One of a handful of classic cocktails with a traceable backstory, the Vieux Carré dates back to the 1930s, when it was named after an area of New Orleans known today as the French Quarter. Anna Sebastian, bar manager at the Artesian Bar in London’s Langham Hotel, talks us through this full-flavoured, widely underappreciated serve…
“The Vieux Carré is a fantastic drink, almost a combination of a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac,” says Sebastian. “It has always been one of those drinks, in my opinion, that has been underrated.” Combining rye whiskey, Cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and two different types of bitters, the Vieux Carré certainly packs a punch – but it’s also light and refreshing enough to cut through the humidity of a typical New Orleans day, she says.
Unlike practically every other historic tipple you can think of, the Vieux Carré (pronounced voo car-ray – the name is French, the pronunciation is Creole) is one of those rare cocktails with a timestamp. Translated as ‘old square’ or ‘old quarter’, which then referred to the French Quarter, the drink was created by Walter Bergeron at the Hotel Monteleone, and appeared in print for the first time in Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em back in 1938.
Calling for ½ teaspoon Benedictine, 1 dash Peychaud bitters, 1 dash Angostura bitters, ⅓ jigger rye whiskey, ⅓ Cognac brandy, and ⅓ jigger Italian vermouth, the method reads as follows: ‘The Benedictine is used as a base and also for sweetening the cocktail. Dash on the bitters, then add the rye, brandy, and vermouth. Put several lumps of ice in the barglass. Stir. Twist a slice of lemon peel over the mixture. Drop in a slice of pineapple and cherry if you wish and serve in mixing glass.’
‘This is the cocktail that Walter Bergeron, head bartender of the Hotel Monteleone cocktail lounge, takes special pride in mixing,’ the author of the book, Stanley Clisby Arthur, wrote beneath the recipe. ‘He originated it, he says, to do honour to the famed Vieux Carré, that part of New Orleans where the antique shops and the iron lace balconies give sightseers a glimpse into the romance of another day.’
The hotel is still standing today, now owned by the fifth generation of the Monteleone family. A decade after Bergeron invented the cocktail, Hotel Monteleone opened the Carousel Bar & Lounge – an elaborate slow-spinning cocktail bar fitted with a dazzling carousel top. It’s the only revolving bar in the Big Easy, and turns at a rate of one revolution 15 minutes. There, the Vieux Carré is the star of the menu, made with Sazerac Rye Whiskey and Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac.
Even though rye and Cognac are of equal measure in the recipe, the bold, spiced profile of the whiskey takes precedence. Much like rye whiskey, the Vieux Carré was once hugely popular and gradually faded into obscurity as the decades rolled past. And like the beloved rye style, it’s now enjoying a slow resurgence. There’s no shortage of rye whiskey bottlings to choose from today, and this cocktail is the perfect way to road-test their mixing potential. “The perfect Vieux Carré, as always, stems back to having quality ingredients,” says Sebastian. “I always say go with the best that you can buy, as it really will have an impact on your drink.”
The rye will meet a host of really punchy, robust spirits in the Vieux Carré, so thoughtful assembly is required. “The key is to balance the ingredients, as they are all very strong flavours and components,” she says. “The vermouth, being the slightly weaker part of the drink, needs to be big and ballsy. The Benedictine needs to be used sparingly, otherwise it will take over the drink and make it… well, un-drinkable.” Using a discarded lemon twist as a garnish “leaves a beautiful aroma from the oils without the peel infusing the liquid as you drink it,” Sebastian adds.
Once you’ve nailed the original, why not shake things up with some spirited substitutes? Changing the rye for a bourbon gives the drink a slightly warmer, less dry profile to it, says Sebastian. “Another great option is reducing the rye to 15ml and adding 15ml of Calvados, which gives it a more approachable taste and fresh apple notes,” she says. Alternatively, try using a blend of vermouths – a sweet and a dry in equal parts – to make the cocktail a little lighter and brighter, or “add a dash of absinthe to bring all the flavours together”.
But first, here’s how to make the original:
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.