New Orleans has been on my mind this week, with Mardi Gras being this last Tuesday and all. I’ve found that one of the more elusive classic New Orleans drinks to get out on the town is the Vieux Carré. It seems that few bars, even at Southern or Cajun/Creole restaurants, deem it necessary to have Bénédictine on hand, presumably due to the expense. I would remind them that there has always been a distinctly French influence on the cuisine of New Orleans, and this drink only uses 1 teaspoon. And you just can’t duplicate this drink without it.
The Vieux Carré is one of the few drinks that we conclusively know the origin of; it was invented in 1938 by Walter Bergeron at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans. Vieux Carré (meaning ‘Old Square’) is also one of the local names for the French Quarter.
- 1 oz rye whiskey
- 1 oz cognac
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 tsp Bénédictine
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir with cracked ice, strain and garnish with a lemon twist and its oils.
This is a fine and balanced drink that turns out to be very sensitive to the exact amounts called for. When proper care is exercised in measuring, I love the way the spiciness of the rye and the sugar notes of the cognac mellow with the sweetness of the vermouth and the Bénédictine. Then the drink gets a quadruple blast of herbal complexity from the herbal liqueur, the vermouth and the two kinds of bitters. It’s kind of like a Manhattan, but smoother, sweeter, more refined, and more complex.
If I use 100 proof rye, I’ll back it down to 3/4 oz. Be careful when measuring the Benedictine; use a proper kitchen teaspoon and don’t overdo it or the drink will veer into cough syrup territory. While I have used brandy as a sub for the cognac, there is definitely room here for a nicer cognac. You can control the amount of water added by the fineness of the ice. Freshly hammered ice with a reasonable portion of crushed/powdered ice makes for a smoother potion. And, of course, with a classic mostly whiskey and bitters cocktail like this, be sure to get a goodly spray of lemon peel oil on the surface and rub the peel around the rim for a wonderful citrus entry as you bring the glass to your lips.
The Vieux Carré is really one of the most enjoyable signature New Orleans cocktails and it is a shame that more of the restaurants purporting to deliver the unique cuisine of the Crescent City do not serve it on their menus.
A note on pronunciation – I’ve heard a number of folks put the full Gallic gargle on the end ‘r’. But both proper French (note the accent on the é) and current New Orleans usage is ‘voo cah-ray’ or ‘voh cah-ray’, and of course some are going to say ‘view cah-ray’.