Other cities might have quaint, anachronistic, bespoke cocktail dens, with their dark woods and candlelight, exposed brick, and mixologists in arm garters and handlebar mustaches. But in New Orleans, that’s not ironic or whimsical... it’s our history. NOLA barmen and barwomen have been slinging drinks since the mid-19th century, and you can still get many of those same drinks, at the same bars no less, to this very day -- and at the same time, a new breed of Big Easy bartenders are creating exciting craft cocktails, as well as paying homage to those classics.
Tying it all together, we decided to track down the essentials. The must-drinks. The mixed's you can't leave town without trying. So if you want to hit some serious highlights of the NOLA cocktail scene before you buy the farm, these are the places and tipples to put on your bucket list...
What you’re drinking: The Spaghetti Western (Runners-up: The Muse and the West Bank Daiquiri)
Gregarious and inventive bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg, formerly of Tivoli & Lee, recently took over this always-crowded Frenchmen St haunt and is doing some seriously cool things with the cocktail program. If you go, expect a packed house, but if you’re patient, you’ll get a sample of the Spaghetti Western, a combination of Bulleit bourbon, Campari-soaked orange, and rosemary syrup. It’s citrusy, herbaceous goodness in a glass.
What you’re drinking: The Boss Colada
There are many things to enjoy about this throwback Caribbean restaurant and bar -- think Navy-strength rum and house-made falernum -- but best enjoyed here is the Boss Colada, a long and tropical drink fashioned from fresh pineapple, lime, Baska Snäps, and Peychauds bitters, garnished with a long pineapple leaf.
What you’re drinking: The “Didn’t He Ramble” (Runner-up: “A Little Soused on the Prairie”)
You can’t miss having a drink (or several) at the Swizzle Stick, where you’ll find head bartender Lu Brow fixing up beautiful cocktails featuring locally produced spirits and ingredients, not to mention amusing names. The “Didn’t He Ramble”, a play on both the song and the Bramble cocktail, features Oryza gin (made from Louisiana rice), chartreuse, lemon, crème de mûre, sparkling wine, and garnished with a fresh blackberry.
What you’re drinking: The Santa Maria
This tiny Exchange Place cafe might be better known for its shrimp/pork belly banh mi and other worldly fare at the hands of Chef/Owner Paul Artigues (who, when not running a restaurant, plays drums for blues legend Guitar Lightnin’ Lee), but the cocktail menu is not to be overlooked. Pay particular attention to The Santa Maria, a sweet and spicy concoction that employs house-infused Thai chile mescal, Combier orange liqueur, lime, ginger, pomegranate liqueur, and OJ.
What you're drinking: The Vieux Carré
If you’re going to get a classic cocktail at the place it was born, you can hardly do better than a Vieux Carré at the Monteleone. While the famously intricate, slowly rotating Carousel Bar was installed there in 1949, the cocktail, which shares the original name for the French Quarter, was invented 11 years earlier at the hands of one Walter Bergeron, the hotel’s head bartender at the time. A potent mix of rye whiskey, Cognac, sweet vermouth, bitters, and Benedictine, it’s in the Manhattan family... even though it’s clearly a NOLA native.
What you're drinking: The Brandy Crusta
You will find a bounty of fantastic things at the historic French 75 Bar, among them cocktail master and history devotee Chris Hannah. If you have cocktail questions, he has cocktail answers. He also makes a jaw-droppingly gorgeous Brandy Crusta, invented in the 1840s by Santini and the first sugar-rimmed cocktail ever noted (it actually appears in the very first cocktail book published). Don’t forget to also order some souffle potatoes with creamy bearnaise sauce, the single best bar snack in history.
What you’re drinking: The Charbonneau Way
Bar Chef Abigail Gullo -- a former musical theater actress turned cocktail queen who will readily sing to you as you drink -- created this drink as a nod to her French-Canadian roots, a mix of rye whiskey, maple syrup, lemon juice, Amère Sauvage, absinthe, and fresh thyme. According to Gullo, “Charbonneau Way is the name of the road where my family used to have a sugar house to make maple syrup. Wild mountain thyme grows in fields of purple during the Summer.” How’s that for the genesis of a cocktail?
What you're drinking: The Ramos Gin Fizz
Even in a city filled with notable mixologists (see above) bartender Paul Gustings stands alone. Mostly because of his reputation as a curmudgeon, but also because he makes some of the best drinks in the city, if not the world. A proper Ramos Fizz (invented in NOLA by Henry Ramos in the 1880s), that incomparable mix of gin, raw egg white, orange-flower water, sugar, cream, and citrus, needs proper attention and long bouts of shaking to achieve perfection, and you know you’ll find it at Gustings’ hands. If you’ve never had one, it’s basically cake in a glass. With gin.
What you’re drinking: The Baudin (Runner-up: The 3-2-1 Contact)
If you happen to find yourself in Mid-City, do yourself a favor and head to this joint, a neighborhood dive sort of place that also just happens to have a stellar cocktail program, courtesy of bartender Anderson Stockdale, a Cane & Table vet, amongst other places. It’s not always on the menu, but The Baudin (named after Baudin St, where Twelve Mile is located) is a refreshingly spicy mix of bourbon, honey syrup, Tabasco, and lemon. “It’s like a cold toddy with hot sauce,” notes Stockdale. We’ll take two.
What you’re drinking: Frozen Irish Coffee
If you’re not into frozen daiquiris but still want something icy to cool you off in the New Orleans heat, you will definitely want to experience a frozen Irish. It will wake you up, kill your hangover, chill you out, and make you wonder why anyone would ever drink a regular milkshake when this exists. Plus, at only $4.50 for a 12oz cup ($6 for a 16oz), the price is certainly right. And if you want to add an extra shot to really get things working, they’ll hook you up with that, too.
What you're drinking: The Pimm's Cup
While drinking a classic Pimm's in the courtyard at the Napoleon House is never a bad idea, try heading to Kingfish, where famous barman Chris McMillian makes a version in a huge wine goblet, filled to the brim with seasonal berries.
What you’re drinking: The "Loose & Conversational"
This charming French Quarter restaurant not only has a beautiful courtyard and the best chicken sandwich in town (the unstoppable “Chick-Syl-vain”), but also some seriously elegant drinks with cool names. While the "Police & Thieves" and the “Monkey Hour” are favorites, the Amontillado sherry-based “Loose & Conversational” will ensure that you’re both loose and, well... chatty.
What you’re drinking: TIE between the Grasshopper and the Sazerac
Indeed, this is one of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans, older even than the city’s own name (dating back to 1856, to be specific), and it sports a guest list filled with US presidents and people like Cole Porter, O. Henry, John D. Rockefeller, and Don Johnson.
We don’t know exactly what President Eisenhower ordered at the bar, but you can bet both a proper Sazerac and the Grasshopper were on the menu. The latter, by the way, was invented in 1928 by Phillip Guichet, and tastes like you’re drinking liquified Girl Scout Cookies (Thin Mints, to be specific).
What you’re drinking: The Shark Attack
You might be tempted to order the Isle’s signature drink, the Hand Grenade, but opt instead for a Shark Attack. Equal parts drink and show, it goes like this: upon ordering, the bartender fixes you three shots of vodka and a secret mixer over ice, then floats a tiny plastic alligator on top. Then s/he rings a warning bell, shouts “SHARK ATTACK!!!” to the entire bar, then takes a large plastic souvenir shark (mouth filled with grenadine) and dumps it into the drink teeth first, devouring the poor little gator and turning the drink pink. “Nine dollas.” You get to keep the shark, the gator, and the feeling that you’ve achieved pro-level NOLA tourist.
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1. Three Muses536 Frenchmen St, New Orleans
2. Cane & Table1113 Decatur St, New Orleans
3. Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar300 Poydras St, New Orleans
4. Green Goddess307 Exchange Pl, New Orleans
5. Carousel Bar & Lounge214 Royal St, New Orleans
6. Arnaud's French 75 Bar813 Bienville St, New Orleans
7. SoBou310 Chartres St, New Orleans
8. The Empire Bar at Broussard's819 Conti St, New Orleans
9. Twelve Mile Limit500 S Telemachus St, New Orleans
10. Erin Rose Bar811 Conti St, New Orleans
11. Kingfish337 Chartres, New Orleans
12. Sylvain625 Chartres St, New Orleans
13. Tujague's823 Decatur St, New Orleans
14. Tropical Isle721 Bourbon St, New Orleans
"Whiskey evangelist" Kimberly Patton-Bragg's the Three Muses was voted as one of New Orleans Magazine’s Top Bars, and if that wasn't reason enough to check it out, there's also a great small plates menu and nightly live jazz in store. Try The Muses' signature dish, fries with feta cheese and gremolata, while you sip on signature cocktails, the Spaghetti Western, which combines Bulleit bourbon muddled with Campari-soaked oranges and rosemary spirits.
There are many things to enjoy about this throwback Caribbean restaurant and bar -- think Navy-strength rum and house-made falernum -- but best enjoyed here is the “Boss Colada”, a long and tropical drink fashioned from fresh pineapple, lime, Baska Snäps, and Peychauds bitters, garnished with a long pineapple leaf. Be warned: this bar is so low-key that there isn't even a sign out front. To find it, look for the line at Coop's on Decatur; it's next door.
This Central Business District resto & bar serves a variety of delectable food and drink options, like signature cocktail-paired brunches (concocted by Executive Chef Carl Schaubhut and Bar Chef Lu Brow), and they also dole out 25 cent martinis. Yeah, that’s a quarter of a buck, friend. The relaxed vibe of this cocktail bar makes you feel comfortable to chat with your friends, and the friendly atmosphere will make you want to stay for hours.
Tucked in an alley in the French Quarter, this oasis serves lunch and dinner and provides creative cuisine and cocktails. There’s even a vegan Bloody Mary variation on the list, along with watermelon sangria and two different boozy SnoBall ice cocktails.
Featuring an actual carousel bar that revolves around patrons, the French Quarter's Carousel Bar & Lounge mixes classic and contemporary cocktails like Sazeracs and Pimm's Cups, pairing them with New Orleans-style bar bites like seafood okra gumbo and po boys. Live jazz music entertains a slightly more dressed-up clientele, who'll endure a wait to snag a table at the circular bar.
Originally designated as a "gentlemen only area" in NOLA's early days, this cocktail bar located within Arnaud's Restaurant features drinks like the Pisco Derby (that's pisco, lavender honey syrup, lime, and grapefruit) and bar snacks like Oysters en Brochette (translation: oysters wrapped with bacon and deep fried). You'll feel extra fancy having those cocktails and snacks served to you by bartenders clad in white tuxedos. In addition to more inventive drinks, you can't go wrong with the killer Old Fashioned or Sidecar either.
Located inside the W Hotel, SoBou is a spirited restaurant south of Bourbon St (hence the name) feels like a modern-day Creole saloon. The restaurant and lounge is known for its hand-crafted cocktails, and serves creative spins on traditional bar snacks like crispy pork skin and spicy beer nuts, as well as some heartier dishes. SoBou also has a beer garden with beer taps in the tables and self-serve wine machines.
Located at the fine dining establishment Broussard's, the Empire Bar houses a lavish marble bar, behind which barman supreme Paul Gustings will be waiting to make you a Ramos Fizz, or one of the other extraordinary 'tails on the menu. Try one of Gustings' signature Napoleon brandy-based cocktails or the Leite de Onca, which is a cachaça-based cocktail with toasted coconut shavings, pineapple syrup, heavy cream, condensed milk, and Mexican chocolate.
Twelve Mile has all the little things that make a bar feel homey. You’ve got food if you need it, places to sit and stare at the curios that catch your eye -- like the stuffed shark and squid hanging near the Hyperbole and a Half print on the wall -- a solid jukebox, pool, and personalized matchbooks to light your smokes or pass a number to someone. It’s the neighborhood bar worth leaving your actual neighborhood to adopt as your own.
A half-block away from Bourbon Street, this friendly Irish pub is covered in framed photographs, car parts autographed by drag racers, and other memorabilia from NOLA's glory days. Erin Rose is known for its Bloody Marys, frozen or hot Irish coffee, and its killer po' boys, such as its Dark 'n Stormy Po' Boy with rum-braised pork.
Thibodaux native, Chef Nathan Richard, created a menu at the casual Kingfish restaurant that combines the Cajun reverence for honoring ingredients and culinary history with a sophisticated, often playful take on modern trends that excite visitors and natives alike. The plateau de fruits des mer is this spots take on a traditional meat charcuterie board, using local seafood to create all manner of fresh and cured sausages, terrines, and smoked items.
This spot embodies a casual-but-kickass uniting of great food, great booze, and hospitality- all housed in a former carriage house with courtyard seats right off Jackson Square. Sylvain is famous for its "Chick-Syl-vain" fried chicken sandwich, but this corner gastropub in the French Quarter also features a great cocktail program and an impressive selection of single-barrel bourbons.
Located in the heart of the French Quarter, Tujague's is the second oldest restaurant in NOLA, a fact evidenced by a timeless, extensive old-school menu that focuses around traditional Creole fare. The place also houses one of the most iconic bars in the country, and invented the minty post-dinner Grasshopper cocktail, which is delicious, and contains no actual grasshoppers.
Tropical Isle is an essential part of New Orleans, for better or worse. The Bourbon St bar is known for the Hand Grenade, a gigantic drink that tastes vaguely of melon but mostly of alcohol. The crowd is a mix of what you'd expect from a bar known for its bad decision-inducing cocktails: college kids and out-of-towners, but that tourist trap-meets-frat party vibe is all part of the experience.