gray Line Tour Company, a city tour specialist for guidance. She was then introduced to Joe Gendusa, a New Orleans native, retired history teacher. Together, in September 2002, they launched the New Orleans Original Cocktail Walking Tour of the city’s historical bars. To celebrate the tour’s first anniversary and as a form of “thank you” to the bartenders who’d hosted the tour, Ann decided to organize a small gathering of bartenders, industry experts and cocktail historians to talk about subjects related to cocktails. You guessed it: Tales of the Cocktail was born! But I’m digressing. Let’s go back to the tour!
The cocktail tour takes you through French Quarter to visit some of its most famous bars and restaurants. During the walk from venue to venue and at each stop, you will get interesting and often amusing information about the New Orleans’ history, the places you’ll visit and, of course, the cocktail history of the city.
I joined the cocktail tour twice when I was attending Tales of the Cocktail 2016. I had to leave it early the first time to attend Tales’ opening keynote and thought I might see other places if I took the tour a second time. Also it seemed like a good opportunity to meet other Tales participants. As it turned out, I enjoyed my first tour with Joe so much that I decided to follow him again the second time instead of going with another tour guide and thus I ended up visiting some of the same places again. I was quite happy with that nevertheless. While I think of it: the original cocktail tour with Gray Line lasts 2.5 hours; the Tales version I attended was shorter.
After a welcome shot at our meeting point, we walked to the State Supreme Court of Louisiana. Joe told us these legal instances are usually located in the state capitals. There are three exceptions however: California’s State Supreme Court is located in San Francisco instead of Sacramento, Maine’s is in Portland instead of Augusta and, Louisiana’s is in New Orleans instead of Baton Rouge.
Across the street from the justice building stands the house where “cocktails were born” according to Joe. A French chemist used to live in this building. He used to prepare his own medicines and invite his friends in the evening for drinks. As there were no jiggers back then, he served the alcohol in egg cups whose name in French is coquetier. With the English mispronunciation it became a cocktay. You guess what word derived from that right? One day the French chemist had the idea to add a few drops of bitters to his cognac. The original Sazerac cocktail recipe was invented! The name of the French chemist? Antoine Peychaud. Yes, the man who invented the Peychaud bitters now in every bar around the world!
We stopped at three bars on the tour. First, we went to the Roost Bar, located in the restaurant Brennan’s, almost next door to Peychaud’s house. I don’t remember what I had on my first visit there but on the second I tried their Sazerac which was recommended by Joe. I’m not usually a fan of absinthe but I quite liked it!
We then went to Antoine’s, one of New Orleans’s oldest restaurant and one of the largest with, wait for it, 14 dining rooms hosting up to more than 700 guests! After entering through the main dining room, Joe led us through the Large Annex, the Rex Room where we saw pictures and memorabilia from the Kings’ of Mardi Gras, the Proteus Room with pictures of the former Queens of Mardi Gras, the 1840 Room with pictures of Antoine’s family that still operates the restaurant and the Dungeon. We then proceeded to the Hermes Bar. I shared a Sidecar and a Pimm’s Cup with two other participants after Joe’s suggestion. By the way, according to our guide, New Orleans sells more Pimm’s Cup than anywhere else in the United States. The drink was introduced over 100 years ago by a local family that had brought it from the United Kingdom and it’s been a raging success ever since.
Our final stop was the Pirate’s Alley Café where we enjoyed a glass of the green fairy, i.e absinthe. After a 100 year long worldwide ban of the spirit in the early 20th century, it is now legal to sell and purchase it in some (very few) states in the US. New Orleans is one of the only cities where it is now legal to sell absinthe.
I won’t go into more details about the cocktail tour. I feel I’ve already given to much information as it is. All I’ll say is, if you have the opportunity to visit New Orleans – with or without Tales of the Cocktail -, you should really consider taking the tour. It is informative, takes you to authentic venues, charged with history and amusing facts, and will give you ideas of where to eat or drink during your stay. If you can’t visit New Orleans but still want to learn more about the city’ cocktail history and get a few recipes to make at home, you can buy Joe’s book – New Orleans History With A Twist – Lemon or Lime – online!