Leave the maddening crowds of Bourbon Street behind and step into the plush confines of the Roosevelt Hotel, where you’ll find, steps from the grand lobby, the perfect place to escape the humidity of New Orleans; the elegant Sazerac Bar.
A beautiful, soothing oasis panelled with dark African wood, filled with cool air, and graced with a wrap around Art Deco mural depicting gentlemen and flappers from the 1920s, the Sazerac Bar is as distinguished as the gleaming, two foot high silver Ascot Cup that sits behind the bar, won in 1878 by the Count DeLagrange’s horse Verveful.
The bar is named for what some call the ‘official drink of New Orleans’, and what others call the first cocktail created in America, the Sazerac!
The Roosevelt Hotel can be found the other side of Canal Street from the French Quarter, amongst the grand oyster bars, Art Deco skyscrapers and banks of Downtown New Orleans. This is the refined part of New Orleans where you’ll find the St. Charles trolley car to take you uptown to the Garden District, where Meyer’s Hats has been selling straw boaters and felt fedoras since 1894, and where the great and good have stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel since 1893.
Originally called the Hotel Grunewald, the New Orleans institution was renamed in 1923 in honour of President Theodore Roosevelt. The grandest hotel in New Orleans, perhaps only rivalled by the historic Monteleone in the French Quarter, the Roosevelt is graced by a lobby decorated with gilt and Italian marble that stretches for an entire city block. Before being destroyed by Katrina, pleasure seekers would descend too ‘The Cave,’ a subterranean nightclub, complete with waterfalls, stalactites and dancing girls dressed as water nymphs.
But they would also head to the Sazerac Bar, located half way down from the front desk, where they would find a sumptuous, quiet bar, decorated with chandeliers, wall length murals painted by Paul Ninas, and back lit glass shelves filled with the essential ingredients for the cocktail the bar is named for.
Today the cocktail is made with Sazerac rye whiskey, made still in Louisiana. But it was originally made with cognac from the Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils company in France, and created as a pharmaceutical cure-all by French Quarter druggist Antoine Amedee Peychaud.
Peychaud was running an apothecary at 90, Royal Street in the Vieux Carré when he concocted an aromatic bitter, that he mixed with the cognac, water and sugar, and dispensed as a draught. Legend has it that Peychaud served his Sazerac’s in a large egg cup, called a Coqutier in French, from which the word cocktail is derived. Although some mixologist historians suggest that cocktails were being mixed in New York a few years before, the egg cup story is charming enough that its become lore.
The mixture proved so delicious that it swiftly became the rage throughout New Orleans high society. Popular spots like the Merchant’s Exchange Coffee House also on Royal Street, were soon employing twelve bartenders behind its one hundred and twenty-five feet bar, all mixing Sazeracs.
The cocktail would undergo two main alterations; a late 19th century epidemic of Philloxera all but wiped out the French vineyards, making cognac all too scarce in America. Rye whiskey was swiftly used instead, and a rinse of absinthe became part of the process, and the Sazerac has remained unchanged ever since.
Famed Louisiana Governor Huey Long, the original Kingfish, lived on the twelve floor of the hotel; he was so enamoured by the bar, that would he conducted many of his meetings there. There’s a bullet hole in the wall that local legend has it was made by one of Long’s over eager body guards.
Long’s favoured drink was the Ramos Gin Fizz, another institution of the Sazerac Bar. On a business trip to New York, Long was staying at the New Yorker hotel on 8th Avenue, the supposed home of the Ramos Gin Fizz. Upon tasting their cocktail, Long immediately called the Sazerac Bar back home with orders to “send his best gin fizzer to New York by plane so he could teach these New York sophisticates how and what to drink.”
The Sazerac Coffee House has long gong, but the cocktail made its new spiritual home at the Roosevelt Hotel. Step inside today and you’ll find yourself transported to the heyday of 1920s New Orleans high society, immediately removed from the hue and cry of Bourbon’s streets hollering, Hurricane wielding crowds.
For more information on the history of the Sazerac, read Ben Leggett’s excellent piece over at the Distillery Trail.
The Roosevelt Hotel can be found at 130, Roosevelt Way, New Orleans, LA, 70112.