It’s just past 7 a.m. in the French Quarter, a July morning turning steamy, and on the sidewalk ahead on Bourbon Street, there’s a man having some trouble walking.
He’ll go a few paces, then stop for a long moment to lean in a doorway. As I pass, I glance back for the full picture: mid-40s, bleary-eyed, T-shirt emblazoned with the silhouette of a poledancing stripper and the motto “I Support Single Moms.”
He calls after me: “Hey baby, have you . . . .” He seems unsure. “. . . seen Mikey?”
I shake my head. I have not seen Mikey. I plan to continue not seeing Mikey for the remainder of my trip.
But the whole week, almost every time I walk down Bourbon Street, there are Single Mom Supporters and Mikeys. There are genial drunks, exhausted drunks, drunks of all ages and races and genders and sizes, a veritable Drunk Menagerie. They peak near midnight, stumbling from one neon bar to the next, taking advantage of the permissiveness that has long made New Orleans’s French Quarter a destination for those looking to blow off steam: No laws dictate when bars must close, and it’s perfectly okay to carry your drink — in a non-breakable go-cup — into the streets to join the revels. Heading back to my hotel about 1 a.m. one night, I glance over at a strolling couple and am not even surprised to note, Huh. That young lady seems to have forgotten her pants.
And yet, “despite what people think, New Orleans is the home of civilized drinking,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference here. “People have a cocktail at lunch, a glass of wine every day, an after-dinner drink, but they function well. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. It’s about living in the moment and having that joie de vivre.”
“Locals do not flash themselves during Mardi Gras,” she adds. “That’s for tourists.”
It’s Tales of the Cocktail — which draws bartenders and spirits reps from around the world, plus a committed minority of cocktail enthusiasts, to study the art of the well-made drink — that’s brought me here, for what friends, never failing to make air quotes, call “research.”
For months I’ve seen D.C. bartenders give knowing looks when I’ve mentioned it. Their stories of long nights of drinking after long days of . . . drinking have led me to expect anything from bouts of spontaneous nakedness to armed insurrection. I’ve been excited, but a little worried. I’d be alone, female, drinking frequently, in a city that’s not the safest.
Help me to pace myself and not end up with alcohol poisoning, I’ve entreated an invisible deity. Make me an unappealing target for weirdos. I’ve inspected my clean-living acquaintances with an eye toward who might provide me with the best replacement liver. A few days before I left for New Orleans, when my mother asked, “Carrie, have you seen the movie ‘Taken’?”, I decided to keep calm, drink cocktails and let my family worry for me.
It’s a myth that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans. But the city is the birthplace of some of the earliest and most lasting drinks, and it has done plenty over the decades to preserve the art. The craft cocktail movement has made its mark here, but in truth “the cocktail tradition in New Orleans never died out,” says Abigail Gullo, bar chef at SoBou, who started coming down to Tales of the Cocktail from New York years ago and fell for the city’s sociability and sense of community. “The Pimm’s Cup, the bloody mary, the French 75, the classic daiquiri — they were still being made in New Orleans when the rest of the country kind of slipped into the dark ages of Zima and mixed drinks.”
Part of what the city has done for the cocktail it has done by not doing: It hasn’t followed passing trends. “New Orleans was always in its own bubble,” says Chris Hannah, bartender at the French 75 Bar in Arnaud’s Restaurant. When he moved down from Baltimore more than a decade ago, he found local bartenders making classic New Orleans cocktails he’d never heard of. “The city loves its own music, its own food, its own flavor.”
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 played a mixed role. “I want to be very clear. There is a tremendous amount of wrong that happened here, because of Katrina, that has not been righted,” says Elizabeth Pearce, a co-author of “The French Quarter Drinking Companion” and drinks curator at the newly reopened Southern Food and Beverage Museum. “But in the bar and restaurant scene, there has been this explosion of growth. . . . There are more restaurants open in New Orleans now than there were before Katrina, even though there are fewer people.”
You’d never know that New Orleans is still hurting for population when you walk down Bourbon Street — which you must do. It’s part of the city’s great mythology. Get the obligatory Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s. Stop for a Shark Attack at the Tropical Isle, where bartenders shrill safety whistles and squirt grenadine into your drink via a plastic shark, mimicking blood in the water. True to their names, these drinks will do some damage. (Just ask Single Mom Supporter.)
And yet, if you don’t get away from the Bourbon Street madness, you’re liable to miss much of what makes New Orleans these days one of the finest cities in America to drink in. The “go-cups” and the lack of a mandated closing hour, which many a tourist takes as an excuse to go insane, are seen differently by locals.
“We have no last call here. There’s no rush,” Gullo says. “The fact that you can take your drink to go in a cup and stroll along gently to your next destination sipping on that cocktail and enjoying it to the last drop is, to me, far more civilized.”
It’s the flow, Hannah says. “If I’m in one bar and my friend says they’re at another one, I just get my drink, put it in a cup and pay up and walk to the next bar to meet them. It’s a free-flowing type of fun and conviviality,” he says. “And it’s nice to make Sazeracs in a city that still kind of looks the same as when the drink was invented.”
You should drink a classic Sazerac here. Once made with French cognac, the drink is now made with a base of rye whiskey but preserves the history of the city’s early inhabitants with its rinse of absinthe (or Herbsaint, once made here) and the famous bitters developed here by Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud. It’s a sip of history, and — thanks to Tuennerman’s lobbying years back — the city’s official cocktail. But plenty of bars are pushing the envelope with new drinks.
One evening I visit Cure, a beautiful bar in the Uptown area with a menu of sophisticated, creative cocktails made with herbs, floral extracts, complex bitters. I end up going old-school, splurging on a $17 Last Word made with oak-aged Chartreuse. It’s so good it makes me lonely; it’s too good to keep to myself. The genever-and-sherry cocktail I try at Bellocq — dimly lit and lurid, named for a photographer famous for mysterious pictures of New Orleans prostitutes — is another standout, rich and dry and balanced.
If a good drink is your only aim, though, you don’t need to leave the Quarter. Within steps of the frozen slushee cocktails swishing away in the Bourbon Street machines, there’s always a place where you can order a well-made classic or a beautiful, creative new quaff. At Kingfish, I bury my face in the plume of mint topping a beautiful julep and watch the sky crack open and the gutters turn into rivers outside the window. Lunching within the yellowed walls of Napoleon House, I watch the bartender pour two Pimm’s Cups at a time, moving precisely through steps that result in the best version of the drink I’ve had. At SoBou, I sip a Georgia O’Keeffe, a tart pink beauty made of hibiscus and honeysuckle vodka. A single tiny sage leaf spins slowly on the surface, like a boat drifting downstream.
From its beginnings as a French colony, the city has had a reputation for appreciating a good drink.
“I’m taking a graduate seminar on New Orleans history,” Pearce says, “and every book that we’re reading, starting from the founding of the colonies, includes people drinking.” She brings people to that history through her company, Drink and Learn, leading them — cocktails in hand — past drinking landmarks: the river that brought trade, the site of Peychaud’s pharmacy.
There’s no shortage of stories. When France turned the colony of Louisiana over to the Spanish to settle a debt in the 1700s, Spain proclaimed that there would be no further trade with France. “And there was a riot in Jackson Square,” Pearce says. “When you say you can’t trade with France, that means everything. That means silks, that means furniture, metalwork, everything.” But in the riot, she says, people weren’t hollering about that. They were yelling for their good Bordeaux wine.
People who move to New Orleans are always surprised by the constancy of drinking here, Pearce says. “You know, it’s a 6-year-old’s birthday party, and it has all this beer and giant gallons of daiquiris. And at the christening and of course, the funeral. . . . You can’t really understand New Orleans without understanding how we drink and our tolerance for the inclusion of drinking in everything — and our puzzlement at the fact that you can’t, in other places. And by other places I mean Baton Rouge.” (In fact, Pearce says, Baton Rouge loosened its blue laws after Katrina, when the state capital took in many a displaced New Orleanian who didn’t feel at home in a place with laws dictating you couldn’t buy alcohol on Sunday.)
A few days into the conference, I spot Dan Searing, a co-owner of Room 11 in the District, and am overjoyed to see a familiar face. When we start chatting, he uses a term I haven’t heard: FOMO, or, he explains, “fear of missing out.”
What an affliction. It captures my worries these past 24 hours: That I may not hit the right seminars, that I may miss an important drink, that in some little dive bar blocks away, acquaintances who would be friends and strangers who might be soul mates are having life-altering conversations without me. FOMO captures our tweeting, status-updating culture, where — no matter how content we may be — someone else is doing something more fun, more relevant, more important.
Yet New Orleans, I think, is anti-FOMO. There seem to be far fewer people here on their smartphones at dinner, at drinks, projecting themselves electronically into someplace else. The city seems determined to root you where you are. Here are gulls screeching as they swoop and dive over the Cafe Du Monde, people with bags of nuclear-hot beignets already darkening with oil. Here is the Mississippi River in the dark and the lights across the bridge toward Gretna and Algiers. Here is a po’ boy and a drink and another drink and a stranger to toast with, and who knows what tomorrow will bring?
After a long, lovely cocktail-paired dinner at Broussard’s, I go back to the bar to say goodnight and thank you to Paul Gustings, whose cocktails over the course of the evening have left me happy and sleepy. Originally from the Netherlands, Gustings came to New Orleans more than 30 years ago and is a bit of a legend on the bar scene, both for the quality of his drinks and for a quality that’s often described as “crustiness.” I like him immediately. He smirks without smirking. He twinkles by not twinkling.
We talk for a while before I gather my things to head back to my hotel, when Gustings asks what I’m doing next. “I’m going to sleep,” I say.
He makes a contemptuous snort. “It’s only 11,” he points out. “You should come out if you feel like it. We’re going to this jazz club on Bourbon.”
Back in my hotel room, I waver. I’m exhausted from the day, and I have to get up early. But I spend so much of my life being future-focused and responsible. And this is New Orleans. So I drop everything, tuck $20 and my ID in my bra and head back out onto Bourbon Street to find the tiny hole-in-the-wall Fritzel’s European Jazz Club. In a packed room, a monumentally tight band surrounded by walls bedecked with decades of posters and Jagermeister ads is tearing through one hot jazz standard after another.
For a few hours, listening to that band, chatting with Gustings about cocktails and history and his life in the city, I feel like I’ve finally tapped into some quintessential New Orleans magic. At some point, I notice that I’ve even managed to acquire some Mardi Gras beads, though I can’t remember where they came from. All I know is that I’m in the Quarter, surrounded by happy, mildly buzzed people laughing, cheering on the band, tapping their feet and shaking their behinds. My head is full of joyful sound and spectacular cocktails.
I am utterly FOMO-free.
Allan, a Takoma Park writer and editor, is the Spirits columnist for The Washington Post’s Food Section.
More from Travel:
US Airways/American offers nonstop flights from Reagan National to New Orleans. United offers nonstop flights from Washington Dulles, and Southwest offers nonstops from National and BWI Marshall.
214 Royal St.
French-themed hotel with an iconic NOLA tippling spot, the Carousel Bar. Rooms from $189.
Hotel Villa Convento
616 Ursuline Ave.
Charmingly rustic guest house in the French Quarter. Rooms from $89.
French 75 Bar in Arnaud’s
815 Bienville St.
Order a French 75 from Chris Hannah, then ask him what you should try next. Cocktails $7.25 to $13.75.
310 Chartres St.
Have one of Abigail Gullo’s fresh seasonal drinks ($10-$15) while enjoying small plates of Louisiana-style cooking ($6-$12).
500 Chartres St.
A New Orleans classic in a building from the late 1700s, with a great muffaletta ($14.50) and an excellent Pimm’s Cup ($7).
819 Conti St.
Enjoy Paul Gustings’s masterful drinks at the Empire Bar ($8-$10), then blow your calorie allowance on a French dinner in the elegant restaurant. Entrees from $28.
337 Chartres St.
Have a mint julep ($15) at this Huey Long-themed cocktail bar run by Chris McMillian, one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail (now part of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum).
Fritzel’s European Jazz Club
733 Bourbon St.
Stick to beer ($6-$8) and Jaegermeister shots and enjoy the fantastic band.
4905 Freret St.
Sophisticated cocktail bar serves classic cocktails for $6, and more creative drinks like the Madame Devalier (a riff on a Negroni with rose petal and gentiane, $9).
Drink and Learn
Learn about New Orleans’s drinking history. Tours $50, including four drinks.