While cooler, autumnal weather may be more wishful thinking than reality here in New Orleans, there's no reason that cocktail menus can't help us along with our visions of sweaters, hot toddies and nights curled up by a roaring fire. Across the city, bartenders are turning over a new leaf and drawing from antiquated, historic flavors — with playful twists — to create a fresh stable of sippable creations sure to warm even the chilliest imbiber from the inside out.
White Spruce Beer. — To ten gallons of water, put six pounds of sugar, four ounces of essence of spruce, add yeast, work as in making ginger beer, and bottle immediately in half pints. (The American Dispensatory, John Redman Coxe, 1825)
Primarily associated with pungent car air fresheners and "O Christmas Tree!" for generations, spruce is making a woodsy-scented comeback as the basis for a number of drinks that taste like the great outdoors.
"Spruce was definitely something I wanted to explore a little bit more just because it was so common in colonial America," says Nick Detrich of Cane & Table. "Spruce beer was something that was brewed a lot, and that's where we get our spruce extract now is a homebrew kit."
Spruce was one of a number of hops alternatives used by brewmasters in colonial America, but its roots as a flavoring agent for spicy ales dates back to the age of the Vikings, who would drink it by the barrel to help prevent scurvy. Spruce beer trickled down through the generations to become widely embraced by colonial sailors (like Capt. James Cook) and our founding fathers (most notably, Benjamin Franklin), who created both "white" and "brown" versions of the drink from white sugar and molasses, respectively.
"The spruce bitters that we use begin with dark rum as the base, then add spruce extract as well as molasses," Detrich says. "They're like cocktail bitters — intentionally bitter — but they're a little sweeter, a little viscous. The drink we use them in is like a Sazerac build. It's aged Puerto Rican rum, Dutch-style gin, sugar and then a good three lashings of the spruce bitters. We season the glass with Herbsaint and have a lemon twist."
Detrich is exploring other forest-themed flavors, with mixed results. "I'm trying to suspend cedar in alcohol so it maintains its aromatics. I haven't had much luck yet, but it has a nice woodsy and floral quality."
"Egg Cream: The yolks of three eggs, and a dessert spoonful of good new milk or cream, add two drops of oil of cinnamon. This is a very good nourishing mixture. The oil of cinnamon is cordial and tonic, and the above has been recommended in lung complaints..." (Domestic and rural affairs.: The family, farm and gardens, and the domestic animals, 1859)
While boozy snoballs and ice cream preparations popped up across New Orleans over the summer, it's not surprising that bartenders are looking for ways to bring alcohol-fueled sweet treats into the colder weather months.
"We're doing a take on a New York egg cream that's really fun and has so many surprising ingredients in it," says Kimberly Patton-Bragg of Three Muses. "It's using blackberry and dark chocolate liqueurs, a little bit of cream, a chipotle liqueur and soda. So, just like an egg cream, only boozy."
Sweet, thick digestifs — best known for their role as tummy-settling after-dinner drinks — are being revived as cocktail ingredients behind the bar at French Quarter steakhouse Doris Metropolitan. "We're working on a version of the drink known as the 'Paper Airplane' using an Italian apertif called Casoni 1814 with amaro, bourbon and a little lemon juice," says bar manager Konrad Kantor.
Holiday-themed candy is settling in at the forefront of cocktail creations as well. "I'm doing a cachaca old fashioned and garnishing it with candy corn," laughed Kantor.
The humble raisin — nature's candy — is returned from its place of exile in cookies and fruitcake to take up a post in the boozy realm. "We do a house spiced rum at Cane & Table, which is based on how sailors in the 17th and 18th century would spice their rum and it's pretty wintery," says Detrich. "We even add in raisins — golden raisins."
"...Sorel, has been used in folk medicine as a diuretic, treatment for cardiac disease, nerve diseases and cancer." (Fruits of Warm Climates, Julia F. Morton, 1987)
A Caribbean specialty dating back to the 1600s, sorel liqueur — or simply sorel drink — is a ruby-colored beverage combining aromatic, hibiscus-like flavors of sorel (a West Indian hibiscus variant) with an array of spices more closely associated with Christmas cookies than traditional beachside sippers. Sorel is known as the "Christmas drink" in Jamaica, where it is crafted in family kitchens by mulling cinnamon, ginger, clove and allspice berries with rum and dried hibiscus flowers, which have a tangy, floral taste that prove to be a fresh, bright contrast against the warm notes of the spice blend. The garnet-colored hue of the drink doesn't hurt its festive reputation, either.
"We have a whiskey sour variation we're adding to the menu with sorel liqueur," says Cole Newton of Twelve Mile Limit. "It's a fruity liqueur but it has a lot of baking spice notes."
Sorel liqueur was relegated to one-off holiday concoctions and recipes passed down between generations until recently, when a small batch distiller began making it for the masses in Brooklyn.
"I think [sorel liqueur] is becoming popular now because it really has that baking spice sort of flavor, and if there's a new tool to play with that's good, bartenders are going to be all over it," says Kimberly Patton-Bragg of Three Muses.
James Bond: Pity about your liver, sir. Unusually fine Solera. '51, I believe.
M: There is no year for sherry, 007.
James Bond: I was referring to the original vintage on which the sherry is based, sir. 1851, unmistakable. (Diamonds are Forever, 1971)
Long written off as a fusty, treacly after-dinner drink more appropriate for little old ladies than modern cocktail creations, the sweet dessert wine is beginning to make a strong comeback as both a cool weather sipper and mixer. Loa bartender Alan Walter is helping usher in a new age for sherry in New Orleans.
"Sherry is one of those drinks that has had its peaks here and there, but there's not enough of it in New Orleans right now. It has a real natural affinity for cocktails because of the way it's made — it's handmade and earthy and bring so much to the table for flavors. It combines savory and sweet, and people want to enjoy that taste spectrum a lot more," says Walter. Loa is planning to offer a sherry menu and serve the drink with cornucopias made out of bread, adds Walter: "Inside the cornucopias there's going to be dried fruit to nibble on and nuts and the kind of flavors that you get with sherry in the right situation."
"Began selling cyder." (George Washington's journal, August 3, 1763)
It would be fair to say that America was built on hard apple cider and applejack, which fueled the daily lives of colonial leaders from dawn 'til dusk for generations. After waning in popularity for most of the 20th Century, hard cider is making a triumphant return to the mainstream, with bartenders finding thoughtful, complex flavor profiles for this historic grog.
"I grew up in Upstate New York, so I really love picking apples and going to orchards," says Abigail Gullo of SoBou. "One day, as a joke, I picked enough apples that I ended up filling a friend's entire car with them."
Gullo combines apples with the kind of robust, hearty aromatics that conjure memories. "I really like to use star anise for garnish in my 'apple pickin' punch.' Star anise really makes me think of the fall and winter," Gullo says. "My grandmother would cook a lot with star anise so there are so many good memories of that. Plus, they're really fragrant and pretty."