Why New Orleans is the undisputed cocktail capital of America

This city sets the bar

By Brad Cohen,

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Denisbin

People these days (present company included) like to make lists. The 10 best food cities in America. The 23 best bar scenes in the U.S. The 12 best drinking cities in the country. The truth is they’re all matters of debate. But while you can argue you all you want about the No. 2 through No. 12 best drinking cities in U.S., there’s really no point debating the best. That honor belongs to New Orleans.

It comes down to the sheer number of bars per capita, the fact that there’s basically always something to celebrate and the fact that you can drink a yard of frozen daiquiri on the street without legal repercussions or awkward glances.  You can even get to-go cups from any bar, there’s no mandated closing time and you can generally drink your bodyweight in beer and still probably won’t be the drunkest guy in the bar.

If you want to say that New Orleans is currently home to the country’s best cocktail bars, however, that is a matter of debate. Cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco have stellar cocktail scenes of their own, but when you add all the elements together, it’s pretty safe to say that New Orleans is the Cocktail Capital of America. That's probably why the country’s largest cocktail event, Tales of the Cocktail, just enjoyed its 15th year in the city.

Need more reasons? Here are a few:

Home of the country’s best cocktail bar

Arnaud’s French 75 used to be a place where you’d have a drink while you waited for a table at Arnaud’s, one of the French Quarter’s most famous historic Creole restaurants. But ever since Chris Hannah took the bar over not long after Katrina, the destination restaurant got an equally destination bar – one that won the 2017 James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program.

Diversity of drinks

Want a tiki drink? Head to the hidden French Quarter gem, Cane & Table, for a Colonial-era pineapple cocktail served in a hollowed-out pineapple, or go to Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 to share a glowing, blue Snake Versus Mongoose (served in a bowl with four straws).

Rather sip an Absinthe Frappe or a Pimm’s Cup at a 200-plus-year-old-bar with paint chipping off the walls? Head to the Old Absinthe House or Napoleon House Bar and Cafe. Want an Amazonian drink that will make your mouth go numb? Head to the pisco-based bar at Catahoula Hotel.

It's full of history

New Orleans has more than a few cocktails that it can call its own. The Absinthe Frappe, the Vieux Carré, the Hurricane (if you really want to call that sugar bomb a cocktail) are just a few of the famous drinks invented here. And let’s not forget the city’s daiquiri culture, with machines spinning boozy slushies 24 hours a day. But the city’s two most important contributions to the cocktail universe are the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz.

You can even get classic cocktails at dive bars

The Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans (and if you needed any proof of the city’s status as a cocktail powerhouse, just drink in the fact that it actually has an official cocktail). This 19th century drink is among the oldest of the classics – and local legend claims it’s the very first cocktail ever created, though that’s not likely true.

What’s so special about this mix of whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, a rinse of either absinthe or Herbsaint, sugar and a lemon twist? Well, first of all, two of the ingredients (Peychaud’s and Herbsaint) are made locally, and absinthe has a touch of the rule-bending nature ingrained in this city of vice. Second, you can get a Sazerac almost anywhere in New Orleans.

In recent years, cocktail culture has grown so exponentially that most decent bars in major urban areas have at least a basic craft cocktail menu. The prospect of watching a football game at a sports bar while drinking a Manhattan, once absurd, is now totally reasonable, if unnecessary. But New Orleans takes it to the next level.

You can walk into just about any dive bar in the city, and even though the only beers on tap might be of the domestic lawnmower variety, chances are the bartender can make you a Sazerac. And it’s always been that way.

When the word cocktail was still reserved for Cosmopolitans and Appletinis, kids in New Orleans were making Sazeracs at house parties, so you could say that before pre-prohibition cocktails made a resurgence, it was one of the only proper handcrafted cocktails that never disappeared.

Guilt-free Ramos Gin Fizzes

These days you can get a Sazerac at any decent cocktail bar in the country. What you’ll have a lot more trouble getting outside of New Orleans is a Ramos Gin Fizz.

This delicious, refreshing, frothy mix of gin, heavy cream, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white and orange flower water tastes kind of like an adult creamsicle, and it's been a NOLA staple for well over a century. More than anything, it’s probably famous for being a giant pain in the butt to make, due to the two to four minutes required to shake it.

While you can find good gin fizzes at cream-of-the-crop cocktail bars around the country, they’ll almost never be on the menu, and there’s a chance your bartender will hate you for ordering one. In New Orleans, it's quite the opposite.  Not only will you find them on the menu, but most bartenders will know how to make them without even looking at a recipe.

Rule of thumb: if there are a handful of other cocktails on the menu, chances are your bartender will be able to make you a solid gin fizz, but ask nicely as they do take a considerable amount of elbow grease.

You can have a great drink without leaving your hotel

In most cities, hotel bars are establishments of convenience – places you have a drink simply because they’re there and you’re too lazy or exhausted to venture into the chaos of a foreign city.

In New Orleans, hotel bars are destinations of their own, and places where locals have been going to get cocktails for decades. Some of the city’s hotels are the birthplaces of the country’s most famous cocktails.

The Sazerac Bar (home of the original Sazerac) is housed in the Roosevelt Hotel, and the Vieux Carré – a mix of rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s bitters – was originally created at the Hotel Monteleone.

Even if you don’t care about that, you should still grab a Vieux Carré there because the middle of the bar has a nearly 70-year-old carousel that slowly rotates as you sip the night away.

You can get educated

This city’s longstanding love affair with cocktails is immortalized at The Museum of the American Cocktail. It contains a collection of vintage barware like antique cups, bottles, cocktail shakers and prohibition-era propaganda, and it also plays host to events and seminars, so you can sip on a Pimm’s Cup while learning about its history.

Similary, the under-the-radar Pharmacy Museum pays homage to cocktails’ origins as a way for pharmacists to help patients get the medicine down. And it has an entire exhibit on bitters and their origins as purported cure-alls and magical elixirs sold by glorified con men.