New Orleans is one of those near-mythical cities: aching, beautiful, unique, rich with history. And New Orleans folk love their drink. They should. They’ve contributed much to the history of the cocktail, with some of the best drinks in existence like the Sazerac, official cocktail of NoLA created and served there.
Lucky for us, San Francisco is one of the world’s best cocktail cities, in creativity and craft, with artisan cocktail bars continuing to crop up everywhere, just as they did in our wild, Barbary Coast past. And with a little searching, you can find a number of places to get an authentic New Orleans’ concoction. Here’s a journey through Big Easy cocktails that actually keep up with versions I’ve imbibed in New Orleans. Now if I could just find a Bourbon Milk Punch…
Created by Antoine Peychaud in 1830’s New Orleans, the mighty Sazerac is a drink to be reckoned with. Many versions have evolved, usually some combination of Rye whiskey or bourbon, sometimes cognac, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and a rinse of absinthe. Bracing with a touch of sweet, it’s a robust, beautiful drink. Absinthe has been doing cocktails right since well before the ‘cocktail renaissance’. Their Sazerac is no exception.
398 Hayes, SF. (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com
More in line with NoLa’s Tujague’s experience, Excelsior’s king of dive bars stirs intense, balanced sazeracs for an unheard-of $5. Best of all? They don’t skimp on ingredients, using quality rye and St. George Absinthe. Paired with house BBQ, Crawfish Etouffee, or an Oyster Po’ Boy, you’ll be ready to form a second line brass band.
1166 Geneva, SF. (415) 963-1713
Pull up to the gorgeous, 1930s supper club bar and have Brian MacGregor mix you a perfect sazerac, made with their own barrel of Sazerac brand rye and brilliant Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe. You’ll want to take to the floor like Fred and Ginger…
300 Grove, SF. (415) 861-5555, www.jardiniere.com
There’s a lot of debate about the origins of the great Mint Julep… a sure way to rile a Southerner up is to raise the question. Though likely not created in New Orleans, the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby is made in top form there, particularly by the amazing Chris McMillian at the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel. A shock of strong bourbon, lightly sweetened, with refreshing mint on a snow cone of ice, a Julep isn’t right unless served in a proper julep cup. Possibly my favorite of all cocktails, I’m proud to say we have a 100 percent authentic version at our own Alembic.
1725 Haight, SF. (415) 666-0822, www.alembicbar.com
Though Pimm’s was created in 1840s England, a revitalizing, long Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s, ginger ale or club soda, cucumber, sometimes mint, lemon) was popularized in the US at New Orleans’ Napoleon House, where I’ve savored it mid-afternoon in their unparallelled 1700s courtyard. In SF’s newly-redone 15 Romolo, taste goes even further. Besides meticulously prepared cocktails from a top-notch bartender line-up, plus creative bar food like their addictive Jambalini, I was thrilled to find the Pimm’s Cup served in Romolo’s dim wood bar the best I’ve ever tasted. Made with Rye, it’s genius.
15 Romolo, SF. (415) 398-1359
RAMOS GIN FIZZ
PRESIDIO SOCIAL CLUB
A blissful daytime drink, the Ramos Gin Fizz is one of New Orleans’ greats, invented by Henry C. Ramos in 1888. Dry gin, lemon and lime juice, sugar, cream, nuanced orange flower water and club soda, made frothy by egg white, it’s light and luscious. It’s an ideal morning imbibement that goes down all too easy. Presidio Social Club offers a soothing brunch in a clubhouse setting with 1940s vibe, lots of sunlight, and a classy bar staff who know their cocktails… including the Gin Fizz.
563 Ruger, SF. (415) 885-1888, www.presidiosocialclub.com
The Hurricane isn’t my preferred NoLa drink, but is one of its most popular, served by the tons at, and credited to, Pat O’Brien’s, where, in the ’40s, he’d pour the mix into hurricane-lamp-shaped glasses for NoLa sailors. Usually too sweet for me, it’s a daiquiri-style, rum-based drink of passion fruit and lemon (or sometimes lime). But if there’s one place that does it right, it’s Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge, with balanced, not-too-sweet, tropical drinks.
1304 Lincoln, Alameda. (510) 749-0332, www.forbiddenislandalameda.com
I did a little jump for joy at the Southern menu and drinks at downtown Oakland’s brand new, Southern-chic, Pican. Even crazier was seeing Cafe Brulot on the menu, a spiked coffee drink prepared and flambéed tableside at historic, New Orleans’ jazz brunch spots like Arnaud’s. This is the first I’ve seen it at all in the Bay Area, so kudos, Pican. It works as dessert, with coffee, brandy, Benedictine, candied brown sugar, homemade whipped cream, and aromatic orange zest.
2295 Broadway, Oakl. (510) 834-1000, www.picanrestaurant.com