THE YEAR IS 1935: Prohibition is out, and the Great Depression is in full swing, but in some parts of New Orleans’ French Quarter, the grand style remains untarnished. On Iberville Street, just around the corner from the Hotel Monteleone, stands the Restaurant de la Louisiane, its iron filigree balconies stark against whitewashed walls and green shutters. A huge Baccarat chandelier sprays rainbows across the foyer, and the main dining room is “a symphony of crystal, silver, and white,” as one local writer describes it.
La Louisiane, a hotel and restaurant since the 1880s, has given itself over completely to Lucullan interests, with a huge main dining room, ballrooms, a bar, and private dining rooms. It is a destination eatery, and it draws a clientele that is willing to pay for world-class Creole and French cooking “in the grand manner.” The guest register, “The Golden Book,” includes the signatures of Sarah Bernhardt, Theodore Roosevelt, Admiral Byrd, William Randolph Hearst, Rube Goldberg, and other celebrities who sought out La Louisiane for its menu of oysters, crab, crayfish bisque, pompano, bouillabaisse, and of course, Creole Gumbo.
And there was one more thing: the elegant house aperitif, the Cocktail à la Louisiane.
We don’t really know who poured the first Cocktail à la Louisiane, or when. I’d like to think it was during Prohibition, but that’s just the romantic in me. The earliest published formula comes from historian Stanley Arthur’s Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, compiled in 1937.
The way Arthur records it, the original formula was very small and very cold, and included equal portions of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Bénédictine, with dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe.
That formula makes a pretty good drink; it’s very sweet, but not out of line with other drinks of the time. La Louisiane cocktail would probably have been an excellent pairing for the restaurant’s spicy creole dishes.
Inexplicably, the Cocktail à la Louisiane never became a standard item in bar manuals; it all but disappeared after Arthur’s publication until early in this century, when renewed interest in cocktail history pulled it back out of the shadows.
Modern drinkers, though, are less accepting of sweetness than those of the Prohibition era, and are more welcoming of drier, spirits-forward formulas; the contemporary La Louisiane rarely appears as an equal-parts drink in modern bar manuals and recipe listings. Instead, modern formulas usually double, or even triple La Louisiane’s portion of rye whiskey, compared to the other main ingredients.
Modern listings call the drink by various names, ranging from the original, cumbersome “Cocktail à la Louisiane,” to “à la Louisiane” or “de la Louisiane;” most refer to the drink simply as “La Louisiane.” By whichever name, the result is a cocktail that has flavour similarities to the Sazerac or the Vieux Carrè—an anise and wormwood nose from the absinthe, a strong, woody, vaguely spicy backbone from the rye whiskey, herbal richness from the vermouth, a round sweetness from the Bénédictine, and a spicy brightness from the Peychaud’s bitters.
One of the intriguing things about La Louisiane is how significantly each of the ingredients can affect the overall impression of the drink. As for the whiskey, some say you need a good, high-proof rye like Rittenhouse to stand up to the assertive flavors of the Bénédictine. As it turns out, high-proof ryes tend to be a bit edgy in this formula, too long on the rye spiciness. A lower-proof whiskey seems to blend much more subtly with the vermouth and Bénédictine. A very balanced choice is Lot 40 Canadian Rye, which has a clean, complex rye flavor and a creaminess that may be part of the explanation for why it combines so well.
As for the sweet vermouth, the widely available Martini & Rossi Rosso is an excellent choice, especially if you’re a fan of what might be called earthy herbality. The slightly sweeter, more fruity Cocchi Vermouth di Torino blends well with the Bénédictine and helps to tie the flavors together. And if you prefer a slightly bitter profile, with perhaps a bit of coffee and dark fruit, Carpano’s Punt e Mes is a good choice.
– Words and photography by Douglas M. Ford