Sipped, savored, and slugged, there are few things we Southerners like more than a fine cocktail—or a not-so-fine cocktail, for that matter. For centuries our bartenders have been slinging mixed drinks across counters marble and wood alike for public and private consumption. Recipes concocted to mask the twang of unpopular liquors, others to highlight the subtle notes of the good stuff, all hailing from Southern hands—these are some of our favorite Southern cocktails.
- HurricaneNew Orleans, Louisiana, 1940’sThe sugary hurricane is more often served in a plastic cup these days, but you’ll still find it in that classic glass at Pat O’Brien’s (photo by NolaSkip)
Pat O’Brien’s is one of New Orleans’ most iconic watering holes—and considering the city’s penchant for strong drinks and good times, that’s really saying something. The pub got its start as a Prohibition-era speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, and thirsty visitors wanting to gain entry only did so with the password storm’s brewin’.
The wee pub made it through the hard times of the Prohibition and emerged on the other side as Pat O’Brien’s, but even a new era of open consumption held its challenges. Like rum. The less than popular liquor was in surplus, while the good stuff—whiskey, bourbon, and scotch—were in high demand and, as a result, scarce. O’Brien knew in order to get his hands on more of the dark and peaty liquors he had to satisfy his distributors by selling through his rum, so he created a cocktail that made the rum particularly palatable.
Named for the near-uninhabitable hurricane season in NOLA and for the shape of the glass in which he served it (which resembled the curvaceous glass of a hurricane lamp), O’Brien’s cherry-red Hurricane became a quick favorite among sailors and locals alike. Today it’s a mainstay in the French Quarter, more likely served in a portable plastic cup than the figure eight glass of yesteryear.
- GrasshopperNew Orleans, 1919 Unsurprisingly, the grasshopper is thought to have been named for its signature, fluorescent color
Cocktail competitions may seem like a modern invention cooked up by the suspendered mixologists of today, or at the very least the Tom Cruise-inspired bartenders of the ’80’s, but their roots actually reach further back in the century. Given their extensive history, it should come as no surprise that it’s to these competitions that we owe some of our favorite classic cocktails, but what might come as a surprise is that one of these wasn’t a frontrunner, but was, in fact, second place.
In 1919, Philibert Guichet, co-owner of the French Quarter’s Tujague’s, sidled up to the competitive bar in New York to reveal his latest creation: the grasshopper. Equal parts creme de menthe, creme de cacao, and cream, the sweet treat wowed the judges, but not enough to take home the blue ribbon. Nevertheless, Guichet brought his fluorescent recipe home to New Orleans, where it gained a hearty following of sweet-toothed drinkers. The drink experienced a Southern boom during the ’50’s and ’60’s, when it seems anything unnaturally neon in color was deemed delicious by cooks across the South (pistachio pudding and jello come to mind), but it remains a popular dessert today.
- Ramos Gin FizzNew Orleans, late nineteenth centuryThe original Ramos Gin Fizz recipe called for 12 to 15 minutes of shaking (photo by Kevin O’Mara)
Like so many of our regional drink recipes, the Ramos Gin Fizz first called NOLA home. It was in those same steamy streets that another bar proprietor, Henry C. Ramos of Imperial Cabinet Saloon, first swilled his recipe of gin, lemon and lime juice, egg whites, sugar, cream, orange flower water, and soda. The trick? Extensive shaking—twelve to fifteen minutes of it, to be exact.
The Ramos Gin Fizz is a bit older than the other drinks hailing from the Crescent City and comes with the tall tales befitting such an aged recipe. One of these fables claims that during the 1915 celebration of Mardi Gras, Ramos hired thirty-five shaker boys to keep up with the clamoring of thirsty patrons. Another asserts that Ramos kept the recipe under wraps until the announcement of the Volstead Act, at which time he publicized it in rebellion and with the hopes that folks would keep on drinkin’.
- Old FashionedLouisville, early nineteenth centurySome historians claim the old fashioned gained its name from people’s penchant for ordering their cocktails “the old fashioned way” (photo by Sam Howzit)
Cocktails first showed up on the scene—any scene—around the turn of the nineteenth century. They were marked by the mixing of liquor, water, sugar, and bitters—essentially, a modern day old fashioned. In fact, some historians claim that the whole reason we even call it such is because people would order cocktails prepared “the old fashioned way,” and the name just stuck.
But the name and recipe we know and love today first gained traction and credence at a gentleman’s club in Louisville, the Pendennis Club, in the 1880’s. One James E. Pepper, a famous bartender and bourbon connoisseur, took credit for the signature recipe of sugar, bitters, and bourbon or rye in Louisville, then imported it to the New York society scene.
- Mint JulepVirginia, eighteenth century The oldest Southern cocktail is the mint julep, a refreshing blend of bourbon and mint used to awaken a Virginian’s senses at daybreak (photo by Cocktailmarler)
In an 1803 London clipping, a mint julep was defined as “a dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” Talk about hair of the dog.
In reality, the popularity of the animating beverage on Southern mornings makes sense. In our agricultural region, folks got up early—there were plantings and animals to tend to—but they needed something to clear the grogginess of those early mornings. Like coffee, a stiff and revitalizing drink of bourbon and mint would bring even the sleepiest farmer to his senses.
Or, more accurately, plantation owner. Even by its earliest definitions the julep was most definitely a drink of the elite. Served in a silver mug with scarce (and therefore expensive) ice, it was a costly gentleman’s beverage. That didn’t stop it from taking the world by storm, though it retains its decidedly Southern roots as the drink of choice at the Kentucky Derby.
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