As the middle of summer nears and oppressive heat beats down upon us, New Orleanians are forced inside, rescued by modern inventions like air conditioning and craft cocktails. Cold drink and cool barrooms keep our sanity at bay, and for those visitors that dare to join us, expect to find plenty of tales of summer debauchery.
Thirteen years ago, Ann Tuennerman found a way to capitalize on those long summer days of drink. What began as a non-profit cocktail tour has grown into Tales of the Cocktail, a summer destination for mixologists, cocktail enthusiasts and dedicated imbibers from around the globe with an economic impact of over $15 million.
In honor of this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, I took on the difficult task of researching the best summer drinks New Orleans has to offer. With the help of my enthusiastic drinking buddy, Aaron Nachlas, we spent two long evenings at 15 different bars, tasting a myriad of cocktails ranging from classics like the Pimm’s Cup and the Mint Julep to some of the most original inspirations from NOLA’s best bartenders.
Best known for its Kentucky roots and made popular at the Kentucky Derby, this cocktail is a classic, made with simple ingredients and perfectly refreshing on a hot summer day. For a little slice of heaven, look no further than Kingfish, where old-timer Chris McMillan can be found pounding ice, muddling mint and espousing cocktail history lessons. We actually stopped in on a night he was off and the bartender suggested we come back when Chris was on duty to get the full effect.
Ingredients: Makers Mark, Mint, Powdered Sugar • Price: $15 • Bartender: Chris • Rating: 9
Despite the name, this cocktail was actually created in the U.S. in 1941 by John G. Martin, a vodka distiller, and Jack Morgan, who produced ginger beer. When the tour began, this drink was completely foreign to me. Aaron introduced me to the virtues of ginger beer, and I was simply blown away by the perfect balance of lime and spice. Ann Tuennerman recommended her favorite summer cocktail, the Sherry Cobbler at Bellocq, but it was outdone by the housemade ginger syrup in their Moscow Mule. Quite possibly the best drink in the city, and not to be missed.
Ingredients: Sobieski Vodka, Ginger Syrup, Lime, Soda Water • Price: $9.95 • Bartender: Pat • Rating: 10
In keeping with the ginger beer theme, we tried an exceptionally inventive cocktail on a menu full of intriguing options at Tiki Tolteca. Located above the popular Mexican chain, Felipe’s, in the French Quarter, this drink took some time to make, but the bartender was exceptionally engaging while serving a crowded bar. The result was a creamy, peachy, frothy concoction garnished with mint and served in a traditional tiki mug, and it was delicious. Don’t forget to ask for the jambu flower garnish. It’s quite a shocker. Oh, and if you’re looking for a serious crowd pleaser, we saw several groups partaking in the flaming Escorpian Punch, which looked delicious, but at $32 was a little steep for the Culturated budget!
Ingredients: Passion Fruit, Ginger Beer, Pisco, Aged Blended Eggs, Mint Garnish • Price: $13 • Bartender: Nathan • Rating: 9
When asked to make a refreshing cocktail, a good bartender doesn’t need to be asked twice. At Sobou, Trey knew just what to serve. He concocted an off-menu drink using the popular St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, which ended up tasting like a cold glass of sparkling wine finished with a hint of flower and spices. And the cracklin’ snack at the bar for $1 ain’t too shabby, either.
Ingredients: Seagram’s Gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Bitters, Citrus, garnished with Cucumber and Rosemary • Price: $12 • Bartender: Trey • Rating: 9
B & B
Top Chef runner-up Nina Compton finished her run on the show and moved to the city she fell in love with. With the opening of her first restaurant, Compere Lapin, she commandeered some of the best bartenders in the city. The ever-engaging Abigail Gullo, who came over from SoBou, made us two excellent drinks. Though the Road to Fallbrook, with its frothy avocado, may have been the most memorable, it was the B&B that made us bow our heads in awe. The perfect summer beverage has to include beer, right? This one did, and it pulled it together perfectly with a splash of St. Germain.
Ingredients: IPA, Lemon, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Aromatized Wine • Price: $10 • Bartender: Abigail • Rating: 9.5
Frozen Irish Coffee
Before our tour of NOLA’s finest cocktails, there was one drink I knew had to be on this list. It’s the one I seek out anytime I’m in the Quarter in the summer. Molly’s at the Market did not disappoint. Bartender Jesse even served ours in a frozen glass, making it the perfect respite from the heat and humidity. She also knew the ingredients inside the frozen machine, and was super enthusiastic about the fact that they use Kleinpeter milk, a Louisiana farm that doesn’t treat their cows with growth hormone.
Ingredients: Brandy, Coffee Liqueur, Coffee, Kleinpeter Milk, Vanilla Ice Cream, garnished with Coffee Flakes • Price: Sm $5, Lg. $6.50 • Bartender: Jesse • Rating: 9.5
Tourists and locals alike flock to The Rum House, an Uptown hotspot known for creative Caribbean tacos and rum-centric cocktails. Aaron insisted we try the Brazilian favorite, the Caiprihina, which was unique in its use of Agave Nectar as opposed to sugar, and quite delicious. But the Painkiller took the cake with its perfect blend of citrus, coconut and rum. Similar to the Pina Colada, but more balanced and nuanced, the Painkiller reminded me of lazy days on the beaches of Jamaica.
Ingredients: Cruzan Coconut Rum, Prusser’s Rum, Cream of Coconut, Pineapple Juice, Nutmeg, Orange garnish • Price: $10 • Bartender: Mike • Rating: 8.5
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry spent a lifetime researching and writing about cocktails before settling in New Orleans and putting his wallet where his pen was. The former Iris location was renovated into Latitude 29, a tiki-inspired restaurant/bar with a long list of classic tiki and tropical creations. While we tried the namesake drink, it was the Missionary’s Downfall that wowed us with its succulent blend of tropical fruit and rum. It proved, as it promises on the menu, “as refreshing today as it was in 1948.”
Ingredients: El Derado White Rum, Peach Brandy, Mint, Pineapple, Honey, Lime • Price: $12 • Bartender: Sam • Rating: 9
Pimm’s liqueur was founded in England way back in 1823. The original, and most popular variation of the fruit cup, is the Pimm’s #1 made with gin and 25% alcohol by volume. Subsequent versions using whiskey, vodka, brandy, rye and rum have been in and out of the marketplace, but it is the gin-based one that can be found on most menus around town, including two of the best cups the city has to offer. The popular Carousel Bar is well-known for its version, combining the Pimms with lemon juice, simple syrup and a splash of Sprite and soaking it with fresh strawberries and cucumber.
Price: $12 • Bartender: Jacques • Rating: 9
A lengthy visit with our seriously inspiring bartender at Broussards turned up an even better version of the summertime staple. Foregoing the crush of fresh fruit, Paul concocted the drink with Pimm’s and some “secret ingredients,” and the result was simply sublime.
Price: $11 • Bartender: Paul • Rating: 10
We couldn’t do this tour without discovering a decent colada, and the one at Cane & Table did not disappoint. Neither did the ribs, I must say. What made the Boss Colada boss, you might ask? Well, the rum, pineapple and lime was finished with Baska Snaps, a wormwood liqueur. This colada is served over crushed ice, so don’t be expecting a blender, but it was quite delicious. The other drink we tasted is also worth mentioning. The Smoak & Plank combines Mezcal Vago Espadin, sour mix, Caribbean spices and cherry bounce for an evenly smoky and tart cocktail. The mezcal didn’t overpower the drink, which made for a pleasant finish.
Ingredients: Rum, Pineapple, Lime, Baska Snaps • Price: $12 • Bartender: David • Rating: 8.5
This was actually first stop on our first day because I distinctly remembered how delicious it was, on the few occasions that I stopped into the Uptown joint known as St. Joe’s, located across from the Whole Foods on Magazine Street. While it didn’t quite disappoint, it also didn’t live up to its reputation. While I’m quite aware of the perils of using fresh ingredients, what made this drink amazing were the fresh blueberries. Not anymore. The bartender told us they decided to switch over to frozen blueberries a few years ago because of the inconsistencies, but I would recommend they switch back when blueberries are in season. Also, the bartender didn’t muddle the mint so the drink wasn’t as balanced as it should have been.
Ingredients: Castillo Rum, Lime Juice, Club Soda, Mint, Blueberries, Simple Syrup • Bartender: Paul • Rating: 6.5
Ramos Gin Fizz
This drink was invented in the early 19th century and made famous at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, where they employed extra bartenders just to make it. We spent two days trying to get a proper version of the Ramos Gin Fizz. At the Jeremy Davenport Lounge, they lacked the proper ingredients. At Bar Tonique, the bartender lacked the proper skills and was too busy fratenizing with friends.
Have no fear: back over at Broussard’s, Paul Gustings was showing us why bartenders hate making this drink. Done properly, said bartender must find an egg to crack and a place to dispose of the yoke. Then they need to add half & half, shake vigorously, before adding the additional ingredients and shaking again and pouring over ice cubes. At Broussard’s, those other ingredients included gin, orange flower water, orange liqueur, powdered sugar and soda water. It’s not the fastest drink to make, but it sure was worth the wait.
Ingredients: Gin, Orange Flower Water, Orange Liqueur, Powdered Sugar, Soda Water • Price: $12 • Bartender: Paul • Rating: 9.5
The margarita, whether blended or on the rocks, is one of the most popular summertime cocktails. At the popular local Mexican chain, El Gato Negro, they’re well known for their pineapple-cilantro version. We visited the French Market location, where affable server Johnny Contreras upsold us on Tocamba Azul tequila, a top shelf tequila produced by his father, Jose Contreras. The smooth silver tequila blended well with the fresh chunks of pineapple and cilantro. If I had one complaint, it would be that it blends almost too well, completely hiding the flavor of any tequila and making the drink seem weak. Johnny also recommended the fresh watermelon margaritas when in season, which are popular here and at Nacho Mama’s in Elmwood.
Ingredients: Tocamba Azul Tequila, Lime Juice, Lemon Juice, Pineapple Juice, Pineapple, Cilantro, Triple Sec • Price: House $8.75, Top Shelf $11.75 • Bartender: Johnny • Rating: 8
This is a twist on the classic French 75, which was actually invented in the 1920s as a derivative of the Tom Collins. Muriel’s on Jackson Square is well known for its use of St. Germaine, and they include it here to add a little extra depth to the classic version. While it works well, it really is a very simple drink, and despite the variation, it didn’t taste much different than any other French 75. We perused the menu and saw many cocktails that looked refreshing, but the bartender thought the Saint 75 was most appropriate for our little bar crawl.
Ingredients: Hendricks Gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Lemon Juice, Sparkling Wine • Price: $11 • Bartender: Yvette • Rating: 7.5
We couldn’t leave this one off the list. Invented at Pat O’Brien’s in the 1940s so Pat could find a way to get rid of all his extra cheap rum, this may be the most popular drink in all of New Orleans. The Pat O’s version uses powdered mix, overproof rum and uninspiring fruit juice which can give you a serious buzz, as well as an ass-whooping hangover. We left it up to perhaps the best bartender in the city, Chris Hannah at French 75, to make us a proper version of the cocktail and the perfect end our two-day drinking binge. All three drinks he made for us were delicious: The Ellipses & Dash, The Bastille Cup and the aforementioned Hurricane, providing us with the history behind each of the drinks while we sipped. If you’re gonna seek out this particular drink, I suggest foregoing the Pat O’Brien’s version and finding out why this drink was so popular to begin with. But don’t be surprised when Chris serves it in a Pat O’s glass. That’s just his nod to the creator of this original New Orleans classic.
Ingredients: Dememura Aged Rum, Puerto Rican Light Rum, Lime, Pomegranate, Passion Fruit and Orange, Blackberry and mint garnish • Bartender: Chris • Rating: 9
–by Shane Finkelstein; all photos by Aaron Nachlas
If you enjoyed our story on the Best New Orleans Cocktails for Summer, you might also like: