All spirits start out light and clear and only turn dark, rich and intriguing through their aging processes. The term “dark spirits” might conjure thoughts of the voodoo queens and horror writers that haunt New Orleans history, but we’re talking about the other kind of spirits: liquor.
While all liquors do start out light, dark liquors reflect golden, amber or smoky brown hues because they are aged in wooden barrels. This process also gives them much deeper flavors, and is responsible for a lot of lore that surrounds the darker spirits. Because the fermentation process of dark liquor produces congeners (substances other than the desired type of alcohol produced during fermentation), darks are more flavorful than their light counterparts.
Generally speaking, dark liquors include brandy, dark rum and whiskey. In New Orleans, brandy was popular among its first settlers, the French, who were fond of cognac, a type of brandy. In fact, the official cocktail of the city, the Sazerac, was originally made with cognac. Rum became popular in the Big Easy thanks to merchant ships from the Caribbean that came to the port of New Orleans — and because the sugar cane that grows like wildfire in this region made the rum recipe easy to replicate. Whiskey was also an import, and in due time would come to be a necessary American surrogate for cognac.
Whisky would become an American surrogate for cognac
The mechanism responsible for the creation of hard liquor was imported early on to satisfy locals’ desire to produce liquor. The first New England settlers, when wanting of their own liquors, had to rely on stills from their native Europe. These devices, which were merely copper pots with metal pipes that coiled down to receptacles that would catch the condensed goodness, are still in use today.
Celebration Distillery is housed in a 150-year-old former cotton warehouse in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Its founders — a coalition of artists, brewmasters and engineers assembled by renowned New Orleans sculptor and painter James Michalopoulos — engineered their own stills to produce Old New Orleans Rum. The small-batch dark spirits produced by the artfully crafted stills include amber and Cajun spice rums. Sugarcane used in rum production is locally sourced from nearby Lafourche Sugars, and the rum is aged in charred oak barrels. Distillery tours offer an excellent way to spend a day. Old New Orleans Rum is available in various establishments around the city.
The Sazerac was popularized as an alternative to typical cocktails of alcohol, sugar, water and bitters because it added absinthe, which was swirled in the glass before the cocktail was added. This classic cocktail (without the absinthe) was known as an Old Fashioned because it was exactly that. In New Orleans, cognac was the go-to alcohol in either equation until a worldwide cognac shortage, due to the Great French Wine Blight in the mid-19th century, made the French-born drink impossible to come by. Elsewhere, absinthe was outlawed. Over time the ingredients for cocktails became interchangeable with bourbon whiskey and Herbsaint, a brand name of anise-flavored liquor currently produced by the Sazerac Co. and originally made in New Orleans. Bourbon, meantime, was a Kentucky-born, rye-based whiskey that replicated the much-loved flavor of cognac but without the price.
Best places to enjoy a Sazarac include Molly’s on Toulouse, a local’s sanctuary steps away from bustling Bourbon Street. This beloved Irish pub has served classic cocktails such as the Sazerac to New Orleanians for decades and features a well-used pool table and jukebox that perfectly complements the dark and smoky flavors of cognac and its American cousin, bourbon.
The Sazerac was an alternative to typical cocktails
Bar Tonique, meantime, represents a revival of appreciation and craft of historical cocktails by way of modern twists and interpretations. The owner-artisans of this moody and chic hipster bar prepare Sazeracs using your choice of their selective whiskeys.
Other joints perfect for enjoying New Orleans’ rum-cognac-whiskey history include The Beach on Bourbon, The Swamp on Bourbon, and Bourbon Cowboy. All offer daily happy hours and huge dance floors. At the Beach, order a hurricane, which will include the spicy, Caribbean-style dark rum freshened with multiple fruit juices. Head to the Swamp to sip fine cognac in the courtyard until night hits and you work up the nerve to ride The Swamp Thang, a mechanical bull-gator. Or hit the Bourbon Cowboy where you can get all manner of whiskey, including bourbon and rye.